12 August 2012
Each fall Forbes magazine releases the names of the 400 richest people in America. And even though I am in the top 1% of the richest people on the planet (we talked about that last week) -- even though I am amongst the wealthiest people on earth I once again I did not make the Forbes list. I’m sure it was an oversight on their part.
- Bill Gates again was on top with a net worth of $59 billion.
- My uke partner Warren Buffet has $39 billion and the number 2 spot.
- Checking in at #3 was another tech big name Larry Ellison, $33 billion. Do you ever wonder what it would be like to be that rich?
It would be nice. Imagine the places you could go and the things you could buy. Think about all the good you could do with all that money.
What would YOU do with all that money? (discussion followed)
There were perhaps some Christians in the early church who seemed to be suggesting that if you’re really faithful. God will make you rich.
The irony of that, though, is that the people who were oppressing the church at that time were the rich. They were the ones who through their manipulation of the system were making people poor and hungry.
And this is why in his letter James keeps humming the wealth tune -- like an annoying earworm.
- This is why he says that true religion isn’t about acquiring wealth but caring for the poor -- the orphans and widows -- according to 1:27.
- It’s not about showing preference toward the wealthy, chapter 2.
- It’s not about presumptuous living because you have considerable means, chapter 4.
- And here, in chapter 5, taking a page from the Old Testament prophets, James denounces the rich because in their greed they are oppressing the poor.
“Look here, you rich people,” he says in vs. 1 “weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you.”
"Uh?" Some of James' readers would have asked. "How can this be? Aren’t riches a sign of God’s blessing? Isn’t that why America is so wealthy because God has blessed us in our faithfulness to him? Don’t jump to conclusions so quickly," says James.
And he uses a little literary device here that was common among the Hebrew prophets.
He sets up a bit of straw man to knock down – as a warning to those who would aspire to the things the straw man might have.
So, when he says in verse 1 – “Look here, you rich people, weep and groan with anguish...” It doesn’t necessarily mean that there were actually a lot of rich people in the church or that his readers were especially wealthy. But there must have been aspirations that direction – and this is why James uses so much ink warning about the dangers of affluence.
Now, this is totally consistent with everything else we read in the Bible about being wealthy. The Bible does not condemn wealth. It does not suggest that there is something wrong with you if you are wealthy. There are a lot of wealthy people who honor God with their riches.
However, from the biblical perspective wealth is a red flag. It’s a dangerous thing. Wealthy people are in extreme danger of losing their souls.
In Mark 10 the rich man comes to Jesus and says that he wants to become a follower – what should he do?
Jesus asks, “have you kept all the commandments?” And the rich man smugly says – “WHY YES, I HAVE -- every since I was a child! I have a proven track record. I’m the kind of guy you need on your team.”
Well then, says Jesus, in Mark 10:21 -- “Let’s take it to the next level. Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Disappointed the man walks away - unable to follow Jesus. For he was very wealthy and he couldn’t bear to give up the benefits of his wealth to follow Jesus.
And as the man walks away Jesus says, “It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.”
This is completely contrary to conventional wisdom – and Jesus’ disciples gasp – “Who then can be saved?”
And Jesus says – “With God, anything is possible...”
That is, it is possible that even a rich person can be saved – by the mercy of God.
In other words, conventional wisdom was that if you had wealth you were more blessed than everyone else and thus closer to God. But Jesus says, if rich people make it – it’s only by the skin of their teeth -- by the mercy of God.
And on numerous occasions Jesus suggests that wealth can be a definite hindrance to salvation – in all that salvation means -- spiritual, physical, emotional, social...
BEWARE, BEING WEALTHY AIN’T ALL THAT IT’S MADE OUT TO BE. With apologies to the grammatically sensitive that’s the key point this morning.
Yes, wealth can and should be used for God’s kingdom agenda. No, wealthy people are not automatically excluded from God’s kingdom. But --
BEWARE, BEING WEALTHY AIN’T ALL THAT IT’S MADE OUT TO BE. And James provides two reasons to demonstrate his point – two of the problems with wealth.
Now there are actually more than two problems with being wealthy –
- Pavorotzi –
- People hounding you for donations. You win the lottery tonight and by morning you discover that you have a lot more relatives than you knew existed.
- Having the responsibility of managing it all...
But James highlights two of the more fundamental problems associated with wealth.
The first is this: THE MORE YOU HAVE, THE MORE SPOILAGE YOU HAVE TO ENDURE.
Have you ever had a packed freezer die on you?
Perhaps while you are out of town on vacation the housecleaner decides to do a power scrub on the kitchen floor -- plugs that big machine into a kitchen socket tripping the GFCI. The housecleaner is unaware that the freezer is attached to a GFCI plug. And when you step into the house -- excited to be home after 10 hours on the road -- there is a strange not-so-nice odor.
Hundreds of dollars worth of meat -- everything you bought on sale at Costco -- ruined. Now, does this mean that you should give up your Costco membership?
Absolutely not. You just have to be aware that being rich ain’t all that it’s made out to be. Don’t count on those things as any kind of security in your life -- as the edge that will keep your life secure.
James 5:2-3 (NLT) –
“Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. 3 Your gold and silver have become worthless. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire...”The problem with wealth is that it is so convenient to trust in it – but ultimately it’s only a temporary fix.
Great line in verse 2 – “Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags...”
I opened the green garbage bin to take out the trash – and the smell of rot was overwhelming – It was like a pig pen.
Money and success is suppose to smell wonderful – but if you pay attention, says James, it is rotting – like the chicken remains stewing in that 118° garbage bin. Everything you have is on the way out. No matter how much you store up it’s all subject to atrophy.
