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“Come now, you rich…” With these four words James begins his discussion of Biblical stewardship (James 5:1-6). Many of us are prone to skip over this paragraph, erroneously feeling that it does not apply to us. We think this passage is for the men and women who live in the multi-million dollar homes on the water. We may think, “Yes, Lord, give it to those rich snobs!”
There are basically two reactions to James’ discussion of money. Those without money somehow feel that they are more spiritual than those who have money. Well, they are not. On the other hand, those who have money somehow feel as if they have to be defensive. Well, they don’t. These verses apply to everyone, for being “rich” is relative. Compared to the rest of the world, almost everyone reading these words is filthy rich. Most of us have automobiles with power steering. We can afford to buy hamburgers for lunch. Most of the world’s people cannot.
I wish I could take each of you out into the African bush a few miles from Mombasa, Kenya, in East Africa. I have preached in some churches there. It is not uncommon for three or four thousand people to walk miles to attend the services. They sit on the ground, not on pews. If their pastor to preach on James 5:1-6 this coming Sunday, they would be thinking about people in America who make the minimum wage when they heard the words, “Now listen you rich people…”
No matter how much we have, someone else has more. No matter how little we have, someone else has less. These words in James 5:1-6 are for each of us. I know many poor people who are more preoccupied with money and possessions than some wealthy people are. The real issue is not whether we have money, but whether money has us. James was touching a sensitive nerve regarding the danger of materialism — being possessed by things.
Many of us think that money is all we need to solve our problems. We think if we just had a little more money we could take care of this, or take care of that, and then we would finally be happy. But what happens when money comes? The more money we have, the more we need. The more we make, the more we spend. We get a raise and usually it just helps us get a little more in debt. Money is deceptive. It can so subtly and unconsciously become our god. If we are not careful, it begins to possess us instead of our possessing it.
There is nothing wrong with wealth itself. Genesis 13:2 says, “Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.” In 1 Chronicles 29:28, it says that the psalmist David “died in a good old age, full of days and riches and honor.” King Solomon, the writer of Proverbs, had more than Abraham and David put together. Joseph of Arimathea, who furnished a tomb and arranged for our Lord to have a decent burial, had tremendous wealth (Matt. 27:57). Barnabas, a wealthy landowner, made possible the expansion of the early church by selling some valuable real estate on the island of Cyprus and giving the proceeds to the apostles. No wonder his name means “son of encouragement.”
If there is nothing wrong with wealth, what was James saying? He was trying to tell us that the problem with wealth lies not in having it, but in how we get it, how we guard it and how we give it. The way we deal with our money can bring “misery” upon us (James 5:1). The word “misery,” when translated, comes from two Greek words. One means “to undergo or to endure,” the other means “callous, or that which brings joy only momentarily but is followed by misery.” Getting our money by ungodly means will bring misery sooner or later. If we hoard our money we will be of all men most miserable. And if we give our money to self-indulgence, the result will be misery. James did not say that wealth in itself is wrong. We should not misunderstand what he was saying. His point was how we get our money, how we guard it, and how we give it tells the whole world what our values are.
Our money talks. In fact, it says volumes about what we really think is important. It is so much a reflection of what is inside us that Jesus spoke often about it. One out of every three of His sermons had to do with money. Jesus told 38 parables, and one-third of them dealt with possessions. He said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). He was a diagnostician. And in a very real sense, the accountant who prepares our tax return knows more about us spiritually than our Sunday school teachers or prayer partners know. How we deal with our money is a reflection of our spiritual health.
How we get it
“Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” (James 5:1, 4, 6)
The issue of how we get our wealth is so vitally important that the through pervades the first paragraph of James 5. When writing this passage, James had in mind a man who received his money through exploitation and expropriation.
James said, “Indeed, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth” (James 5:4). The Bible never condemns the acquisition of wealthy by legal and legitimate means. At issue here is the acquisition of wealth by illegal and illegitimate means. The man who received his wealth through exploitation had promised to pay his employees a certain amount, but when they completed their work he refused to pay them. The phrase “Failed to pay” is a translation of a Greek word that refers to an illegitimate or fraudulent action. From the very beginning, this many had no intention of paying his workers. He was always looking for loopholes in the contract to get out of paying what he owed. Because of this he came under God’s judgment.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God warns us, “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.” Deuteronomy 24:14-15 tells us, “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.” Exodus 2:23 tells us that God heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt: “Then the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the bondage.” In Luke 10:7 Jesus says, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”
The tense of the verbs in James 5:4 is important to the understanding of this verse. The verb translated “mowed” is aorist, indicating the task had been accomplished. The verb translated “failed to pay” is in the imperfect tense, indicating that the employer held back the wages permanently and had no intention of paying what was due. The verb translated “crying out against you” is in the present tense, indicating the continuous crying out for these wages. The employees began to cry out to God about this injustice. We will see later that payday comes sooner or later.
