What is the purpose of life? According to one bumper sticker: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Look at almost every area of life and it would seem to point in that direction. Education is not just to broaden the mind or create well rounded people but to train people for a lucrative career. People seek jobs, not that are the most fulfilling or provide flexibility for family time, but those that pay well and have the most potential for promotion. Instead of seeking friendship, people pursue networking opportunities, contacts that will open up opportunities for further advancement. Even some Christians see their faith, not as a way to become closer to God or to become more compassionate, but as ways to get rich. Is the purpose of life to get rich? Does being rich mean that we have reached the pinnacle of life, that we have achieved our purpose and are enjoying the ultimate blessing of God? James provides a very counter-cultural answer to this by saying that the rich are actually in a very dangerous place. Before going too far, I have to make some clarifications. It is not a sin to be rich, nor it virtuous to be poor. There are examples of godly people in the Bible who were rich. At the same time, there have been some very sinful poor people. The point of James‘ teaching is not that our ticket to heaven is determined by the money we have in our bank account. Rather, James is exposing some of the dangers of being rich. His harsh language is because he is thinking of a particular group of rich people who have already crossed the line. In case we think this does not apply to us because we are not rich, let us compare ourselves not with millionaires in Toronto, but with the rest of the planet and we will see that in proper perspective we are among the rich.
My dad used to tell me that there was nothing more important than money. His reason was that he grew up in poverty. He knew what it meant to go without, living in a family of twelve children. There were many times that there was not enough to eat. He never wanted me to go through that. So he preached the power of money. The truth is, it is nice to have enough money to pay the bills and feed the family. I have never wished that I was poorer or that my family was less provided for. As a church, we cannot go to our utility providers and say we don’t have money to pay the bills but our people really love Jesus. A certain amount of money comes in real handy. The problem is when people become over reliant on money. It might feel at the time that money is a secure foundation to build a life but people can find out the hard way, that it is not. During the recent recession, individuals and organizations saw their investments wiped out in the blink of an eye. People who had the high paying jobs with all the perks suddenly found themselves out of work. Buy that expensive car, build that huge house, dress yourselves in the most expensive clothes. All of those things will disappear eventually. Wealth will fail at some point or another. You could be the richest person in the world, but when you are on your death bead, you cannot buy yourself out of death. James tells us “Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded.” (James 5:2–3 NIV) Jesus said something similar. “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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21 ESV) The problem is not that wealth is the best we have but unfortunately it has limitations. The point is that there is a much better foundation, a foundation of love and trust in God. God’s faithfulness is the only thing that lasts and it is the only thing that we should trust in.
Okay, maybe riches will fail eventually, but that does not mean riches are bad. We might as well enjoy wealth for what it is good for and it seems to be good for quite a bit. So why is James so critical? We have to understand that James has a specific kind of rich person in mind. We are not talking about a person who has inherited a fortune or who has personally worked hard to make money. We are talking about people who have decided to be rich and were willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. You see there is an easier way to get rich than to arrange for your own birth to rich parents or to work really hard. The easiest way to get rich is to take advantage of others. That was true two thousand years ago and it is true today. There is a reason that there are so many scams out there. This was particularly effective in James‘ day. There were no legal system, labour union or advocacy groups looking out for the poor working man. If you wanted to rip off your workers, there really was no one who would stop you. While there may be some limitations of this kind of abuse today, the principle remains the same. Once we set as our life goal the amassing of wealth, it will continually tempt us to take advantage of others. There is only so much wealth out there and so we have to take from others so we can have it. Treat employees poorly. Mislead investors. Sell substandard products. Whatever it takes, that wealth must be attained. James warns: “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.” (James 5:4 NIV) Paul understood the dangers of an all consuming love for money. “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.” (1 Timothy 6:10 ESV) It is not money that is the root of evil, it is the love of money which can tempt us to do things that we know are wrong. Be aware of this temptation.
As we reflect on the dangers of wealth, one of the things that we must think about is our motivation for gaining wealth. For some people, the desire for a better job or a bigger house is very much about taking care of their families. Others seek to start a successful business because they want to financially support the local church and other charities. These are good motivations. But let’s be honest, even if a person starts out that way, it is very easy for the quest to become about personal greed. I want that better car, that better house, that more prestigious job, more new toys and more exotic vacations. It may be all about pleasure or comfort or trying to impress others. The point is that it becomes all about self. What’s wrong with that? The Christian message is that life is not about self, rather it is about loving God and loving other people. It is not wrong to ever enjoy something for yourself. The problem is when self-indulgence becomes our goal in life. James puts it this way: “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” (James 5:5 NIV) We can see a hint of this in this conversation between Jesus and a rich man: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”” (Mark 10:21–23 ESV) Why is it so hard for the rich? Jesus asks for devotion to himself and compassion for others. How do you do that if you have trained yourself to use your energy and resources for your personal desires? It is a challenge but thankfully not impossible.
Why does James bring all this up? Doesn’t he risk offending some rich people and losing some important tithes? Perhaps, but there is a very important reason to take a strong position. The kind of unhealthy attitudes toward wealth fall under God’s judgment. It is not that God looks at these attitudes and actions and says “I personally wouldn’t do that, but to each their own.” God takes a much tougher stand on this, especially when it includes taking advantage of the poor. James reminds us: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.” (James 5:1 NIV) Could James really mean this? Could God really judge a person just because they focused on wealth and abused the poor? “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried,and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame. ’But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’” (Luke 16:19–26 ESV)
What is the point of all this? Is it that our eternal destiny is dependent on the money, or lack thereof, in our account? Not at all. But the message is very important. Society tells us that money is everything and we should do whatever it takes to make more, God has a different attitude toward money. God knows the limitations of wealth, he understands the temptations attached to wealth, he does not want our lives consumed by wealth. If we go down that path, worshipping wealth, not only will our life suffer, we will find ourselves under the judgment of God. That does not mean that we have to give away all we own. It does mean that we must check our attitudes, reflect on our actions and determine to use our resources in a godly way.