Wealth and Security

August 13, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor

James 5:1-6

Last week we saw James addressing the middle class or merchant class (James 4:1-12), encouraging them to cease following the world and find joy in God. In our study today, James speaks directly to the rich who are hoarding wealth (James 5:1-6), warning them to stop trying to find security in their earthly riches. The cries of the harvesters, the poor, the workers, have reached the ears of the Almighty (James 5: 4) and the hoarding wealthy are to be pitied and judged in the “misery that is coming on you” (James 5:1). The implication is that God wants His people to turn Himself for security and meaning, and not to wealth.

I. The passage (James 5:1-6): Those who hoard wealth for security will be judged.
Three reasons the rich will be judged:

  1. They are “hoarding” more than they can possibly use. (James 5: 2,3)  The problem is not the wealthy, but the misplaced priorities in the excess of their wealth (e.g., food, earthly goods, money, etc.), not being used in a society (both then and now) where many are poor and few are rich.
  2. They are hoarding their wealth “in the last days”. (James 5: 3)  In the last days, the earthly is less important. In the New Testament, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead shows us the greatness of an eternity with Jesus, making the hoarding of earthly stuff and the earth itself, much less critical. When James says it is the last days, it means that judgement is near. Jesus will return after His resurrection to both save and to judge. We need to focus on the eternal.
  3. They are hoarding by dishonest means. (James 5: 4-6) By unjustly withholding wages and denying the poor of basic necessities through the courts, the rich, with no conscience whatsoever, use their power to hoard wealth.

II. The Application: God wants His people to find their security not in wealth, but in Him.
God does not want us to give our hearts completely to this physical world. The rich, Godly people of the Bible (e.g., Abraham, Job, David, Solomon, Joseph of Arimathea) demonstrate to us how imperfect, wealthy believers can find meaning and keep their ultimate focus on God. Our security, our real meaning, life itself, are to be found in the eternal foundation of our relationship with God, made possible only through the death and resurrection of His Son. God asks us to give our wealth, not because He needs it, but to demonstrate our trust in Him who is our true provider and safety. We are to be stewards our worldly wealth, which has been temporarily entrusted to us by God, so that He, through the guidance of His Spirit, can invest it for good.

Discussion Questions

  1. What “riches” in your life are creating idols and distracting you from God?
  2. Are your treasures temporary or eternal?
  3. What does our financial strategy say about God’s provision and our faith in that provision?
  4. Which of these are important to you? – to be rich in things – to be poor (humble) in spirit?
  5. Have you ever lost wealth? How did it affect your relationship with God?
  6. Based on James 4 and 5, how would you talk with a person seeking “more out of life”, meaning, security?
  7. Based on James 5, would you ever talk with a believer caught in the web of hoarding earthly wealth?

Introduction

Brad was a rich man. In his own eyes, he could finally say he was rich. Other people would have said Brad was rich long ago. 20 years ago the people from his hometown started calling him rich. 10 years ago his business associates started calling him wealthy. But with the deal that he made last week for the first time, Brad could look at himself in the mirror and say “I am a rich man” and believe it. It felt really good to say that. It made Brad feel really powerful, really worthwhile, but most of all it made him feel really safe to say he was rich.

Brad’s quest for wealth didn’t come out of a vacuum. It really started out of a wound that he received in 9th grade of all places. Brad went to a middle-class school, but his family was poor. Really poor. There was a girl named Becky that he really liked, and he was trying to work up his courage to ask her to the school dance. He was just starting to drive. He was talking to Becky one day at lunch, when one of his classmates named Rod came by and made a joke about the old beat up car Brad’s parents drove the car. Brad would have to drive to pick her up for their date. It was just a passing comment, but Rod was a bully. He could tell that he had shamed Brad and that his joke had hit home. From then on, Rod made fun of Brad’s cheap car, his cheap clothes and his poor lifestyle every chance he got. The other kids joined in. Brad never asked Becky out, but he did make an agreement with himself. Rather than ignore the remarks or just “consider the source,” he vowed to himself that he would never, ever be powerless because of money again.