Even the finest gold and silver -- which we assume does not rust – even the best clothes – they all wear out.
This is why Jesus says in Matthew 6 –
“Don't store up treasures here on earth, where they can be eaten by moths and get rusty, and where thieves break in and steal.  Store your treasures in heaven, where they will never become moth-eaten or rusty and where they will be safe from thieves...”In 1 Peter 1 the apostle says:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”The things which God has established -- his agenda -- his kingdom -- are imperishable but wealth is temporary. And that’s the real problem with wealth. It doesn’t last. It has a relatively short shelf life. It doesn’t matter how much you have – it all has expiration dates.
You’ve all heard the story of the two construction workers out digging up Central Avenue. An incredible funeral procession passes by – limos – not just the normal limos but Rolls Royce limos.
The passengers are all dressed in the finest Italian suits and the women have the latest fashions.
The hearse which heads the procession carries an incredible walnut casket with polished real gold handles. It is all visible from the hearse windows.
And as the funeral procession turns the corner one of the workers -- totally unaware of the irony exclaims to the other -- “Man, that’s living...”
In spite of the appearances that people put on, you can’t take it with you because it doesn’t last.
The second problem with wealth, identified by James, is that THE MORE YOU HAVE, THE MORE WITNESSES YOU HAVE AGAINST YOU.
Verse 3 continues: “The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire.”
When we lived in Pasadena I was riding my bike through the neighborhood and I happened upon a burning house just as the firefighters were arriving. They ran into the house and pulled two people out and put them on the lawn.
The paramedic came and started pouring saline solution all over them. I can’t imagine that it did much good – they literally looked like charcoal to me.
It was one of the most horrid things I’ve ever seen and smelled -- burned flesh.
And this is the image that James is conjuring – the horror of burned flesh.
And this is why in the Bible judgment is associated with fire. It’s horrible, horrible, horrible...
And James is playing a bit with this traditional imagery – suggesting that your burning flesh is evidence of judgment. You mistakenly think that all your wealth is evidence of God’s approval -- well your burning flesh is evidence of judgment.
Just as the burned people in the house fire was evidence that they were misusing some chemicals – which on exploded on them. So will your wealth blow up on you and by your burns will give evidence against you.
Now James is talking specifically about rich people who have gotten rich by taking unfair advantage of others. James 5:4-6 (NLT)
For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
5 You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you.Your wealth, says James is evidence that you have cheated others – “The wages you held back...” And kept in your own pockets are crying out against you. And their cries have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty – or the Lord Sabaoth -- An old Hebrew military term emphasizing the sovereign victor in the battle.
You may get away with living the lifestyle of the rich and famous for awhile – but eventually the Lord Almighty -- the sovereign one – the Lord sabaoth – the one who calls the shots -- is going to take notice.
And you’re going to be on his list. And the very fattening you’ve done to yourself will only be like the fattening of an animal being led to the slaughter.
Now, of course, the problem with this passage is that it seems to be aimed at those who acquire their wealth unjustly. And who among really thinks that we’ve acquired our wealth unjustly? We tend to think of ourselves as fair people. We’ve given everyone everything they deserve.
Or have we?
By not being specific here James is leaving this thing very open-ended. He is trying to make his readers squirm a bit. He is challenging us to be asking ourselves – “You know, when I step back and look at things from God’s perspective have I been totally fair with everyone?”
Or is it possible that my wealth is going to come back and bite me on judgment day? And this is a question that nations as well as individuals have to ask. We live in one of the wealthiest and most successful nations in the world – in history.
And I like living here. I for one enjoy the benefits of our affluence.
Is it possible, though, that at least some of our affluence comes at the expense of others?
Can we afford inexpensive but cool trendy clothing like I wear only because it’s made in sweat shops in some third world country – where people are virtually slaves making goods for us?
Is it possible that my smart phone is only affordable because some very poor people in China work 80 hours a week around dangerous chemicals for a pittance that barely covers their living expenses? They’re sucked in and can’t afford to leave.
Do we even ask that question about what we buy? Or do we have a “don’t ask” policy?
What about the fuel we consume because we can afford cars?
I don’t really want to get into the politics of it all here because it is complex. And I know that 100 people discussing it will have 110 opinions. But it seems that we should at least be asking the question -- Am I living well at the expense of others? This is the danger of wealth – it can be used as evidence against us. And James is trying to get his readers to think -- “You know, life would be a whole lot more simple and meaningful if I didn’t pour a whole lot of time and energy into getting rich -- maintaining affluence.”
If I am inclined to check my spam mailbox I see that I get dozens of emails everyday telling me that I can achieve my dream of wealth through their simple programs -- through their simple program of:
- real estate
- e-bay sales
- quick turn around stocks
If wealth comes our direction -- fine, that’s good. We’ll use it to the glory of God but is it really the kind of thing that we should be passionately pursuing for ourselves?
Should we be aiming at getting our names on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans? Or even the list of the nearly wealthiest? Beware, being wealthy ain’t all it’s made out to be.
Merciful God, as we hear the message calling us to loosen our grip on our affluence we are mindful of the consistent life of James your humble servant – who lived this out – and proved that it’s not some kind of spiritual pipe-dream. Indeed, he ended up losing his life because his message was radical and troubling.
We know that following Jesus isn’t ever easy and that it tends to shake things up and to cause us to re-prioritize our lives. This is hard. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so we can truly hear what you’re saying about the changes that need to take place and so that we might be empowered to live it out. And in doing so you, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – creator, provider, sustainer, true joy of our lives – might be fully honored. Amen.