When James says, “Now listen,” That is to be understood very much in the tone of voice you might use when you are about to correct some very disobedient children, “Now listen!” Once again, he is using very strong language to let his audience know that he is very upset and very passionate about what he has heard is going on in the church. This stuff is really important!
He talks tough, not like so many sermons you hear these days, funny illustrations, gentle words and big on grace. Many sermons today hardly mention sin except to say that you are forgiven f it. But, maybe James approach is appropriate sometimes. It is better for the people to hear the truth and maybe be jarred awake and into an urgency to do something about the problem. It would be far better than what happened to the rich man that Jesus talked about in connection with Lazarus.
The story I am talking about is recorded in Luke 16, and I will go ahead and read to you verses 19-26. It’s not the whole parable, but it makes the point that James is making in our text today. It is better to weep and wail now, while there is time to repent, rather than to go blindly along not thinking about the coming judgement.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.
That’s James’ point, it is better to be in agony now so that you are moved to care for the poor more than for your own riches. That is far better than neglecting the poor and suffering for it in the coming judgment.
But how can James say such a thing to the church? The church is full of people who believe the gospel and are forgiven of their sins so that they will not suffer the coming judgement. Isn’t it? Doesn’t the gospel mean that sinners don’t get punished? Yes, the gospel does mean that sinners don’t get punished. But if the church was full of forgiven sinners who really understood the gospel in such a way that it led to their full repentance, then there wouldn’t have been a need for James to write his book at all.
It must be the case that at least some people who think they are saved Christians, really only think they are, while in reality they are more like the unmerciful servant in another parable, recorded in Mathew 18:24-34 where Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” That’s forgiving grace right there.
Now I am interrupting the reading to comment here that the servant really did receive his forgiveness. The debt was cancelled. But he apparently did not receive the blessing of a grateful heart that reflects the character of the forgiving God. That is why the story goes on as follows:
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
Here is the first servant’s chance to show he understands the character of his master and do likewise, to pay it forward, …
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
The point is that the forgiveness offered is definitely real. Jesus died on the cross for you and you can believe that and receive your forgiveness on one level, while on another level completely miss the point. Certain behaviors that you may engage in after you thank Jesus for his death on the cross may show that you didn’t really repent of the sin that was forgiven. Repentance is definitely an important part of demonstrating that you have truly received the grace of God and that the Holy Spirit is now at work in your heart making you a new creation so that your behavior starts to look a lot like the way Jesus would behave.
Note that this parable of the unmerciful servant also features a response to money. In fact, in the New Testament, Jesus offers more wisdom and has more to say about money than any other subject besides the “Kingdom of God.”[i] This must be because money is the most powerful rival against God for capturing the hearts and desires of human beings. Both Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13, record that Jesus specifically said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” If you love money, you can’t love God. And if you love God, money will have no power over you.
James was apparently writing the words that we read today to supposed Christians who had forgotten or who had not yet accepted this fact. It almost looks like the love of money may have the power to rob you of salvation, much like the birds snatched the seed away on the rocky path in yet another parable Jesus told. Or, if greed could not actually rob you of salvation itself, it may be a vexing problem that keeps you from fully maturing in a life of faithful living.
But still, how could any of us be guilty of this sort of thing? Well, James isn’t really saying anything new. He’s just trying to wake people up who are blind to their guilt in this matter. And as for us, the fact of the matter is, if you are living in America, you are wealthy. Even if you are living in poverty in America, you are still wealthier than at least 75% of the rest of the world’s population.
We are the rich people James would condemn today! And sad to say, we really have no idea how much of the inexpensive foreign made goods we enjoy are produced by virtual slave labor. And even if you “buy American” there are a lot of raw materials imported that are mined, grown, harvested or produced by slave laborers who suffer extremely unsafe and life threatening conditions. James may as well have been talking to us when he said, “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” This is talking to all rich people, not just the mean ones we might think of like the Scrooges of the world.
Verses 2-3 tell us plainly that riches are ultimately worthless anyway, especially when compared with the glories and blessings of the eternal life to come. Moth and rust destroy. Sound familiar? Jesus was the one who said we ought to lay up treasures in heaven where moth and rust cannot touch them. And the treasures you can lay up in heaven are the friends you make, the people you lead to Christ and the voices of gratitude of the people you served or saved. They’ll be saying, “Thank you for giving to the Lord.”
In verse 5 perhaps James lets us off the hook a bit. The luxury and gross overindulgence he is talking about here really do describe not just the wealthy in general, and us who cannot extricate ourselves from the economic oppression of others unless we get off the grid and become subsistence farmers. James is here talking about the really mean Scrooge type people who do know what they are doing to others and just don’t care because they just want to get rich. We’re talking here about people who are more like the loan sharks of the Mafia.
But as far as James is concerned, he makes it sound like anyone who is rich is oppressing the poor, just by being rich, as in not helping the poor because they are too busy quietly investing in their retirement account, which is a way of hoarding resources they ought to be sharing. I’m not saying no one should have a retirement account. I actually think everyone should if they can. But the principle here is to be aware that we will have to give an account to God for how we use the riches he entrusts to our care. We also will be held accountable for whether or not we earn our riches according to God’s will and wisdom, with no ill-gotten gain allowed. It is so easy to be unintentionally blind to God’s concern for the poor. It is also easy to be blind to whether or not our income is earned legitimately.
