What Money Can’t Do

James 1:9-11

December 9, 2014 | Ray Pritchard

Here are a few headlines from Black Friday, the shopping extravaganza that happens the day after Thanksgiving:

“Man stabs co-worker at Costco.”
“Shoppers brawl over Barbie Doll at Wal-Mart.”
“In England, 200 shoppers refuse to leave a store even after being told the stock was all gone.”
“Cops pry women off of TVs.”

I saw a Tweet about Black Friday from Ruth Buzzi. You may remember her from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. She put our annual craziness into perspective:

“Only in America can you give your life trying to save $12 on a Christmas gift.”

Whoever came up with the phrase “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” was definitely not talking about Black Friday. We get up early, dress warm, stand in line for hours, rush the front door, brave the crowds, and then get in a fistfight over Barbie Dolls to save a few bucks.

That leads me to our topic, “What Money Can’t Do.” When we see that title, we almost reflexively know part of the answer: Money can’t buy happiness.

How rich are you?

True enough, but as one wag suggested, money may not buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with. We all need money in order to stay alive. We have food to buy, a mortgage to pay or rent we owe, clothes we need, things we have to guy for our kids, gas for the car, and a barrel full of other obligations.

Money can’t buy happiness, but we’re reminded at Christmastime that we can’t live long without it.

So let me ask you a personal question: How rich are you? Do you consider yourself wealthy? Few of us would feel comfortable saying, “I’m rich.” If you are a Christian, you might say, “I’m rich in the Lord,” which is true but that’s not what I’m talking about.

How rich are you?

I found a website that gives us an instant answer to that question. It’s called the Global Rich List. Basically it compares your income with the average income of everyone else in the world and tells you where you stand. Let’s plug in a figure so you can see how it works. According to Forbes Magazine, the median household income for the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex is $58,000. The Global Rich List says that figure puts the average Dallas family in the upper .2% in the world.

Think about that for a moment.

If you made $58,000 this year, you made more than 99.8% of everyone on this planet. You may not feel rich, but compared to the rest of world, you’re doing just fine.

34% of the world lives on $2 a day

Let’s try that with some other figures.

If you made $40,000, you’re in the upper .6%.
If you made $20,000, you’re in the upper 4%.
If you made $10,000, you’re in the upper 16%.

To most of us $10,000 isn’t much money. We probably think we couldn’t survive on $10,000, but 84% of the world population makes less than that each year.

A Gallup survey of world income reports that 22% of the world lives on $1.25 per day. And 34% of the world lives on $2 per day. Let those figures sink in for a moment.

We think nothing of spending more than $2 on a cup of coffee. In America there isn’t much you can buy that costs less than $2, but that’s a day’s income for a third of the world.

If you happen to be among my American readers, be glad you live in the US. Less than 1% of Americans live at that extreme level of poverty.

My conclusion to this is quite simple: I’m rich and so are you. If you have a smartphone, you’re rich. If you have indoor plumbing, you’re rich. If you drive a car, you’re rich. If you have a credit card, you’re rich. If you have a job that pays you enough so you have a roof over your head, you’re rich.

If you have a smartphone, you’re rich

It happens that I’m sitting in a hotel lobby typing these words. I have my laptop in front of me, my iPhone at my side, an iPad upstairs, and a car in the parking lot. If you ask me, “Ray, do you feel rich?” I will immediately answer no. But compared to the rest of the world, I’m rich. Why deny the obvious?

The same is true for nearly everyone who reads these words. Let’s face it. If you’re trying to survive on $2 a day, you’re probably not reading this sermon. You’ve got bigger things on your mind, like where your next meal is coming from.

Money Does Weird Things

While preparing this message I ran across an article by Lynn Parramore called Seven Weird Things Money Does to Your Brain. The article is based on neuroeconomics, the study of how the brain makes decisions. Parramore states her thesis up front: “A lot of stuff is going on in our brains when we think about money.” She then cites seven examples:

1. Money kills empathy.

People say, “If only I had $10 million, I’d give it all to charity.” But they don’t mean it. Money actually makes you less likely to be generous.

2. Losing Money Hurts, Literally.

We hate losing money more than we love making money.

3. More Money = Fewer Ethics.

People who drive expensive cars are four times more likely to cut people off in traffic.

4. The more money you make, the more you think about money.

How much money is enough? As a rich man once remarked, “Just one more dollar.”

5. Men with a lot of testosterone do weird things with money.

Men are so wired for competition that we would rather see a rival lose than to win ourselves.

6. The brain treats credit different than cash.

All the marketers understand this. They know we spend 12-18% more with a credit card than if we were paying cash.

7. The wealthy are perceived as evil-doers.

The poor enjoy watching the wealthy suffer because the tendency to envy lies deep within all of us.

As we read that, let’s remember that we’re wealthy. We may not feel rich, but by the standards of the world we are. We’re not immune to any of those seven weird things money does to people.