So he decided to become rich, and he did. He had to make sacrifices along the way, like his free-time and his social life. He had to make what you might call choices terrible choices:

  • A choice to fire employees that had been faithful but were kind of expensive
  • A choice to cook the books when he needed to
  • A choice to leave his wife
  • A choice not just to force his partner out of the business not just to take most of the assets from his partner but to ruin the man completely legally, socially, financially, because he had objected to Brad’s business ethics.

He had made a lot of tough choices, but he was here. He had arrived. He had more money than he would ever need. The other day, he gave a ride home to one of the college kids that interned for his company. Brad saw the look in the college student’s eyes when he saw Brad’s brand new sports car. It was the opposite of the looks he had gotten in 9th grade. Brad didn’t even care about the car any more. He owned six cars, but he loved the look. He lived for that look.

He put his hope in being rich, and it seemed like it was working out well for him. He told himself he was going to retire with all his toys, give up the rat-race, and maybe start over again with a new wife. He was a couple of years away from doing that, and it felt good.

But there was something Brad didn’t know: It was his last day. He had a blood vessel in his brain that was about to rupture. Brad – powerful, rich, secure – was about to meet his Maker. After the funeral, someone was talking to Brad’s former business partner and they asked “How much does a guy like that leave behind?” His partner’s answer was simple: “All of it.”

What does God think of a guy like Brad? What does God think about his pursuit of wealth? His riches? His heart? What does God think about us and our pursuit of wealth? How does he want us to view wealth? Today we are going to look at a passage that relates to that question. Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to James 5:1-6.

In our study of James, we have come to a section of the book, where James addresses people of sort of different socio-economic classes. In the last passage (4:13-17), James spoke to the middle or merchant class. In the next passage (5:7-11), James is going to speak to the poor and powerless.

This week we are going to look at a very interesting, very fiery passage, because this week James is going to address the rich – those who find their security in wealth. This is going to be an awkward passage it’s difficult to preach, because James doesn’t have any advice for these people. He just pronounces an oracle of woe on them. His message can basically be boiled down to two words: “You’re toast!”

In this passage, James doesn’t tell them how to fix the problem. He doesn’t even call them to repent. He simply tells them they are going to be judged and then gives them the three reasons they will be judged. That’s all he has to say to the rich. It’s a cheery little passage in a cheery little book (“like hot food!”).

Our message today is going to be in two parts:

  1. We will look at the passage where James gives three reasons that judgment will come to those who choose to find their security in wealth.
  2. We will talk about how this applies to us, and we will talk about where God wants us to get our security.

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
– James 5:1-6

That is an intense passage. We want to start today by looking at the message of the passage, and the message of the passage is this:

The Passage: Those who hoard wealth for security will be judged

James starts by telling the rich they are going to be judged:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.
– James 5:1

The rich those who put their hope in wealth are going to be judged. The rest of the passage is basically the three charges that are brought against them – the three reasons they are going to be judged, so let’s just look at these one by one. The first reason they will be judged is this

1. They are hoarding more than they can use

Look at what James says:

Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.
– James 5:2-3a

Notice that James mentions three categories of worldly goods here:

  1. Your wealth (which often referred to crops or produce) has rotted
  2. Moths have eaten your clothes
  3. And your gold and silver are corroded

These were the three main categories of wealth in James’ day, so he’s saying “Look these guys have all the bases covered.” They have food, they have clothing, and they have money. Notice also that a process of decay has already started. The produce is rotting, the moths are eating their clothes, and the gold and silver are corroded. James uses a special tense in the Greek to show that this process of decay has already started and that it will continue.

The main thing James is pointing out in these verses is that these people have more than they can possibly use. They’ll never use it all. Notice that their wealth is not ruined by use but by excess. The produce is not being lost because it’s eaten, but because it’s rotting. The clothes aren’t worn out. They are moth-eaten. The gold and silver are corroding, because they sit in a pile. James points out that it’s not the wealth, but the excess of wealth that testifies against them. It’s not the gold and silver that eats their flesh like fire. It’s the corrosion on the gold and silver.

They have more than they can possibly use, and they are condemned for this excess. In a society with a few rich and lots of poor like James is writing to, this hoarding was doubly damaging. Not only does it show misplace priorities for the rich, but it prevents others from having what they need.

