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There are professing Christians who view the acquisition of material wealth as an unqualified good. Riches are a surefire sign of God’s blessing and favor, so we’re told. After all, the patriarchs of the Old Testament – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – were incredibly wealthy by the standards of the day. The most famous ruler of Israel, King David, gave nearly 7 billion dollars of his own money for the construction of the temple. In 2 Chr 1:12 God himself says to David’s son, Solomon, “I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you…”
Ps 112 comes right out and says wealth and riches are in the house of the man who fears the Lord. And then Jesus promises he came that we might have life and life abundantly. What more proof do we need? If you’re wealthy, God obviously loves you. If you’re not, then you better figure out what you’re doing wrong because God wants his kids to be the head of the economic train, not the tail. He’s waiting to pour that good measure into your lap, pressed down, shaken together, running over, with dollar signs all over it.
Do you believe that, friend? And if you don’t, does part of you still wish it were true? We are hardwired to think of gaining money, possessions, a bigger house, a nicer car, or more savings in the bank as an unqualified good, the sort of blessing God ought to give us if he really loved us. We’ll take potshots at the 1%ers on social media, but I bet if one of them offered to exchange annual incomes with you, like trading salary cards in the game of Life, you’d say “yes” in a heartbeat. Whether you already have it or are working to gain it, we view wealth as a categorical good.
Jesus’ perspective wasn’t quite so rosy. Matt 19:23-24, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Or consider the Apostle Paul’s warning in 1 Tim 6:9-10, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
The more we examine the Bible’s perspective on wealth, the more we find money is like a canister of nuclear fuel. It has power to accomplish tremendous good, but it also has power to work tremendous destruction. Whichever way it goes, the effect will be significant. Money is never neutral.
The letter of James was originally written to a wide audience of primarily Jewish Christians. In Jas 5:1-6, however, the author turns his attention away from the people of God to a group of unbelievers whom he denounces in the strongest terms, a group whom he refers to in v. 1 as “the rich.” He doesn’t address this group as “brothers and sisters,” his spiritual siblings through common faith in Christ. He’ll get back to them in v. 7. Instead, he condemns “the rich” with the invective of an Old Testament prophet, entrenched as they are in opposition to the ways of God and the people of God.
Why would James do that? Why give his Christian audience a glimpse of God’s perspective on a group of people who are outside the church and apparently oppressing the church? Because it serves as both a word of comfort and a word of warning to the church. It’s a comfort in that it reveals our universal accountability to God. He isn’t going to let anyone get away with anything. He will not leave the guilty unpunished. And it’s a warning lest we envy the rich and fall into the same spiritual trap.
A few years ago, the Chicago Tribune ran a story on an Oxfam report on global poverty. “To be among the wealthiest half of the world…an adult needed to own only $3,210 in net assets (minus debts), according to the data. To be in the top 10 percent, a person needed to have only $68,800 in wealth…According to the Federal Reserve, the median American family had a net worth of $81,000.”
What’s that tell us? We dare not exclude ourselves from the warning in this passage because we’re not Warren Buffett. We need the warning James gives us here. We need to realize that present prosperity easily paves the way for future misery. Wealth is not an unqualified good. It must be handled with care because it has the power to destroy you. In vv. 1-6, James gives us two reasons that’s the case.
1) ALL WHO LIVE FOR EARTHLY TREASURE WILL LIKEWISE PERISH
In v. 1, James tells the “rich” exactly what they should do. They shouldn’t kick back. They shouldn’t pat themselves on the back. They shouldn’t celebrate their financial success. They should weep. “Come now, you reach, weep and howl on account of the miseries that are coming upon you.” Does that strike you as strange? We think of wealth as the key to avoiding the miseries of this life, not obtaining them. What sort of miseries are coming upon this group of rich people? James identifies two categories.
First, their wealth is perishing. In v. 2, he says it even stronger. “Your wealth has rotted.” It’s not just going to rot one day. The decay has already begun. In an agricultural society, it’s not hard to imagine a barn filled with grain that from the moment it’s harvested begins to decay. Ah, but I’m smarter than that, Matthew. I’ll let my Powhatan friends try their luck with the whole farming thing. My wealth is in real estate and cars, big-ticket items with solid resale value!
A few months ago I noticed the paint was bubbling on the sheet metal seam on the bottom of my car doors. Upon further inspection, I discovered the doors were actually rusting from the inside out. And just last week, I found moss growing out of the frame in one of our sunroom windows. That’s funny, I thought, and soon discovered you can poke your finger right through the entire wood frame. It’s painted. It’s wrapped in aluminum. But it’s rotting from the inside out.
Friends, even our most prized possessions in this life won’t last. Eventually, entropy wins. We paint, repair, and replace, but we’re just prolonging the inevitable. All our material possessions will eventually fall apart. In James’ day, clothing was a significant source of wealth, but it has the exact same problem. V. 2, “Your clothing has become moth-eaten.”
Material wealth is transient, passing away. Eventually, it all winds up in a garbage dump somewhere. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for the car sitting in the parking lot outside or in your garage. The rubber belts, hoses, and tires will rot. The metal will rust and decay. It’s only a matter of time.