Remember the term “rich” is relative. We do not have to be employers to be guilty of exploitation. Some employees exploit their employers. For example, suppose your employer pays you for eight hours of work a day. You show up 10 or 15 minutes late, take an extra five minutes on your morning and afternoon breaks, come back from lunch 15 minutes late, sit and your desk and read a magazine or do your nails, and then leave a few minutes early. You have only put in about six and a half hours of work, not the eight you agreed to work. You are just as guilty of exploitation as the man who did not pay a fair wage. If your employer pays you for an eight-hour day and you only work seven hours, you are stealing from him. You might as well go into the petty cash box and take out the money.
Christians in the work force ought to work harder than anyone because they are doing their jobs unto the Lord (Eph. 6:5-8). Ill-gotten gains will come back to haunt us. We must guard against acquiring our wealth through exploitation.
James made a stinging accusation: “You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). The man James had in mind not only gained his wealth through exploitation but also through expropriation. The Greek word translated “condemned” is a judicial term suggesting the manner in which the rich pervert the legal system to accumulate their wealth. The term speaks of those who control the courts in such a way that justice is eliminated. In other words, they have the power to use the courts to take away someone else’s means of support. The man who exploited his workers had the political power to control the system and prevent his employees from opposing him. Thus he deprived them of their livelihood. It was just as if he had murdered them.
There are ways of killing people without taking away their physical lives. We can kill a person’s reputation through slander. We can kill a person’s incentive through constant agitation. James was thinking of a man who stepped over anything or anyone in order to reach the top.
The victims did not offer opposition because the system controlled by the rich rendered them unable to retaliate. James 2:6 says, “But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts?” To exploit is bad enough, but it is worse still to expropriate when resistance is impossible. In the end, wealth gained by expropriation can only bring misery.
We cannot help but remember that the love of money was at the root of Christ’s betrayal. Judas loved money. Yes, he received 30 pieces of silver and looks how he got it. He is the epitome of someone who ended up weeping and wailing.
Yes, our money talks. What is it saying about how we got it? If we have obtained our wealth through exploitation or expropriation, our gold and silver will testify against us.
How we guard it
“…You have heaped up treasure in the last days” James 5:1-3
How we guard our money is also revealing. The man James had in mind “hoarded” his wealth (James 5:3). “Hoarded” is a translation of a Greek word from which we get our word “thesaurus.” It means “a collection” and has the connotation of gathering all we can and storing it up. There is nothing wrong with a savings account. In fact, the Bible puts its stamp of approval on fiscal responsibility. See 2 Corinthians 12:14 for an example. However, it is wrong to hoard wealth that is owed to others. James said that guarding such wealth is deceitful, decadent, and deceptive.
Guarded wealth promises joy, but only brings misery. When we begin to love money it ceases to bless us and begins to curse us. We think that just a little more money will make us happy, but that is a deception.
The parable of the rich fool illustrates the deceitfulness of guarded wealth. Jesus said, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). The man in the parable accumulated wealth “for himself” with utter disregard for anything or anyone else. So God said, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” (Luke 12:20). We sometimes think a new suit, a new car, or a new home will make us happy. But those things never really satisfy. They are all deceitful. It is good to have things money can buy, but it is better to have the things money cannot buy. Behind mahogany doors and iron gates are some of the most miserable people in the world. What is really important is not what money can buy, but what money cannot buy.
Andrew Carnegie, who will always be remembered as one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs, said, “I was born in poverty and would not exchange its sacred memories with the richest millionaire’s son who ever breathed. What does he know about a mother or a father? These are mere names to him. Give me the life of the boy whose mother is nurse, seamstress, washer woman, cook, teacher, angel, and saint all in one, and whose father is guide, exemplar and friend. No servants to come between. These are the boys who are born to the best fortune. Some men think that poverty is a dreadful burden and that wealth leads to happiness. What do they know about it? They know only one side. They imagine the other. I have lived both, and I know there is very little in wealth that can add to human happiness beyond the small comforts of life. Millionaires who laugh are rare.”
Yes, hoarded wealth is deceitful.
Money can also be decadent. It decays. If we don’t use it, we lose it. WE cannot take it with us when we die. It is temporal. Only what we deposit in the bank of Heaven will last. That which is used for God’s glory never fades away. Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19-20).
Emphasizing the perishable nature of worldly riches, James 5:2-3 says, “Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days” All these verbs are in the perfect tense. James was so certain of the temporary nature of riches that he described their decay as having already happened. He was showing us the present worthless state of our own possessions.