Some of you may remember the overthrow of the Egyptian Dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.  Here was a country where half the population lived at or below the international poverty line. They were literally starving. After Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, it was discovered that he had stockpiled $70 billion in wealth. He could have fed the entire country. Instead, he chose to hoard: 75 tons of Egyptian gold and for what? He was 83 years old. He couldn’t spend it all if he tried!

James says God notes that. He sees the excess. He sees those who have more than they could possibly use and continue to hoard more, and it testifies against us. I’m not going to solve everything we as American Christians should do with this part of the passage, but I have to be honest this concerns me. In some ways, we have more than we can use.

We were talking about this the other day in the Brown’s Small Group. Joel pointed out that one of the fastest growing industries in America is off-site storage. A place to keep the stuff that doesn’t fit in the storage in our homes. We have so much. I know we say “Well, I might need that stuff some day,” but that’s the cry of every rich man and every hoarder that’s ever lived.

I’m not saying that off-site storage is evil. I don’t think that God is angry at us for being born in America, where things are so abundant but we really do have so much. Sometimes we have more than we can use, and it gives me pause. The first charge is that they have more than they can use. The second charge is this

2. They are hoarding it in the last days

Look at the last part of verse 3:

You have hoarded wealth in the last days
– James 5:3

This is James’ second charge, and he makes it with no explanation. He just says “You have hoarded wealth in the last days” and then moves on. What is his point? Why is it such a big deal that they are doing this in the last days? James’ readers would have been more familiar with this concept than we are. They would have understood the implications, but to help us understand them I think there are two reasons that it is inappropriate to hoard wealth in the last days.

The first is that in the last days the earthly is less important. We have to understand this or we will be very confused about how our Christianity relates to wealth. We live in the last days. We are told that again and again in the New Testament, and it changes the way we look at wealth.

In the Old Testament, faith was strongly tied to the physical earthly realm:

  • God’s people were a specific ethnicity
  • God’s kingdom had a physical location
  • God’s blessing was seen in earthly prosperity
  • Worship was in a particular physical city where the temple was

It was all about the physical. This focus on the physical was so strong that they pretty much expected to see God’s blessing only in the physical. The Old testament very much expects a direct connection between Israel’s righteousness and its ability to grow crops, and to bear children, and to have enough stuff to be comfortable.

Not necessarily always as individuals but certainly as a nation, the formula was “Do what’s right, and you’ll be comfortable on earth.” So that if something went wrong and you had a reversal of fortune, or illness or trouble bearing children, there was almost an expectation that you had done something wrong (John 9). So in the Old Testament the focus is very much on this earth:

  • Earthly people
  • Earthly kingdom
  • Earthly blessing earthly riches

Now Jesus comes along as the full expression of God’s plan. When he does everything changes, because Jesus is resurrected. He is raised from the dead, incorruptible. For the first time, God’s people have a glance at eternity. The Apostles could see Jesus. They could touch his resurrection body. They could hear what he had to say about the eternal Kingdom and know that it was real. All of a sudden, the comforts, the power the riches of this earth, faded by comparison. The Apostles could see earthly stuff for the small-time peanuts it really is compared to the greatness of eternity with Jesus.

That’s why the Apostles could suffer so much persecution. Because they lived in the last days, they knew that what we experience on this earth – both good and bad – is nothing compared to eternity. That’s why the Apostle Paul – who had been beaten, whipped and stoned – could say “This light, momentary affliction is not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” So there is this clear shift from focusing on what is earthly and temporal to focusing on what is spiritual and eternal.

Now what does this have to do with the rich man and his hoarding? Just this: We’re in the last days. The focus has shifted to the eternal, so now is not the time to be hoarding earthly stuff. We should know better. Jesus told us not to lay up treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt but to lay them up in heaven. God still takes care of the physical needs of his people, but the physical is not to be our focus in the last days. This is no time to be fighting over stuff. The hoarding is inappropriate, because the earthly is less important.

Second, when James says it is the last days he means judgment is near. In verse 5, James says the rich man has “fattened himself for the day of slaughter.” In the next passage, he says “Don’t misbehave because the judge is standing at the door!” James calls it the last days to point out that God is ready to judge the world!