This is pictured in Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus that we have already mentioned. Apparently, the rich man just didn’t realize he was supposed to do something for poor Lazarus. Here’s another picture of what I mean, and what I think James means. Scrooge has a nephew in that story. He wears nice clothes too. He’s obviously better off than Bob Cratchit the poor clerk with the little lame boy, Tim.
But Scrooge’s nephew is a nice guy. He’s so polite and amiable. He talks to Bob Cratchit with great concern, asking about the health of Bob’s son, Tim. And at least in the movie, the nephew is portrayed as another innocent victim of Scrooge’s venom. But I noticed that though he expressed concern, he didn’t offer to help either. He did no more for Bob or Tim than the mean, miserly Scrooge did. That nephew was all talk and no action. Nice talk, but still no action. It reminds me of the verse we have already read earlier in the book of James 2:15-16, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
And yet many of us are like Scrooge’s nephew. We’re not mean and ornery or miserly like Scrooge. We express concern for the well-being of others and we think ourselves kindhearted and friendly. But we are often blind to the fact that to some degree we are actually living in self-interested and even irresponsible luxury. We should be intentionally and deliberately thinking or planning for how we use our finances with God’s priorities in mind. Failing to care for the poor is directly the opposite of expressing God’s compassion and concern for the poor. For example, a worthy principle might be, live on as little as you can so you can give away as much as you can.
I heard a story about a couple of Chinese Christians who were desperately trying to reach the lost in their country. They kept serving and giving, but not much money was not coming in to support their efforts. When they were visited by a supervisor, he found that their apartment had no furnishings at all, and no food stored. They had sold everything so that they could give to the needy people they were caring about. And now that the apartment was empty, they had begun selling their blood, one pint at a time, as often as they were able. I think that’s a little extreme. But what courage and sacrifice! It reminds me of the story of the widow’s mite, in which Jesus exclaimed that she had given more than anyone else because she had given all she had and not just part of a surplus.
There is another scene in the movie about Scrooge in which he is brought back in time to a Christmas party thrown by his first employer. Scrooge himself had never thrown such a party for his employees because he considered it a waste of good money that he’d rather keep. But in watching the party and calculating the cost of it, he was made to realize that a small sum of money given away for blessing others can produce great joy, in both the receiver and the giver, that is worth far more than the money spent.
But, it remains that possessions and riches are a great danger to us mere mortals. Scrooge was moved by the acts of generosity he saw in others, but he did not really repent until he was confronted with his own imminent death. Through the movie, he keeps insisting that he’s too old to change. But when he sees his name engraved on a tomb stone and faces his own death, then he is weeping and wailing in repentance of the life he had lived thus far.
James doesn’t give us the answer or the solution to the problem in this part of the book he has written. The call to confession and repentance is in another part of his book. Here he just points out a particularly gripping sin that makes it hard for us to enter the kingdom of Heaven. James wants us to really see clearly that we who are rich or wealthy ought not to be happy about that, because money isn’t everything.
And yet we often treat money as if it is everything. James says we ought to weep and wail now about the fact that we have so much and feel so little urgency to share it. We know that money can’t buy happiness, but we reserve to ourselves the idea that it sure helps. Instead we need to learn from Jesus that what really ought to make us happy is the god given ability to let go of all our earthly possessions and follow Jesus into eternity and into glory. You remember the story of the rich young ruler who was so good and obeyed much of the ten commandments. He lacked only one thing, to sell all he had and follow Jesus. But he just couldn’t do that one thing! It is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
I have struggled with this issue personally, not that I have ever been loaded with money, but I have been burdened with whether or not the choices I have made in life have been motivated by wanting more money rather than wanting God’s will. That’s what it comes down to. I pray for discernment so that I will do whatever God asks of me, and let him provide for me. That’s different from doing whatever I want to make more money and hope it’s ok with God. And the only way to discern that is to be a born-again Christian filled with God’s Holy Spirit.
We can’t solve this problem before we give our lives to Christ with great appreciation for all that he has done for us. Pre-Christians do not have God’s Spirit in them to guide them. Oh, they might have what looks like altruistic motives. We might think some of the nicest people we know are not Christians. But unless they are living for God, they are still living for themselves, outside of God’s will and missing out on God’s forgiveness.
The problem with wealth is that we feel that if we are rich then somebody up there likes us. We feel we are blessed and so we do not feel any great concern for the condition of our souls. That’s the hypnotic power of riches that can so easily keep us from turning to God for the real life that comes from him. But if we can open our eyes to the trouble that we are in for the sins in our hearts, even if the world may not see, and if we can repent of our dependence upon money and love of money and turn to God for dependence upon him and to love him, then we could potentially let go of millions of dollars, if we had them, and count it all as loss for the sake of gaining the salvation that is ours only in Christ Jesus.
With the real live love of God in our hearts, we could potentially even give away our last pennies as the widow did that Jesus raved about when she gave her two mites to the temple treasury. But in order to properly discern what God wants us to do with our financial resources, we must first be in Christ, through faith in the gospel that saves our souls and causes us to reflect the character of God in all our life of giving and goodness that are the works he has prepared in advance for us to do.
Let us pray.