The first century world did not have certificates of deposit or stock certificates. Their wealth was measured in grain, garments, and gold. When James said, “Your wealth has rotted,” he was referring to grain. A man’s worth was often determined by the amount of grain he could store in his barn. Remember the rich fool had many goods laid up for future years. But grain rots. How does grain rot? By lack of use. Our guarded wealth, like grain, is decadent. If we don’t use it, it does us no good and we eventually lose it.
When James said, “Moths have eaten your clothes,” we know that in the ancient world garments were also symbols of wealth. When Joseph blessed his brothers in Egypt, he gave them garments (Gen. 45:22). Lust for a Babylonian robe led to the downfall of Achan (Joshua 7:21). Naaman, commander-in-chief of the Syrian army, brought Elisha garments as a gift (2 Kings 5:5). The man James had in mind made his money for the express purpose of showing off to others how rich he was; he wanted to be noticed by his fancy and flashy outer garments. (The Greek word “himatia,” translated “clothes” in James 5:2, means “outer garment.”) But garments ruin. Moths eat them.
A moth is subtle and silent, lurking behind the scenes. He eats away at our treasures and before we know it they are gone. A month is not like other insects. A roach will badger and taunt us. He will eat away at our cabinets and leave his droppings on the drain board. A cricket will bug us (no pun intended) by making noise and remaining hidden. A mosquito will bite us. A fly will bother us. But a moth will beguile us. He keeps to himself. He will not badger, bug, bite, or bother us. He will not gnaw at us or make a lot of noise. He will simply hang out in the back of the closet and work in secret until it is too late.
Moths eat our clothes when they hang in our closets for long periods of time. Garments ruin because of lack of use. Likewise, when we guard our wealth instead of using it, it decays. WE do not see our riches being eaten away, but before we know it they are gone
Grain rots, garments ruin and gold rusts. James 5:3 says, “Your gold and silver are corroded.” Again, it is lack of use that causes decay. A hinge on a gate that hasn’t been opened in a long time can become corroded. A pair of pliers left outside can gather so much rust that they can hardly be opened. The Greek verb translated “corroded” is singular, indicating that James was speaking of gold and silver as a symbolic unit. HE was talking about assets that symbolize our wealth. The Greek preposition kata (The first part of katiotai) means “through,” indicating that the gold and silver are completely corroded. The point of the illustration is that unused wealth that is hoarded and guarded is decadent.
Most of us know that real gold will not rust. Therefore, James was also saying that our wealth is actually fool’s gold. It has no eternal value. What a disappointment to discover that what we thought was valuable is worthless. Guarded wealth is both deceitful and decadent. Wealth brings a false sense of security. The stock market is up one day and down the next. Money markets and financial accounts fluctuate from hour to hour. Riches are uncertain. James’ contemporaries experienced firsthand the deceptiveness of guarded wealth. Within a decade after James wrote his epistle, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and the Jews’ accumulated wealth was taken. This siege in A.D. 70 brought famine and disease. The situation was so bad that those who had been wealthy before were now reduced to demoralizing and depraved activities such as cannibalism.
IT is a mistake to think that security is found in wealth. It is also a mistake to think that it is good stewardship to guard our wealth. James 5:3 says that our corroded gold and silver will testify against us. Wealth is deceptive. The man James had in mind guarded his wealth in self-defense, but in the final analysis his wealth was used against him. How ironic. The question at the judgment seat of Christ is not going to be, “How much did you make?” The question will be, “What did you do with what you had?” Your money talks!
Hoarding our wealth affects not just ourselves, but others as well. James 5:3 says, “You have heaped up treasure in the last days.” The last days began with Christ’s ascension and will end with His second coming. We may be nearing the end of these last days. The question is, “How will we use our wealth in these days of tremendous evangelistic opportunity?” Too many of us guard wealth rather than give it to the Lord’s work.
James reminded us that these guarded resources will testify against us and eat our flesh like fire. They will expose us. This is a serious warning, not an irrelevant addendum. James’ words ought to make us sit up on the edge of our seats. There are many people who do not believe that ultimately they will be punished by God. They think of God only as a God of love. However, the same God who says that He is a God of love says that He is a God of justice.
God is as concerned with how we guard our wealth as He is with how we get it. What are we going to do with the money that we have hoarded up? One day each of us is going to die and someone else is going to spend it. In many cases, our money will only cause our heirs misery because it will take away their incentive to work. Our influence for good or bad will continue after we are gone. All the accounts are not in yet. This is why our judgment awaits Christ’s return. We will not be judged as soon as we die.