Now that doesn’t mean it has to happen tomorrow. That’s not what the Bible means when it says we are in the last days. Rather it means the next thing on God’s to-do list is returning in judgment. Did you know that? In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul says that we are living in what is called “the time of the Gentiles” – a time when God is calling non-Jewish people to himself. He says that when the full number of Gentiles have come in Jesus is going to return, both to save and to judge.

James is pointing out that their misbehavior is inappropriate, because the judge is about to return. The second charge is that they are hoarding during the last days:

  • A time when we should be focusing on the eternal, and
  • A time when the judge is standing at the door.

They are hoarding more than they can use. They are hoarding it in the last days Finally James says this:

3. They are hoarding by dishonest means

Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
– James 5:1-6

James points out here that the way they have hoarded this wealth is by withholding wages from the poor who work for them, which the Bible says you are not supposed to do. The book of Deuteronomy said you were to give a poor man his wages at the end of every day, because he lives hand to mouth. He needs his money at the end of every day to feed his family. He has to have it. The rich here have unjustly withheld wages from those who need them and have earned them.

Apparently, they have misused the courts to withhold these wages and hoard this wealth. Verse 6 says “You have condemned and murdered innocent men” The word “condemned” here means to win a verdict against someone in court. This is what James was talking about in chapter two when he said “Is it not the rich that are exploiting you? Are they not the ones dragging you to court?”

The picture that we get is of a rich landowner who withholds wages from the poor, takes him to court to defraud him, denies him of his basic necessities, and ends up playing a part in his death. James says “The wages you have withheld from the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you.” The reason that the wages are crying out is because the poor man is dead. It’s like this picture we have in Genesis of Abel’s blood that cried out to God from the earth condemning Cain for what he had done to his brother. James closes the passage with the simple words “He does not resist you.” The image is of extreme power with no conscience whatsoever.

I’m reminded of my friends, John and Sylvia, in Zimbabwe. They weren’t perfect people, but they had a beautiful citrus farm that they had purchased and built up. It was taken by a woman who owned several farms already and was a relative of a high government official. The day they were kicked off of their farm the woman stood in their house to make sure they didn’t take anything she wanted. While they were gathering their clothes and things, Sylvia developed a migraine and at one point she sat down and began to cry. The woman came to her and said “Why are you crying? You shouldn’t be sad. You should be happy for me. I’m getting a farm today.”

We see these moments – the power of the oppressor and the helplessness of those who do good – and we tell ourselves “They’re going to pull it off.” They’ve hoarded more than they can use. They’ve hoarded it in the last days. They’ve hoarded through dishonest means. The courts are going to back them, the poor are going to die, and they’re going to get away with it. But they’re not. They’re not going to get away with anything. James points out again and again in this passage. That they are going to be judged.

In verse 4, James points out that the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty, which literally means “the God of Armies.” The cries have reached the ears of someone who is capable of doing something about it. In verse 5, James says “You have fattened yourselves alright, but you’ve fattened yourselves for slaughter.”

So for the rich, James has only two words of advice. There are only two commands in this passage, and they are found in verse 1: “weep” and “wail” for the misery that is coming on you. James’ message to the rich is simply this: Those who hoard wealth to find security will be judged.

OK, so that’s the passage – that’s James’ Message to the rich. So how does this apply to us? Hopefully, none of you are stealing from your employees and dragging them to court, so you can take what they need to live. So does this have anything to do with us? We could try and apply the details and we might gain some ground there. It bothers me when James talks about having more than we need, but I think it might be more fruitful if we look at the bigger concept of what is going on here, so here’s my second point:

The Application: God wants his people to find their security not in wealth, but in Him

Listen do you know what the real problem with these people is? It’s not that they are rich. In the Old Testament, there were all kinds of rich people that loved God: Abraham, Joseph, Job, David, Solomon were all rich, and all walked closely with God. We don’t know the economic status of very many people in the New Testament, but we do know that there were godly rich people: Joseph of Arimathea was rich. Luke tells us there were some rich ladies that supported Jesus. There were people who hosted churches on their estates. Riches can make it harder to keep your focus on God, but the problem with these people isn’t that they were rich.

