4 Warnings to the Wealthy

James 5:1-6

April 12, 2018 | Ray Pritchard

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How rich are you?

Before you answer that question, let me ask another one:

How rich do you feel?

If you are like most people, you will probably give different answers to those questions. For one thing, “rich” is a relative term. Compared to Bill Gates, most of us are not rich. In fact, compared to him most of us are dirt poor. I’m not rich if Bill Gates is the starting point.

Most of us don’t feel rich

But let’s do the math another way. You can find out how you compare with the rest of the world by consulting the Global Rich List. By entering your annual income and pressing a button, you can find out where you stand. It’s easy, quick, and a bit unnerving, especially for those of us who don’t feel rich.

Here are some startling results:

If you make $60,000 a year, you are in the upper .2% of everyone in the world.

If you make $50,000, you’re in the upper .3%.
If you make $40,000, you’re in the upper .6%.

Suppose we drop the figure down to $20,000 a year. That puts you in the upper 4%. That means you make more than 96% of the people in the world.

Let’s go down to $10,000 a year. That puts you in the upper 16%. You make more than 84% of the people in the world.

When the Gallup organization surveyed world income, they discovered that 22% of the world population lives on less than $1.25 per day and 34% lives on less than $2 per day.

We can say this another way. The average American household has an annual income of around $65,000. This obviously varies greatly by region and by population group, but we can use it as a starting point. If you live in the United States, you should be glad because you’re in the upper 1% of world income.

What I’m saying is, we’re rich. We may not feel rich (we probably don’t), and as we approach tax time in the US, we may feel pinched and squeezed and frustrated. But in absolute terms, we’re rich.

If you have a cellphone, you’re rich

If you have a . . .

Cell phone,
Closet full of clothes,

You’re rich.

There is no need to feel ashamed and no need to dance around the truth. If you’ve got food in your pantry and clean water to drink, you’re doing better than millions of people around the world.

The question is not, “Do we have money?” but rather “What is our money doing to us?”

Not Just Mark Zuckerberg

That brings us to our text: James 5:1-6. These verses contain a fearful denunciation of rich people who use their wealth to hurt the poor. It reads like something one of the Old Testament prophets might have written.

It is a scathing indictment of the rich.
It offers no hope, but simply announces judgment from God.
There is no call to repentance.
There is no good news at all.

No good news!

These words are so harsh that we instinctively assume he must be talking about someone else. We think about the super-rich found on the Forbes Billionaire List, people like Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Does James 5:1-6 apply to them? Well, yes, James is certainly thinking about the richest of the rich. But it also includes people like you and me, which feels odd because most people I know don’t think of themselves as rich. They would probably say they are in the middle class.

The term “middle class” is a recent phenomenon. In ancient Israel, you had very rich people at the top of the ladder, and a whole lot of poor people at the bottom, and not very many in-between.

You were rich or you were poor.
And there were a lot more poor people.

We should note one other thing before jumping into the text. The Bible talks about money a lot. In the broadest sense, you can find something about money (or the things money can buy) on almost every page of the Bible. Money is life, and life is money. Ecclesiastes 10:19 even says, “Money is the answer for everything.” That’s true. You can’t live very long on planet earth without money. You either have it, save it, earn it, borrow it, or perhaps you steal it. Money is the currency of life. Without it, you are in big trouble.

Money is the currency of life

Suppose I hold up five twenty-dollar bills in my hand. Are those five bills evil in themselves? The answer is no. Those bills are just black and green ink on paper. They have no moral value. They are not “good” or “evil.” They are just twenty-dollar bills.

Money isn’t good or evil.
It’s what we do with money that matters.

I could use the money to buy a hungry man a meal, or I could use the money to buy illegal drugs.

The question is not, should we make money? We all need money to survive. The real question is, how will we use what God has given us?

In this text we find four warnings for the wealthy. Since we are wealthy compared to most people in the world, these words are for us.

Warning # 1: Wealth Can Make Us Arrogant

“Come now, you rich,
              weep and howl for the miseries
              that are coming upon you.

Your riches have rotted
             and your garments are moth-eaten.

Your gold and silver have corroded,
             and their corrosion will be evidence against you
            and will eat your flesh like fire.
You have laid up treasure in the last days” (vv. 1-3).

In the first century, there were three main indicators of wealth. You could grow crops, or you could sell fabric, or you could store up gold and silver. Look what James says about each of those indicators:

Your crops have rotted.
Your garments are moth-eaten.
Your gold and silver has corroded.

Money talks. It says “Goodbye!”

