Self Indulgence or Patience in Suffering, Which Would You Choose?
James 5:1-12 Psalm 146 Luke 18:18-29
As we deal with this very difficult section of the letter, let me make one thing very clear right at the beginning. When James speaks here to the rich, he is speaking to believers. That is, he is addressing those who would want to be identified as people of faith…church members…Christians. There is no need for any believer or Christian teacher, like James or me, for that matter, to ever speak this way to non-believers. A non-believer’s decision to reject the gospel has already sealed their fate and excludes them from access to the kingdom. What is more, even if non-believers are generous with their wealth, treat their workers justly and don’t cheat or steal from anyone, they still won’t have access to the kingdom unless they surrender their lives to Christ. You just can’t earn your way in. So, James is speaking here specifically to wealthy Christians on the one hand and poor believers on the other.
With that in mind, let’s have a closer look at the passage. James’ words seem, at first, to be very harsh, but they are…in fact, a very necessary warning. The people he is addressing have forgotten one very important fact. In fact, I would suggest to you that both groups are being warned here. Here is why. All the land and all of the wealth accumulated from it, does not belong to the people. Regardless of their station in life or the role they have been given in society, everything that they hold in their hands, rich or poor, belongs to God, and not to them. As George Stulac points out in his commentary on the passage, they…we are merely tenants. That status as tenants comes with different kinds of responsibility that are dependent upon where in the hierarchy of the tenant organization we have been called to serve. And we are all, rich or poor, as Christian believers, called into God’s service.
So, let’s deal first with the wealthy. I was reading in Mark’s gospel this week and in Friday’s reading Jesus spoke of what happens to different groups of those who have come to faith. In Mark.4:7, Jesus said, Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. He explained the teaching to his disciples this way, Mark.4:18-19 (NLT) The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. This is also what James is addressing in our passage. Those who have become distracted by the pursuit of wealth will indeed fall away and unless they repent and return will (James 5:1b), weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.
Now, let’s go back for a moment to what I said at the beginning. The rich Christians have been given responsibility as stewards of God’s wealth to use it to fulfil God’s purposes for his people and his creation. Those who James is addressing here have forgotten that calling and begun to desire and think of the wealth as their own. Their focus has been taken away from the Creator and his purposes, and directed on the created and what it can do for them. However desirable and self-filling that might appear in the moment, James makes the point here that it is all temporary. James 5:2-3 (NIV) Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 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.
Every image of the kingdom in the scripture is of life perfected. Words like new, restored, renewed, completed are used as adjectives to describe what will be in the kingdom. Conversely, words like corruption, tarnished, spoiled, rotted, eaten, burned up…consumed are used to describe that which is not of the kingdom. That dichotomy is also used to identify that which is of God and that which is not. James is saying that not only will the condemned wealthy be able to see folly of their ways in the corruption of their wealth, but that very corruption will also be a sign to others…and to God that they have fallen away. Wealth accumulated and used according to God’s will and purposes will not be subject to rot and corrosion.
The primary criticism here is not about being rich; it is about the creation & hoarding of wealth for self-fulfilling purposes. Moyter, in his commentary in James says, ”…there is no sin in merely being rich; where sin exists among the rich, it arises from the manner in which wealth is acquired, (ergo…on the backs of the poor) the spirit which it tends to engender in the heart, (which is greed for more and more) and the way in which it is used.” (to make “me” more comfortable) (The Message of James p.169) As Mark spoke about in his teaching last week, desire and striving for self-fulfilment are indeed the root of all unholiness and unfaithfulness towards God. James says, …5:5 (NIV) You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. This is certainly not the description of a steward whole eyes are focussed on God!
Do you remember Jesus words said to the rich young ruler? The Lord saw into this young man’s heart and knew that his wealth held him in bondage and prevented him from taking that next step into complete commitment. So Jesus challenged him in the one place that was in desperate need to conversion. He said, Luke 18:22 (NIV) You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. Jesus tells us that the man went way saddened. He just couldn’t do it. His self-indulgence literally chained him to the earth.
Now, just so those who might consider themselves poor rather than don’t get all high and mighty; these warnings are as much for them as for the wealthy. The very same attitudes and sin-laden thinking that snares the wealthy can also get its hook into the poor. Never mind the whole issue of defining who is actually rich and who is poor or from whose standards and perspective that determination is made….or how narrow or how wide God intends our sphere of influence to be. That is a whole different question & discussion. These admonitions, however, are given to all believers.
It would be very easy for the poor to be consumed with so-called “righteous” anger at their wealthy brothers and sisters in Christ for their apparent inattention and selfishness. However, when James tells them not to (9) “grumble against each other”, he isn’t referring necessarily to the poor judging the poor, but rather the poor heaping judgement and condemnation upon the rich. It is not the place of the poor to deal with the sins of the rich. It’s not our place to condemn each other. It is our place to bring each other to throne of grace where we may be forgiven, regardless of our station in life. That requires mercy, not judgement. We heard clearly last week that judgement, at least the biblical definition of judgement, belongs to the Lord. Instead, the poor are called to (8), “…be patient and stand firm.” Standing firm means keeping their eyes and attention focussed on Jesus who is their healer and provider and their ears open to His calling to them for kingdom service. And that, my brothers and sisters, just might be in service to the rich in the midst of oppression. A servant heart is a powerful witness.
The other thing that can get the poor into a lot trouble is to become obsessed with an attitude of entitlement. Jealousy is a destructive and evil force. Remember these words from last Sunday’s reading, James 4:2 (NLT) You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Those things are a distraction, a veil through which Jesus can’t even be seen. The poor Christians are not entitled to what the rich Christians have. If they were, God would have given it to them in the first place. David, himself a very rich man, wrote these words about wealth and power of his day that was indicated by stock and the ability to make war, chariots and horses. Psalm 20:7-8 (NIV), Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm. If the poor hanker after what the rich have, they will fall with the rich.
Instead we are called to wait. Who likes to wait? Hands up if you like to wait. None of us do. We want it all, and we want it right now. But God says, “wait.” This is not a waiting of grumpy resignation….”Oh very well, if I have to I’ll wait for the kingdom….I won’t like it, but I’ll be obedient and wait.” That is not what it is at all! It is not a waiting of retribution. That is, “You (the rich) are going to get what is coming to you and I (the poor) will finally win in the end…when God gets around to it.” That is not it either. Instead, it is a waiting of expectation. James uses the image of a farmer. When farmer plants seed, at that moment he can’t see anything happening. In fact, if the rain doesn’t come, nothing will happen. However, based on past experience with the rain, the farmer plants expecting a crop…and then waits. He plants expecting God to send the promised rain and for it to produce grain. Then he waits and trusts.
This is hope-filled, expectant waiting based on God’s promises. Jesus said, Luke 6:20-23 (NIV), Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. Who said this? God said this? Is this true? Does God keep his promises? Then what’s the problem?
James said, James 5: 11 (NIV) As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. The bible tells us that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. If He did redeem and restore Job…and He did; if God did indeed raise up and restore Jesus…and He did, then God will keep his promises to us. What that does is take a great burden off our backs. If we don’t have to scrap and scrape, or strive to get ahead…if we don’t have to make our worldly mark in order to leave an earthly legacy, then we can focus on different things…kingdom things, the really important and eternal things. Then we can let God be God, both in our own lives and the lives of those who are around us.