Most of the early Christians were poor

It’s against that backdrop that we need to hear what God says about money in James 1:9-11. As we ponder these verses, remember that most of the early Christians were poor. As the gospel spread across the Roman Empire, it first impacted the lower strata of society, which is exactly what Jesus predicted in Matthew 11:5 when he said one mark of the Kingdom was “the poor have good news preached to them.” The coming of Christ brings about a great reversal of fortune in society. The proud are brought low, the humble are lifted up, and the poor hear the Good News of Jesus.

Since most of his readers were poor, James starts with them.

God’s Word to the Poor

“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation” (James 1:9a).

That’s so startling that we may miss the message. Here are a few other translations:

“Brothers and sisters who are poor should find satisfaction in their high status” (CEB).
“Believers who are poor should be glad that God considers them so important” (ERV).
“Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them” (NLT).

The Living Bible offers this paraphrase: “A Christian who doesn’t amount to much in this world should be glad, for he is great in the Lord’s sight.”

We need to think carefully about this. James is not saying, “If you are flat broke, rejoice that you just lost your job, can’t pay your mortgage, and your children are starving.” Obviously it’s better if you have a job and can take care of your family. But if you are a Christian, you have grounds for rejoicing even in the worst poverty. You have a reason to “boast” even when the world despises you. The world says, “You’re a bum,” but God says, “That’s my child.”

The world says, “You’re a bum,” but God says, “That’s my child”

God doesn’t keep score the way we do. We are impressed by people with money. We like the things that go with wealth—the bling, the flash, the trinkets, the toys, the fast cars, the big house, the vacation home, the jewelry, the jets, the bodyguards, the press coverage, and all the rest. If we didn’t love this stuff, Hollywood would disappear. If we didn’t love celebrities, TMZ would go out of business. If we didn’t secretly dream of getting rich quick, the casinos would go disappear and the state lotteries would go bust.

Even in the Christian world, we tend to magnify people with money. When a rich man comes to church, we make sure he gets the best parking space and the best seat in the house. (James will deal with this problem in chapter 2.) When someone rich or famous comes to Christ, we trot them out as a new “trophy of grace,” as if to say, “We have celebrities too.”

But God isn’t impressed with any of it.

The rich man and the poor man stand on the same ground before the Lord. Your net worth (or lack thereof) has no impact on your standing in heaven. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

The ground is level at the foot of the cross

We serve a God who speaks and the universe springs to life. He speaks and the stars twinkle in the night sky. He speaks and the eagles fly. He speaks and the rabbits hop. He speaks and the dolphins play in the water. He speaks and the mighty Rocky Mountains rise in the West.

Do you think he’s impressed that you drive a Beamer?
Do you think he’s impressed that you live in a gated community?
Do you think he’s impressed that you partied with Will Smith?
Do you think he’s impressed that you have Michael Jordan’s phone number?

Do you think God is impressed that you drive a Beamer?

But the reverse is also true. God doesn’t hold it against you that you are a single mom barely making ends meet. He’s not embarrassed that you don’t own a smartphone. He won’t kick you out because you live on the street.

James says that the poor should rejoice in this:

That they know the Lord.
That their sins are forgiven.
That they have new life in Christ.
That God is their Father.
That Jesus is their Lord.
That the Holy Spirit leads them.
That they are kings and priests before the Lord.

Oh my friends, we need to learn this truth. There are no second-class members of God’s family. If you’ve got money, a place to live, a good job, and if you enjoy many comforts, give thanks but do not boast in your blessings. Likewise, if at this moment you are barely making it, if you are out of a job, if your family is a mess, if your health is bad, if you feel forgotten and alone, if you wonder how you will make it, remember that your present condition does not determine your final destination.

Your present condition does not determine your final destination

Let me say that again: Your present condition does not determine your final destination. God has said that all his children will one day be with him in heaven. Some of us have an easier road through this life; others a much harder part. But we all get there the same way—by the grace and mercy of God.

So let those who are poor in this world rejoice that their current condition is not their final destination. In the things that matter most, the poorest Christian is richer than the richest man in the world.

God’s Word to the Rich

“And the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits” (James 1:9b-11).

James has more to say to the rich than to the poor. Money can be a major complicating factor in life. We love money, we need money, we want money, and sometimes we’ll do almost anything to get it. Money by itself is morally neutral. If I hold up a fistful of dollars, I can mesmerize an audience. I’ve done that very thing a number of times. I’ll open my billfold and take out all my cash, which these days isn’t much because we live in an essentially cashless society. But even if I only have $10-15 dollars, a funny thing happens when I hold it up. Every eye in the room fixes on those bills. I can talk all I want, but if I want people to look at me, I have to put my money away.

Money by itself is neither good nor evil

But those bills are just paper and ink. That’s all. By themselves dollar bills are not good or evil. It’s what you do with them that matters. But we fight and steal and kill and lie to get our hands on quick cash. We’ll do almost anything for a chance to get rich. That’s the awesome power of money.

In light of our frantic attempts to get more money, James says, “What’s the point? You can’t keep it anyway.”

You’re going to die someday and someone else will get your money.
What a downer!

You work so hard for a “nest egg” that will protect you, you build an empire, you buy a nicer home, you get a second car and then a third, and you have all the outward signs of financial success.

One day you feel a pain in your chest. And then . . .
Visitation Friday night 5-8 PM.
Funeral service at 10 AM Saturday.
Followed by a graveside service.
Followed by a reception in the Fellowship Hall.