We need to hear this because we live in a world that values money above everything else. Money makes us think we’re safe. Money buys us influence, it opens doors, it allows us to have houses and cars and boats and planes and nice clothes and fancy jewelry.

Money makes us think we can get away with anything. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “other” Golden Rule: “The man with the gold makes the rules.” We’ve all seen how this works. If you’ve got money, you can get out of trouble. You can hire lawyers who can work the system to get you off even when you are guilty. If you have enough money, you can gain entrance to the highest levels of society. You don’t have to fly economy, and you don’t have to fly first class. You can buy your own plane to take you wherever you need to go.

You can’t take it with you

When a rich man dies, we always ask, “How much did he leave?” The answer is always the same: He left it all. Billy Graham remarked that he had never seen a Brinks truck following a hearse. When you die, someone else will get your house, your car, your office, and your money. An Italian proverb reminds us that “the last robe has no pockets.”

Naked we came into the world.
Naked we will leave.

I saw a bumper sticker that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That’s so stupid. You end up dead, toys or no toys.

Warning # 2: Wealth Can Make Us Cruel

“Behold, the wages of the laborers
             who mowed your fields,
             which you kept back by fraud,
are crying out against you,
and the cries of the harvesters have
             reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (v. 4).

Now James asks us to consider an evil abuse of power.

In the first century, many farm workers were essentially day laborers. We might call them migrant workers in today’s terminology. They were hired by the owner and paid by the day.

So here we have a rich man with a vast estate. Because he has many fields that need harvesting, he must hire many men to work for him. Those men worked from sunrise to sundown, depending on the owner to keep his word and pay them at the end of each day.

The man who has the gold makes the rules

Let’s suppose a certain worker arrives on Monday and works all day. In the evening when he should be paid, the owner says, “I’m sorry. I don’t have the money, but work for me tomorrow and I’ll pay you for two days.” The fellow grumbles but agrees to come back and work on Tuesday. That evening the boss makes another excuse: “My foreman got busy, so we don’t have the money. Come back and work for me tomorrow.” Same thing happens on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Now the man is desperate because he’s got a family to feed. When he confronts the owner, the rich man laughs and says, “Don’t mess with me or you’ll never get your money.” So the worker goes home to his family with nothing to show for a week of hard work. He’s angry and worried and desperate to care for his wife and children. But what can he do? The system is rigged against him.

This sort of thing happens all the time, with the details slightly changed. The owner makes a promise and then changes his mind. Or he says, “The check is in the mail,” but he doesn’t mean it. If you complain, he says, “You’re fired!” What do you do then?

This is what I meant earlier when I mentioned “the one who has the gold makes the rules.” Money buys influence, power, and protection from prosecution. The rich know how to use their cash to bend the legal system in their direction.

Knowing all this, James issues a stern warning. God hears the cries of the oppressed who call out to him day and night. He sees what the rich man does, and he knows how he uses his wealth to crush the poor. The cries of the workers reach the ears of the Lord of the Harvest.

Injustice will not last forever

Here’s the message in one sentence: The man who cheats the poor will be dealt with by a God who is big enough to do something about it.

Wealth can protect you from many things on earth, but it cannot protect you against the judgment of God.

He sees!
He hears!
He knows!

Injustice will not last forever.

Warning # 3: Wealth Can Make Us Self-Indulgent

“You have lived on the earth
              in luxury and in self-indulgence.
You have fattened your hearts
             in a day of slaughter” (v. 5).

There is a cause and effect in this third warning. Because the rich have lived in luxury, they have fattened their hearts in a day of slaughter. The heart of the problem is always the problem of the heart.

Money is morally neutral

Just as money itself is morally neutral, having money is not intrinsically good or evil. The poor are not more righteous because of their poverty, and the rich are not necessarily more evil because of their wealth. Righteousness doesn’t depend on the size of your bank account.

But riches can trick you into thinking you don’t need God. After all, if you’ve got enough money, you can create your own “heaven on earth.” It’s not real, and it won’t last, but money has tremendous power to feed our delusions.

Money feeds our delusions

In this case, the rich men James is talking about had fattened themselves at the expense of their workers. Their greed blinded them to the needs of others. They rationalized their sin by saying, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world. This is how business gets done. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Anyway, it’s not my problem.”

Unfortunately for those who think like that, a day of slaughter is coming, and God will start with the rich pigs.

# 4: Wealth Can Make Us Ruthless

“You have condemned and murdered
             the righteous person.
He does not resist you” (v. 6).

The word translated “condemned” comes from the courtroom. It means to pass a guilty verdict in a very personal way. In this case, the rich used the legal system to destroy the poor.