It I a great tragedy to come to the end of life and have treasure laid up in this world only. We came into this without anything and we will leave the same way. We do not own our possessions. They all belong to God, we are but stewards. People who hoard the possessions they think they own will one day weep and wail in misery (James 5:1).
Their problem was not in possession money, but in letting it possess them. Money is not the root of all evil. Paul said, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Those who are deceived into loving money will covet. Although “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:17) is the last of all the 10 Commandments, it may be the most dangerous commandment to break. Covetousness makes a person break the other nine commandments. David broke the seventh commandment— “You shall not commit adultery” — because he broke the tenth and coveted Bathsheba. Gehazi broke the eight commandment — “You shall not steal” — because he broke the tenth and coveted Naaman’s riches.
There is nothing wrong with money, but money that is guarded will never spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, money in the hands of a good steward can be a testimony. At the end of your life will you be considered a hoarder or a steward? Your Last Will and Testament is your last testimony. It is read at the end of your life, and it says what is really important to you. What does your will say as a testimony of Jesus Christ?
How we give it
“You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury…” James 5:5
Our money talks primarily by how we give it. Some people simply give their money to themselves in self-indulgence while others give it to the Lord to advance His kingdom. The man James had in mind gave his ill-gotten gains to himself. He “lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury” (James 5:5). The word for “luxury,” means “extravagant comfort, to lead a soft life.” The word for “self-indulgence,” means to give oneself to pleasure.” It is also found in 1 Timothy 5:6: “But she (the widow) who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives.” (See Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 for another example of someone who lived in luxury.)
James 5:3 continues, “You have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter.” This image communicates well to me because I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where the famous stockyards are on the north side of town at the beginning of the Old Chisolm Trail. If you were to walk the streets of the north side today you would see steers penned up in the stockyards. They are given the finest grain and do not realize that they are going to be slaughtered. Consequently, they eat and eat and eat, taking the pleasures of the moment. And the more they eat the quicker they will be led to the slaughterhouse. When they are all fattened up, the workers throw a little corn in front of the stupid steers and their desire for self-indulgence and luxury entices them right out of the pen and into the slaughterhouse next door.
James was saying that some of us are like those Texas steers. We just keep fattening ourselves, not knowing that we are hastening the day of our own slaughter. The slaughterhouse represents the judgment to come. Those who guard their wealth and give it only to themselves are blind to the fact that they are headed toward a day of reckoning. They follow their selfish appetites and are too blind to see that it is to the ruin of relationships or to the ruin of self-respect.
There are some supernatural laws that should govern our giving. The first is the law of clarification, which states that God owns all the wealth in this world and the next. In David’s words, “For all that is in heaven and in earth is Yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11). “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness” (Psalm 24:1).
The law of circulation states that God wants His wealth in circulation. In God’s economy the earth had one theme in the beginning: give, give, give. The sun gave. The earth gave. The animals gave. The man gave. The trees gave. But Satan came and introduced a new concept: get, get, get. Man became greedy and began to live by Satan’s philosophy, but God’s original design for the use of resources still applies.
The law of cooperation states that all of God’s wealth belongs to His children. The problem is that they are not cooperating with Him. Paul said, “We are heirs — heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).
Finally, the law of cultivation states that the way to appropriate God’s wealth is to give. We never reap until we sow. Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38). To coin a phrase, we are to “give out of God’s hand.” We are to reach into His unlimited resources and give from Him to others. What a privilege. Perhaps King David said it best: “For all things come from You, and of Your own we have given you” (1 Chronicles 29:14).
We live in a world where accumulation is the name of the game. Caught in this trap, many of us get everything we can and guard it as long as we can. Some of us foolishly think that the issue at the judgment bar of Christ will be, “How much have you accumulated?” or “How much have you guarded?” However, let’s not for a moment think our Righteous Judge will ever look at us and as, “How much did you make?” His question will be, “What kind of steward were you? What did you do with what I gave you?”
The fundamental danger inherent in having wealth lies in the fact that it can cause us to focus our complete attention on this world. We may begin to live for this world alone. Once we possess wealth, it may begin to possess us. The Christian must beware of this danger. He must get his wealth honestly, guard it loosely, and give it selflessly to Christ.
As we have seen, it is not what we guard but what we give that makes us rich. When we guard earthly treasure, it rots, ruins and rusts. And one day it will stand up to testify against us. Yes, your money talks Does it say, “Get me any way you can, whether it be through exploitation or expropriation?” Does it say, “Guard me, hold me tight, keep me, clutch me?” If so, you of all people are most miserable. Does your money say, “Spend me on yourself and no one else?” If so, it has become your master. Or does it say, “Give me away to others in the service of Jesus?” If so, you know the peace and joy that can only come from Jesus Christ.