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Troublesome Truth

Manuscript from this past week’s message from James 5:1-6 at Mission Hills Church:

The Case for Condemnation

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.3 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.  (James 5:1-3)

Fun, right?

OK, let’s get something straight first: James is saying this to a group of people we might call the “wicked wealthy.” These are people who were making life very hard for the Christians that James originally wrote this letter to. We have to remember that this book was written to Jewish people who were being persecuted for their faith in Jesus. Because of their faith in Jesus, they had been run out of Israel, so they found themselves in foreign countries having to do whatever they could to survive. Typically, that meant they ended up working in the fields of rich landowners who often took advantage of them, knowing that they didn’t have the legal or social resources to defend themselves. Those are the people James is talking about here, ok? He’s basically pronouncing a judgment against what we might call the “wicked wealthy.” And he’s doing it to comfort his audience. He’s saying “hold on. This isn’t going to last forever. The people who have made your lives so hard aren’t going to get away with it.  Their judgment is coming.” That’s the primary purpose of this passage. to comfort those who are being oppressed by the wicked wealthy.

But here’s where things get a little tricky for me.  See, on the one hand, to accurately handle God’s Word here, I need to make it absolutely clear that James isn’t pronouncing judgment on everyone who has money. Having wealth doesn’t automatically make you wicked. In fact, if we study the Bible carefully, one of the things we find is that, in addition to the “wealthy wicked”, there are also people we might call the “righteous rich.”  So it’s possible to follow Jesus faithfully and have money. But…and this is important…it’s harder. It’s an inconvenient truth, but we have to acknowledge it: Money competes with Jesus for our trust.

It just does. That’s why there are so many warnings in the Bible about money.  That’s why Jesus himself said “it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” Because money competes with Jesus for our trust.

So, while the judgment in this passage isn’t being spoken against Christians, that doesn’t mean that we can just ignore what James says here.  We still have to ask whether – and to what degree – we are tempted to make the same mistakes when it comes to money.

There are basically two mistakes that James highlights here when it comes to money:

Mistake #1 – We can trust in our stuff rather than our Savior.

That’s the point of saying that their wealth has rotted, moths have eaten their clothes and their gold and silver are corroded. He’s saying “you’ve taken your stand on your wealth, but it’s rotted out from under you. You’ve put on your fancy clothes to show people how successful you are, but moths have eaten holes in them and you don’t look successful, you look like a fool. You’ve looked to your gold and silver as evidence of your value, but they’re corroded, demonstrating that they’re not pure.” He even goes on to say that their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. Obviously not literally…the literal tarnish on gold and silver doesn’t eat away your flesh, but you see what he’s saying:  the very things that you’ve trusted in are turning against you, testifying against you.

But how do we know if we’re trusting our stuff rather than our savior? I think one of the easiest thing we can do is simply ask ourselves this question: Key Question: How emotionally invested am I in my stuff? Jesus said “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. What he was saying is that our hearts naturally get attached to the things that we trust in.  In other words, we become emotionally invested in the things that we’re trusting in. So one of the easiest ways to tell if we’re placing too much trust in our stuff is to ask how much emotional investment we have in our stuff.  If we are worried and anxious about our bank accounts, our stock values, our house values or whatever…that can be a powerful indicator of where our trust is.

Mistake #2 – We can forget the purpose of our possessions.

Notice that James say, “you have hoarded wealth in the last days.” Now, we tend to fixate on the wrong word here. Our attention tends to be grabbed by the phrase “the last days”, but that’s not the most important phrase here. James only mentions the “last days” as a way of saying “time is running out to get this right.” Jesus has risen from the dead, so we’re in the last phase of history here, guys. And he could come back at any time, so you don’t have the luxury of waiting to get this right. He’s creating a sense of urgency.  Ok? That’s why he mentions “last days” but that’s not the key phrase here is “you have hoarded wealth.”

“Hoarded” is the key word. Notice that he doesn’t say that they have “collected” or they have “gathered”. He says they have “hoarded.” There’s a huge difference. “Collecting” and “gathering” are essentially neutral terms. They about the process of getting stuff, but they don’t say anything about the purpose of getting stuff.  But hoarding is all about the purpose. To hoard is to collect with no other purpose than to have. And that’s not why God gives us resources.  God never gives resources just to have them.  He gives us resources, whether that’s time, talent or treasure, for his glory and others’ good.  But, hoarders collect for the pleasure of having instead of the purpose of helping.

So how do we know if we’re in danger of making this mistake? I think one of the things we can do is ask ourselves Key Question: Am I more excited about having or helping?

But the people James was pronouncing judgment against here were far more excited about having than helping. What James does next is present the evidence to support his pronouncement:

Evidence for Conviction

4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.  5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (James 5:4-6)

There are essentially three charges that James brings against these people.  And again, this was spoken against those people who were oppressing the Christians James was writing to, but as followers of Jesus, it’s critical that we search our hearts and make sure that there’s no evidence that we’re guilty of the same charges:

  1. Charge #1 – You have denied others what you owe them.

That’s the first charge. He says, “the wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.” In other words, there are people who have provided you a service that you haven’t paid for.