Rich people know how to work the system

Let me go back to the example I gave earlier. That poor day laborer has been ripped off by the man who promised to pay him but lied to his face. So the laborer gathers up what money he has and tries to bring the wealthy man to court. We all know how this story ends. The rich have all the advantages. They can hire the best lawyers who know how to craft the most powerful arguments. The rich can pay off the judge to make sure they get the verdict they want. Rich people can hire a PR firm to manipulate the news in their favor. They can plant articles to make themselves look good. They can turn the truth upside down so the poor man has no chance. When he tries to win in court, the judge not only rules against him, he sends the poor man to prison, bankrupting him in the process. Meanwhile the rich man laughs about it with his buddies on the golf course.

That poor man is as good as dead. It’s a form of judicial murder, and it happens all the time.

The Only “Innocent Man”

It is often said that James (who was the half-brother of the Lord Jesus) never mentions the crucifixion. That’s true in the literal sense. But he may be thinking of Jesus when he writes about “the innocent man” in verse 6. Behind the poor man stands the Lord himself.

You find out what you believe when others mistreat you

He was truly innocent.

Though he had done no wrong, he was sentenced to death. Wicked men plotted against him and suborned perjury against him. They twisted his words, they stirred up the crowd, and they backed Pilate into a corner so he would send Jesus to be crucified.

They murdered the Son of God to satisfy their bloodlust.

Note one other fact. James says that this “innocent man” does not resist his accusers. The poor man doesn’t resist because he can’t resist. He is helpless against the rich who mistreat him. But Jesus had all the power in the world, yet he chose not to use it.

When they scourged him, he didn’t retaliate.
When the soldiers put the crown of thorns on his head, he didn’t curse at them.
When they drove the nails in his hands and feet, he didn’t threaten them.
When bystanders spat at him, he didn’t spit back.
When they swore at him, he didn’t swear back.

My bank account is not my enemy

If you follow Jesus, this will happen to you too. That’s the real test of your faith. You find out what you believe when others mistreat you. Sometimes the real test of your faith is what you don’t do. Sometimes you’ll be a better Christian by not saying anything at all.

The Man in the Mirror

This text reminds us that the problem is not in the money. The problem lies in the human heart. My enemy is not my bank account. My enemy is the man in the mirror who worries too much about his bank account.

In a real sense, money is like bait on a hook. Satan uses money to get us hooked into greed and self-indulgence. He uses our money to turn us away from generosity toward the poor. He uses our money to make us think the measure of a man is his bottom line.

Your money will testify for you or against you

But against all that we have the words of Jesus in Luke 12:15, “Life is not measured by how much you own” (NLT). I saw an internet meme showing a mansion next to a hovel. Underneath were two identical graves dug into the ground. It couldn’t be clearer. We all end up dead eventually, and the grave for the rich looks exactly like the grave for the poor.

What Will Your Money Say?

I am struck by what James says in verse 1 about our money testifying about us in the last day. When you stand before the Lord, your money will be a witness for or against you. What will your money say about you?

“He built a great empire.”
“She always dressed in the latest fashions.”
“They lived like royalty.”

“He cared about the poor.”
“She invested in the Great Commission.”
“They used their money to help others.”

How you spend your money is a gospel issue

It should be clear from what I have written that I feel the pinch of this text. We can’t squirm out from under the biting impact of what James writes. In some deep sense, all of life is about money and time, and there really isn’t a third category. When we stand before the Lord, we’ll have to answer for how we spent our time and how we spent our money.

May the Lord deliver us from greed that destroys every good intention and blinds us to the hurting world around us. May we who are rich in this world’s goods be as generous to others as God has been generous to us.

How you spend your money is a gospel issue. You needn’t feel guilty about having money or being blessed beyond what you deserve. We all deserve hell, and apart from Jesus, that’s where we will all end up. Be thankful for the grace of God that has saved you, and then pray that grace may reach all the way to your pocketbook.

Let’s review the four warnings in our text:

Wealth can make us arrogant.
Wealth can make us cruel.
Wealth can make us self-indulgent.
Wealth can make us ruthless.

Hold lightly what you value greatly

 We must not think this couldn’t happen to us. Money does weird things to the brain. Apart from God’s grace, we may become enslaved to our money and insensitive to the needs of others.

In the end we come back to a familiar theme. Hold lightly what you value greatly because it isn’t yours anyway. Everything you have is a gift from God. Hold your blessings lightly. Don’t be afraid to let go of the things you own. You never really “owned” them anyway. All of life is on loan from God. One day we will give back everything to the Lord, even the life he gave us in the beginning.

Don’t be a fool!
Let go of the things you own.

Hold lightly what you value greatly.
It all belongs to God anyway.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?