The problem is that they are trying to find their security in wealth. Though there are three separate accusations, the thing that is driving these people is that they are trying to find their security, their meaning, their life in riches. They have this idea in their mind: The more money I have, the more life I have and that’s why they are willing to hoard more than they can use, and hoard in the last days, and hurt other people to hoard it, because wealth is oxygen to these people. It’s what they put their hope in. Think of the passage John preached last week. They have given their heart completely to this world. They are trying to fill a hole that was built for eternity with temporal stuff. That’s why there’s never enough. Just like James says, it brings wars and fightings. So the real problem here is not that they are rich, but that they are trying to find their security in wealth.

Please note the irony here: The very thing they are depending on for their security is the thing that brings them judgment. Do you see that? They are depending on their big pile of silver and gold, but the corrosion of that silver and gold which comes from the sitting in a pile is the thing that is going to eat their flesh like fire. They are depending on the wages they stole from the workers, but the wages themselves are calling out to the God of armies. They have made themselves fat, but it only means they are ready for slaughter. God wants his people to know that. If you give your heart to worldly wealth – if that is what you depend on for security and meaning – you will find it an unfaithful companion. It only takes one hurricane, one reversal of fortune, one diagnosis, one accident to undo it all. Then you face judgment for building your life on the wrong foundation.

This is nothing new. God has always wanted his people to find their security in him and not in wealth. If you read the Old Testament, God had all these crazy financial laws that he gave his people:

  • They had to give the first 10% of their income to him
  • They had to give him the firstborn of all their flocks and herds
  • They had to give him the first four years of fruit from any tree that they planted
  • He told them to take all these Sabbaths off: one day a week and one year out of every seven completely off, no planting no reaping forgive every debt and let every Hebrew slave go free. Then every 50th year, they were supposed to take two years in a row completely off.

Now from a human perspective giving all that stuff away and taking all that time off is a stupid way to conduct your business. It doesn’t make any sense! But God promised Israel that if they would do that, he would provide for them, they would never go hungry, and they would always be safe. Why? Because God wanted his people to find their security in Him and not in wealth. He wanted them to trust him. He wanted them to learn “I can take time off and give God a percentage of my income and forgive debts and trust him with my livestock and God will take care of me.” He wanted them to learn that security was not found in how much stuff they could accumulate. It was found in God That’s what he wanted Israel to learn, and that’s the same lesson he wants us to learn today.

God still asks his people to give a portion of their income to him, but that’s not because he needs your stuff. He’s not sitting up there wringing his hands asking himself how he’s going to build his kingdom if you don’t drop your check in the offering plate. In the Psalms, he says “If I was hungry, I wouldn’t tell you I own the cattle on a thousand hills!” God doesn’t ask you to give because he needs your stuff. God asks you to give because he wants you to trust Him. He promises that if you do that he’ll take care of you. He wants you to believe that true safety is not found in hoarding stuff. It’s found in God.

Let’s go back to the illustration I gave at the beginning of the sermon. Let’s go back to the story of Brad who was rich in his own eyes. This time let’s imagine he filled that 9th grade wound not with wealth but with God. As much as that time in his life hurt, he came to realize that his worth, his impact, his security came not from money, or from the envy of his peers, but rather came from a God that made Brad in his image and loved him deeply no matter how much stuff he had.

Imagine that Brad worked hard, not out of the insecurity of trying to be rich but out of the security of a God that loved him. He worked out of gratitude and joy. He still has worldly wealth, but he doesn’t see it as a tool that gives him the power to exploit people. He sees that wealth as a stewardship, something temporarily entrusted to him by God, so he can invest it for good. Imagine that he leverages his business, the thing God made him good at, to help build the Kingdom of God.

  • He serves his employees
  • He blesses the community
  • He takes time off to be with his family
  • He helps those that God has placed in his path including some that can’t help him back

Now imagine that Brad passes away. Only this time, he doesn’t leave it all behind. He’s sent most of it ahead by investing in eternity. Brad is now a rich man in God’s eyes. That is what God wants for you, for me and for our church. He wants us to find our security not in riches but in him.