How would that apply to us? Well, obviously, if you have employees under you and you withhold their paychecks, that would be an obvious application. But what about…[Illustrations]

Now, just in case we’re tempted to think “well, it’s really not that big of a deal”, James adds “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”  “Lord Almighty” there is a reasonable translation, but there’s an element that doesn’t quite come across that way. The literal translation would be “Lord of Sabaoth”, but of course that doesn’t mean much to us. “Sabaoth” is a Hebrew word that means “armies” so what James says is that the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Armies.” The point is that God will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves…so you better make sure you’re not picking a fight with Him

  1. Charge #2 – You have denied yourself nothing.

That’s the second charge. He says “you have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter.” What he’s saying here is kind of the opposite of the first charge.  He says “you’ve denied people what you owe them, but you’ve denied yourself nothing.”

He’s talking about people who help themselves to whatever they want, but refuse to help others even though they’re in a position to help.

I remember once years ago being at the vet and this woman came in with a Dachshund that was so fat it’s feet literally couldn’t touch the ground.  It was at once the saddest and funniest thing I’ve ever seen. When the receptionist saw this thing, she asked the woman how much she fed it and she said “I just keep his bowl full. He stops eating when he’s had enough.” That’s the kind of person James is talking about. The kind of person who indulges themselves.

Now this is going to get uncomfortable. I’d rather not make anyone uncomfortable, but my first priority is speaking the truth in love. And in that spirit, I would be an unfaithful preacher if I didn’t point out that this is a huge danger for Christians living in the Western world in general and in the United State particularly.

The average American spends about $1,200 a year on coffee. Let’s put that in perspective: Compassion International can provide food, medical checkups, educational assistance and the Gospel to a child in a third world country for $456 a year. That means for what we spend on coffee each year, we could sponsor a child for 2 ½ years.

Fortunately, I don’t drink coffee, so I’m in the clear on this one! But I have to pay attention to how much I spend on eating out, on my Mountain Dew, on my Netflix and Hulu subscriptions.

Now here’s the thing: There’s nothing inherently wrong with buying yourself a cup of coffee or with having a Netflix subscription.  The issue we have to wrestle with is whether or not the way we indulge ourselves is keeping us from helping those in need. And there’s no easy answer. I can’t say it has to be 50/50 or 75/25 or whatever. But we have to wrestle with it. It’s not fun to wrestle with…and I know at this point that most of you are wishing you hadn’t come to church today. Because you’re uncomfortable. Well, welcome to my world. This is what my whole week has felt like as I’ve been forced to ask myself these difficult questions. I’m not going to give you simple answers, but I am going to challenge you to ask yourself the hard questions, because asking ourselves the hard questions about how we spend our money is the first step towards living with financial integrity.

The people that James is pronouncing judgment against didn’t ask those kinds of questions. They simply indulged themselves with no thought to helping others.

  1. Charge #3 – You have harmed instead of helped

That’s the third charge. He says “You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” Now, there’s a big debate among scholars here about whether or not James is being literal or figurative. Is he talking about actual murder or is he just talking about hurting others and using really dramatic language to make his point?

I actually think he’s probably doing both. Notice that he doesn’t just say “you have murdered”…he says “you have condemned and murdered.” That condemned word is a common legal term. It refers to a legal pronouncement against someone.  It’s also interesting that he uses the phrase “innocent one” because that’s also a legal term. What he seems to be talking about is rich people using the legal system to take advantage of the poor, like when rich landowners refuse to pay their workers and use their influence with the judges to have their worker’s claims thrown out. And you might think, “ok, that’s bad, but it’s not exactly murder” but for the truly poor, it can be. Without that paycheck, they can’t pay the rent, so they can end up out on the streets with no food.  That can lead to death even in the modern world; it was even more likely to lead to death in the ancient world.

So I think that James is using dramatic language here, but I don’t think he’s being entirely dramatic.  There’s probably literal truth to what he says here.

Now, I would hope that no sincere follower of Jesus would be guilty of harming those we could have helped.  But it happens. And it doesn’t happen because any follower of Jesus would ever set out to do that but simply because money can very easily corrupt us.

Wrapping It Up

Listen, I really don’t like preaching passages like this. I also don’t like reading passages like this, but it seems like they show up a lot in the bible. And I get it. It’s not that money is evil or that riches automatically disqualify us from heaven. It’s just that dollars are dangerous, right? That’s the troublesome truth when I titled this week’s message.  Dollars are dangerous. The more money we have, the more temptation we face to transfer our trust to it.

And there’s another troublesome truth that you and I have to come to grips with: when the bible talks about the dangers of wealth, it’s very easy for us to think that its talking to someone else. But the simple fact is that most of us in this room are rich. It might not feel like it, but it all depends on who you compare yourself to. If I compare myself to Bill Gates, then I’m basically destitute. But if, instead of looking at those who have more, we look at those who have less, we realize that most of the world has less. Listen: if you can drive your car to Starbucks and pay cash for a Unicorn Frappucino, you’re wealthy in a way that most of the world can’t even begin to imagine.

And you don’t have to feel guilty about that. But you do have to recognize that wealth is dangerous.  It’s effect on us has to be monitored closely and we have to put safeguards in place in order to limit its potentially negative influence on us.

I’d like to suggest two such safeguards:

Safeguard #1 – change your perspective on its purpose. Remember that money is a blessing and, as is the case with every blessing:  God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others.

Safeguard #2 – Get out front of its influence.

III.  Conclusion

If I were accused of being the wicked rich James is talking about, would my bank statement be evidence for the prosecution or the defense?

What do I need to do to right what’s wrong?

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