One of the difficult balances in life is dealing with our wealth. We read about people in the scriptures who were wealthy, like Job and Joseph of Arimathea. But we are also aware of scriptures commands warning us against riches. Jesus said, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24 ESV)
In James 5:1-6 we will read about the problem of riches and wealth. When is wealth sin? When are we misusing our wealth and endangering our souls? Let’s examine what James has to say.
The first problem that James identifies can be summarized as the hoarding of wealth. Their riches have rotted and their garments are moth-eaten. Rotted riches and moth-eaten clothes pictures having so much wealth that these things are not used. They have so much wealth that their wealth rots and goes to waste. There is no doubt that we easily fall prey to the sin that James is identifying. Illustration: We just recently cleaned out the garage and reorganized what we had. Do you know how many things I found that I had that I did not know I had? Do you know how many things had to be thrown out just because they were old and rotted and had gone to waste? Our closets suffer from a similar fate. We just accumulate and accumulate to the point that we do not even know what we have any more. We have so much stuff that we lose it. We have so many possessions that we forget we have them.
God has not given us these material blessings and wealth so that we would stuff our closets full of toys. God has not blessed us so that we buy bigger houses to hold it all. Is this not the condemnation that Jesus makes is his parable of the rich fool in Luke 12? Remember what the rich fool said when he had such a mighty windfall of crop? And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.’ (Luke 12:18 ESV) What did the rich fool do? He hoarded his riches. He decides to build bigger barns because he had so much stuff. What are we hoarding up for? These things simply wear out, as James observes. None of these things last so why are we trying to accumulate so much of it?
God gives to us so that we will use our possessions and our wealth to further the kingdom of God. We should give our clothes to those who can use clothes. We should give our possessions and our wealth to help our fellow Christians. We are living in a difficult economic time in terms of work and jobs. We should be prepared to give the things that we do have to help each other out. "Here I have two of something, please take mine." Give what we have and stop collecting more and more possessions. We have people in this very church who can use our financial assistance.
How about investing our money in efforts to reach the lost? Could there be a more valuable use of God’s blessings than to use our resources, possessions, and wealth to reach the lost? Give to your neighbors. I have been blessed by God and I want to give you some of my things. And don’t give them the broken stuff that you don’t like. Use your money and resources to help your neighbors. Give them the things that they might need and give glory to God. In our lectureship, Ralph Walker spoke of having resources on hand to give to those who claim to have need.
Our church spends the majority of its resources on teaching. We are spending money on teaching materials for the children. We spend money on reaching out to the lost through cards, letters, lecture events, signage, and the like. We spend money to have the proclaiming of God’s word. Instead of buying another possession that we do not really need that is simply going cause our closets to overflow, why not give to this church that spends its money reaching out?
Verse 3 gives the rationale behind these instructions. It is a familiar reminder using the same words of Jesus. Your wealth has corroded and this is evidence against your useless hoarding of riches. The condemnation is your flesh eaten like fire. "You have laid up treasure in the last days." Your treasure is not in heaven. Your treasure is not in God. The things you have invested in are totally worthless when your flesh is eaten like fire. What good will these earthly treasures be when you are judged with eternal punishment? Your hoards of wealth testify against you. Why amass wealth when this world is perishing?
James also identifies those who gather wealth by defrauding other people. Dishonest treatment of others with the intention of gaining more money. James is picturing a person who is not generous with his wealth. Rather, this person is squeezing every last dollar out of another, even to the point of stiffing what is due to them. We are squeezing money so tightly will not give what is right to another. If someone works for us, they must be given what is due to them for their work. We must not be swindling our employer, trying to get more money out of them than what is due to us. We should be generous with our money. The waiter or waitress that works hard should be given what is due to them. Pay people back what we owe. How awful to let our debts to remain outstanding especially when we have borrowed from our Christian brothers and sisters!
Further, are we defrauding God? How tightly are we grasping our money and wealth? Can you imagine if we lived under the law of Moses which commanded giving the first 10% of your income? I am afraid our attitude would be to gripe and complain rather than to give with thanks. Think about if you make $50,000 the tithe would demand nearly $100 a week. I am not telling you what to give. I am telling to think about your attitude toward money and giving. We must consider if we are generous, or if we are tightly holding on to our wealth.
The third way we sin with our wealth is by self-indulgent living. We come across a fine line in the scriptures. We are commanded to enjoy the fruits of our labors. However, there is a point where enjoying our wages crosses the line into self-indulgent living. There is a point where it crosses into living in excess. There is a point when we crossed from enjoying life as a Christian to resting our hope and finding our pleasures in the material things of this world. I don’t believe I can tell you where that line is because God does not state an explicit line. All of us make a different amount. All of us have different financial responsibilities. All of us are at different places on the financial spectrum. All of us can live with less. We want to judge based on the size of our cars, houses, and televisions when all three of these things are luxuries, regardless of the size. I cannot come into your home and judge your life on this matter. You must answer the question for yourself. Do I sound like what James is speaking about? "You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence." Are we consumed with our own pleasures? Do we close our eyes to the needs of our brethren and the needs of the work of God but have our eyes wide open to our own desires and spend for our personal gratification?
We are self-indulgent cows. This is what James calls us at the end of verse 5. We have indulged ourselves and fattened ourselves for the day of slaughter. Judgment is coming against us for our self-indulgent lifestyle. The slaughter is coming for the self-indulgent. We have fattened ourselves and God will judge us.
The final picture is that our desire for wealth causes hurt and the oppression of others. We have seen much of this in the last couple of years. We have recently seen Bernie Madoff and the like who in their greed have hurt so many innocent people. This oppression relates to one of our recent studies concerning Ahab and Naboth. Ahab wants Naboth’s vineyard so much that his wife, Jezebel, orders for Naboth’s death so that Ahab can take the vineyard. The point is the righteous get hurt in our pursuit of wealth. Oppression is the result when we place our hope on wealth. We saw this on a large scale with the Madoff scandal. Hospitals lost money, research projects for diseases lost their funding, and other dramatic negative effects occurred. The problem is that the rich are never satisfied. So we will seek to have more and more.
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17 TNIV)
We all enjoy various material blessings. Enjoy them, but do not sin with your wealth.