“He looked so natural.”
“He just had a checkup.”
“He kept himself in good shape.”

No one stays rich forever because no one lives forever

“Plus he had all that money.”

Let’s pause over that last statement. He “had” all that money. The past tense is correct because he doesn’t have it now. Someone else has it. Maybe his kids, maybe his wife, maybe his business partners, maybe his creditors, maybe his enemies, maybe the hospital bills wiped him out. In any case, his fortune died with him.

That’s an old, old story, repeated in every generation. No one stays rich forever because no one lives forever. Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Stupidest line ever because you’re still dead in the end. And someone else has all those toys.

A Visit to the Cemetery

That’s James’ whole point. The rich man fades away. He vanishes, and his riches vanish with him. If you doubt my words, go to any cemetery in the world. Walk among the tombstones, read the inscriptions, study the epitaphs. Ponder the fate of those who are buried there. If you want to really see how this works, go to one of those old New England cemeteries where they have graves dating back to the 1600s. Some of the inscriptions are so weather-worn that you can hardly read them.

Are any rich people buried there? Yes.
Are any poor people buried there? Yes.

Now answer this question: What do the rich dead and the poor dead have in common? They are both dead. Actually, that question needs to be rephrased. There is no such thing as “rich dead” or “poor dead.” The dead exist as one complete category. The temporal distinctions we make don’t matter. A millionaire is just as dead as a pauper.

That’s the point James wants us to remember.

A millionaire is just as dead as a pauper

But in what sense should the rich “boast” about these facts? I think the answer goes like this. It is not wrong for a Christian to be rich. In this world some people will always have more money and some will always have less. The mere fact of wealth isn’t wrong, and it’s certainly not a sin to be rich. It’s what you do with your money that matters. Over the centuries wealthy Christians have built hospitals and orphanages and clinics in remote regions of the world. They have sponsored missionaries, founded schools, built colleges, endowed scholarships, and funded vast Kingdom enterprises. I thank God for wealthy Christians who have a generous spirit and a heart for the cause of Christ. Where would we be without them?

We need the folks who can give $100 a month, and we also need the folks who can write a check for $5 million. Both are serving the Lord in their own way.

So should the rich Christians boast in their wealth? No, because God gave it to them. Should they boast in their giving? As a rule, giving is best kept private except when our good example can motivate others to give generously. Should they boast in their houses and lands? No, because that will soon be gone anyway.

“You Brought Pavement?”

Remember the words of Jeremiah 9:23-24.

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me.

In the end the rich man and the poor man stand in exactly the same place. They are both 100% dependent on the grace and mercy of God. It may not seem that way at first glance. Certainly the rich man in Beverly Hills appears to be better off than the man who lives in the slums of Mumbai. But appearances are deceiving. If the poor man knows the Lord and the rich man doesn’t, both now and in eternity the poor man is much better off.

Money can’t buy you a place in heaven

Money can do many good things if you use it rightly. But here’s one thing money can’t do. It can’t buy you a place in heaven. I love the story of the rich man who on his death bed negotiated with God for permission to bring his earthly treasures with him to heaven. Because of the man’s unusual faithfulness, God granted his request, with the stipulation that he could only bring one suitcase with him. When the time arrived, the man presented himself at the pearly gates, struggling to carry the heavy suitcase he had stuffed with bars of gold. St. Peter said, “Sorry, you know the rules–you can’t take it with you.” But the man protested, “God said I could bring one suitcase with me.” After checking, St. Peter found out that the exception had indeed been granted. Just before he let the man enter, St. Peter said, “Okay, but I will have to examine the contents first.” When he saw the gold bars, he asked quizzically, “You brought pavement?”

The things we value so highly on earth will be like pavement on the streets of heaven.

How God Prefers to Work

No, you can’t take your money with you. Your ATM card won’t work at the Bank of Heaven. The only thing that matters is using what God has given you for Kingdom purposes, investing for eternity so that one day the Lord may say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

It is good to think about these things as Christmas draws near. The birth of Christ shows us how God prefers to work. When God wanted to send his Son into the world, he picked the most unlikely girl he could find to be the mother. He picked a forgotten province in the Roman Empire. He arranged for his Son to become a part of the hated Jewish race. Then he found the most unlikely hometown and arranged for his Son to be born in a stable and take his first nap in a feeding trough.

God doesn’t do business with the proud

Jesus was born that way in order to show us how God does business. He doesn’t do business with the proud. He doesn’t run with the rulers of the world. He doesn’t side with the rich. God is at home with the humble, the tired, the weak, and the lowly of this world. He does business with those who fear his name.

We sometimes say, “God helps those who help themselves,” but that’s not in the Bible. It would be more accurate to say God helps those who can’t help themselves and aren’t ashamed to admit it.

Christmas shows us that when God wants to save the world, he starts in a manger. The message is clear. Don’t despair because of your poverty, don’t be proud because of your wealth. If we will humble ourselves and come to Christ, he will save us just as we are, whether rich or poor.

Let him who boasts boast in the Lord. Nothing else matters.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?