Ah, but I’m smarter than that, Matthew. My wealth’s in the stock market. My money’s in a diversified portfolio of corporations and enduring commodities like gold and silver. Look at v. 3. “Your gold and silver have corroded…” Lest you get hung up on the fact that technically silver tarnishes and gold doesn’t, keep in mind James is speaking in word pictures and his underlying point rings true. Even the most seemingly secure investments we can make in this life are not guaranteed.
One of my relatives had a significant amount of stock in a local bank that had done well for decades. Banks aren’t like Tesla. They’re a pretty low-risk investment, right? Well, earlier this year the feds closed the bank down for improper management. Savings accounts got some help from the FDIC, but stockholders were left with nothing. In a single day, all of her shares became worthless.
Our economy could tank. Our nation’s credit could run out. And if you think you’ll be fine because you have a pile of cash under your mattress, there’s always the danger of inflation. Just ask our friends from Venezuela where cough medicine for your kids cost a whole month of your salary. Earthly treasure isn’t stable. It isn’t enduring.
But notice in v. 3, it’s not just what the laws of nature and the suffering of this life does to our earthly treasures that brings misery. Far more serious is what our earthly treasures will eventually do to all who cling to them. In other words, the misery coming upon the rich isn’t just that their earthly treasures are perishing. It’s that all who live for them will likewise perish. V. 3, “You gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire.”
How will the futility of wealth testify against us? In the sense that on the final day, when you die and stand before the judgment seat of God, your earthly treasure may very well testify that you wasted your life. You lived for what will not last and will never satisfy your soul. A fading, fleeting, transient, created thing was your deepest love, the object of your greatest affection, your functional god, an idol of your own making that cannot see or hear or save. James is pointing forward to the great assize where what you lived for will be exposed by God as utterly worthless in the light of his glory and grace.
“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer 2:12–13). Think about that day, friend. It will be here before you know it. And if you live for earthly riches, instead of the God who created you to love him first and best, the corrosion of your earthly treasure will culminate in the corrosion of your body and soul in hell.
That’s the warning. The present futility of our riches is a foretaste of the eternal destruction awaiting all who cling to them. When the gods of gold and silver win our affection, when you’re happier shopping online Sunday night than you are worshiping with the people of God on Sunday morning, take heed. The problem isn’t just that your earthly treasure will fail to satisfy. The problem is that having captured your heart, it will eventually destroy you.
You don’t have to be Bill Gates for that to happen. You could have $40 dollars to your name. But if you love that money and the earthly treasures it represents more than you love God, it will eventually destroy you. And that, James says, is why the rich should weep and howl. The end of the line for them isn’t eternal comfort. It’s eternal misery, because of the hold their wealth has on the affections of their heart.
Matt 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” All who live for earthly treasure will likewise perish. That’s the first reason present prosperity easily paves the way for future misery.
2) ALL WHO PURSUE SELFISH GAIN WILL ANSWER TO GOD
The second half of v. 3 through the end of v. 6 is a catalogue of exactly what these rich people had done to merit divine judgment. The first category of action is summarized in v. 3, “You stored up treasure in the last days.”
He’s not talking about the last days of their individual life. He’s talking about the last days in which we all presently live and have been living since the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Why does that make our present time “the last days”? Because the final event in God’s work of salvation is the next event. Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead. And in these days, the last days, the “rich” stored up treasure on earth, acquiring more and more wealth for themselves.
Does that mean saving is wrong? No. Prov 13:22, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children…” Diligent saving for future needs, strictly speaking, is not the problem. The problem with laying up treasure in the last days lies in both what they were doing with their wealth and how they gained it in the first place. So what were they doing with their wealth? Bottom line, they were hoarding it.
Lk 12:16–21, “And [Jesus] told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.’”
The biblical purpose of money isn’t ours to choose, provided we first give God his due share. The biblical purpose of money, all our money, mind you, is to love God and love our neighbor. We work, we save, we invest, so that we will have something to give for the sake of his kingdom, to advance his priorities and further his purposes. The rich in Jas 5 are like the rich man in Lk 12. They didn’t use their wealth for God’s kingdom. They used it to secure their own. They were hoarding their wealth instead of loving God and their neighbor with their wealth.
But it wasn’t just what they were doing with their wealth that was the problem. It was also how they gained it in the first place. V. 4, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you…” The rich stored up wealth, in part, by taking advantage of their employees, refusing to pay the wages they deserved.”
It was an act of grievous injustice. Much of the agricultural work in James’ day was done by poor day-laborers who hired themselves out to wealthy landowners. They typically earned just enough money to feed their family that night and were dependent on receiving their wages promptly. If you didn’t get paid or payment was delayed, your family had nothing to eat.
It’s why James says in v. 6, by treating your hired laborers unjustly, you have “condemned” and functionally “murdered” the righteous person, likely referring to members of the Christian community. Misery is coming upon you, James declares, because your acts of injustice are literally starving people to death.
“But everybody does it, James. It’s standard business practice. How else am I going to get ahead? I don’t withhold as many wages as the other guys do.” Is running things with a little “flexibility” in the integrity department really a big deal? Look back at v. 4. “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
Friend, if you are engaged in illegal or unjust business practices. If you are sacrificing your integrity in any way for the sake of the bottom line, you will not ultimately answer to the SEC, or the State Police, or the FBI, or the IRS. You will give an account to God. God doesn’t just care about what we do with our wealth. He is deeply interested in how we are gaining it in the first place.
That’s a sober warning to all who occupy a position of commercial power and influence, and a tremendous comfort to all who have suffered under the same. God hears. God knows. The HR department may turn a blind eye, King Jesus will not. Your boss, your company, your supervisor, will give an account to God for the way they treated you. The first category of actions the rich committed, paving the way for future misery, was storing up treasure in the last days, hoarding wealth unjustly gained.
The second category surfaces in v. 5. Look at what James says. “You lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” Living self-indulgently isn’t about exceeding a “Christian” salary cap or failing to give away a “Christian” percentage of your income. It’s not about crossing some sort of line into an “unbiblical” standard of living above which we become one of those evil 1%ers. No. Living self-indulgently is a matter of the heart.
And if as I said that you breathed an internal sigh of relief and thought, “Thank God, Matthew. I thought you were about to tell me to evaluate my standard of living in light of the biblical purpose of money. I like keeping things at, you know, the ‘heart’ level, where no one can point fingers or wrestle with uncomfortable questions.”
Friend, when I say, living self-indulgently is first and foremost a matter of the heart I’m not obscuring the standard of godliness. I’m raising the bar. Why? Because I am challenging you, as the Word of God in Jas 4:5 challenges you, to honestly evaluate your financial priorities. Is your highest financial priority pleasing yourself or pleasing God, spending on yourself or blessing the people around you?
The entire logic of the gospel is that we have been blessed to be a blessing, both spiritually and materially. If you are a Christian, God has given you, his most precious possession. The gift of his very own Son who laid his life down on the cross so you could be forgiven and reconciled to God. He loves you and he demonstrated his love not through token kindness but radical generosity. And now he commands you to do likewise. To lay down your life – your home, your cars, your investments, your hard-earned wages – for the sake of loving others the way he has loved you.
So be honest. If someone who doesn’t know you very well looked at your checkbook, would they conclude your wealth is devoted to your kingdom or God’s? It’s a heart-issue, yes, but it translates into very practical financial decisions, especially what we do with our wealth after providing for ourselves and our family.
So how do we know if, like the “rich” in Jas 5, we are sinning against the Lord, violating his purpose for our wealth, by “living luxuriously”? Living luxuriously doesn’t mean exceeding the median standard of living in your neighborhood. It means embracing a standard of living that is more devoted to your material comfort than your eternal joy. It means trying to have your best life now. Living luxuriously means we never stop to ask, “Lord, should I buy this car or buy this house even though I can technically afford it? Is there a better use for this money in your kingdom?”
Paul reminds us in 1 Tim 6:17 that God is the one who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” We should receive the material gifts God sees fit to give us with humble and grateful hearts, not a sense of guilt or shame. Yet seeing as how practically all of us in this room are “rich” in this present age, we must not be “haughty,” flaunting our wealth through symbols of social status, secretly delighting in parading our riches to others. Instead, Paul says, we must use our wealth “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for (ourselves) as a good foundation for the future, so that (we) may take hold of that which is truly life.”
Friend, if the Lord has entrusted wealth to you, know this. Your greatest joy will never come from spending it on earthly treasures or material comfort. Your greatest joy will come from using ALL Jesus has given you for his sake by supporting his church, blessing his people, loving those who don’t know him, and funding the work of gospel ministry where Christ has yet to be named.
If your wealth is pointed toward yourself in self-indulgent luxury, it will destroy you. If your wealth is pointed toward God and others in radical generosity, it will multiply your joy, the enduring and unshakable joy that comes from choosing Jesus, not money, as your treasure and serving him with all that you are and all that you have.
The rich in James’ day were fattening their hearts “in a day of slaughter,” feasting the affections of their heart on the very treasures of this world that were about to destroy them, living like a plump pig who hastens the day of his demise by gorging himself. It’s a picture of the insanity of sin, the twisted logic that thinks present prosperity will never pave the way to future misery.
It happens so easily, and don’t think you’re immune simply because you’re a Christian or because you put some money in the offering last week. Ask God to search your heart. Heed the warning. Present prosperity easily paves the way for future misery. Don’t store up treasure in the last days to guard against future misery because hoarding your wealth is the surest way to secure your future misery.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus died to free us from the enslaving power of sin, including the love of money, so we could learn to worship him with our money. When the disciples said in Matt 19, “Jesus, if only with difficulty can a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven, who then can be saved?” How did Jesus respond? “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Jesus is the one who became poor that we might become rich, rich in mercy, rich in favor, rich in eternal glory, and to the degree the Lord sees fit to entrust us with earthly wealth, rich in generosity. If today you feel your need for God’s power to seek his kingdom with your wealth instead of your own, take heart in the Lord’s promise in Lk 12:32-34.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Don’t live for selfish gain, friend. Love King Jesus with all your earthly treasure because he is your greatest treasure. You won’t be disappointed.