Warning to the Rich
James continues his no-nonsense approach to the difference Jesus makes in the life of a believer. This time he specifically addresses those who make plans and use their wealth without God in the picture.
Warning to the RichJames 4:13 - 5:6
December 2, 2018
If your dad is crusty and your mum’s in a flap
And you spill the custard in your sister’s lap
If you’re sent to bed and you don’t know why
And you can’t get to sleep and you just want to cry
That’s a verse from a Colin Buchanan song. It pretty much sums up a typical week in the Lee household. The chorus goes like this:
Remember the Lord
Remember that he is in control
Remember the Lord
He’s watching His children. He cares. Remember the Lord.
Do you want to know what difference Jesus makes in your life? Well James is your book. That’s the litmus test because time and time again, James give us a picture of what real faith, in real lives, lived in the real world, looks like. There’s no pretend, no filter, when it comes to James, whether it’s dealing with conflict (which we saw last week) or how we use our tongues (in chapter 3), or the way we treat others who are different from us (the poor, the widow, the orphan), or when trials and suffering comes our way.
In our passage, James speaks to two more topics: our ambitions and plans for the future; and how we use our wealth. In both those situations, James wants to say the key take-away is this: Remember the Lord. Remember that he is in control. Remember the Lord.
So let’s take a look at James 4:13. James says “Listen up” to you who say:
Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money. (NIV)
In this one verse, James has captured the heart’s desire of every migrant and every backpacker. My parents arrived from Hong Kong in Sydney in their twenties. Mum came to study and dad came to work, so that he could send money back to support his parents and sisters.
But it’s not so much who James is addressing as their attitude and what they say. James isn’t having a go at planning, but he is having a go at presumptuous planning, planning that leaves God out of the picture and puts you in the centre.
James knows full well that Dan Lee often thinks, “once it’s in the diary, it’s happening alright”. It is that tendency to assume that tomorrow, or next week, is guaranteed to roll around. I tried thinking about what sort of plans I made this week: I planned what we’re doing for Christmas; I planned a family holiday; I planned dinner; I helped a couple plan their wedding ceremony; I had to plan after school sport drop-offs and pick-ups. And in the midst of all that planning, James says, “Dan, take a look at verse 14a.”
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. (NIV)
We can try and have a guess at what will happen tomorrow. Thankfully the weather report was right about Wednesday’s storm. But that’s the best we can do. We can guess, wish, or hope for any number of things that could or could not happen before today is over. At morning tea, someone could say: “C’mon over. Let’s grab lunch.” There could be an accident on the road. A gastro-bug could suddenly wipe you out. Or Jesus could return before this sermon’s even over! As much as we might pay attention to the horoscope, tomorrow belongs to the Lord. As much as a doctor predicts the timeline on a diagnosis, tomorrow belongs to the Lord. As much as the financial adviser forecasts the share price, tomorrow belongs to the Lord.
That’s why, come verse 14b, James hits us with a dose of reality James asks, “What is your life?”
What instantly jump to your mind? I’m guess most of us would’ve said, “My life is made up of my achievements.” Or maybe you jumped to your regrets, your failures, the hardships that you’ve endured. And I’m sure there’s a few of us who would’ve jumped to your job, your family, or your relationships. But I’m not sure how many of us would’ve said what James says. ‘Life’ according to James is a four-letter word beginning with ‘M’, verse 14c:
You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (NIV)
Your life and my life is simply mist. Like the light spraying of water, we are here one moment, gone the next. Everything for which you work so hard and into which you pour yourself and that keeps you up at night will be gone, left behind, and become a distant memory. Tomorrow is not guaranteed—not to me, not to you, not to the person next to you. Saved or unsaved, we’re all in the same boat.
There is a difference if you are saved, if you are a Christian, because the beauty of being a child of God is that we can know where we’ll be in a million years and into eternity, even though we don’t know where we’ll be tomorrow. That’s not arrogance. That’s not the boasting James is warning us about there in verse 16. That is boasting not in ourselves but in Jesus and what he’s done and the hope that he’s secured for us. Jesus is the one who lived the perfect life that you and I couldn’t live, who died the death we deserve because we fall short of God’s pass mark which is 100%, and who is now risen to new life so we can look ahead with hope.
James 4:13 tells us what not to say. James 4:15 tells us what to say instead.
Instead, […] you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (NIV)
Notice how James doesn’t say, “Let go and let God.” He doesn’t say, “Take your foot off the pedal and don’t make any plans whatsoever.” No, God is still very much interested in the decisions, plans, and choices we make. Believe it or not, God is less concerned about who we marry, or whether we become a chippy or a computer scientist; rather, what matters to him is whether he’s even on the radar as you do those things. Will you let him set the agenda or will you give him the silent treatment? Remember that there is nothing wrong with planning; it’s the presumptuous planning that’s the mistake.
Let me share with you very real and personal example of how I tried to hold this tension together. As many of you know, we lost our baby daughter earlier this year. Now God didn’t tell me on August 23 that Evie was going to die the very next day, on August 24, day 77 of her life. In fact, I looked back at my diary to see what was scheduled for August 24. There was a netball game for my eldest. There was a training here at church I was supposed to be at and a phone call with another pastor. But in the end, none of those things happened because my plans got trumped by God’s plans. Only God knew the precise number of days Evie would have on this earth, with our family and with you as her church family. But that didn’t stop us from making plans along the way. We made a birth plan—which went completely out the window anyway. We made plans to get clothes, a car seat, and a cot as soon as she came out of the womb. Just before Evie died, we had started making plans for a 100-day milestone celebration. We planned, we prepared, we prayed for more than 77 days. But at the same time, we lived one day at a time. Teresa and I knew at any moment that God could take it in a completely different direction, and it wouldn’t have made him any less good or any less God.
Proverbs 16.9 sums up our journey:
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. (NIV)
And so as we come to the end of 2018 (it’s December already)! No doubt there’s a few plans in the works for next year—plans for a new job, a new project to tackle, new skills to learn, a new home to build, a new child arriving, travel plans, a new stage of life, a new spouse, a new boyfriend or girlfriend.
Here’s an idea: why not throw into the mix a plan for your godliness? It’s so encouraging that many of you do that year after year, as you commit to block out Sundays and small groups, and other things—whether it’s family lunches, kids birthday parties, which have to fall into place around those commitments. Some of you commit to teaching Scripture, making your plans around being in our local schools on Tuesday or Wednesday morning. Then there’s your time with the Lord, where it’s not a chore to fit in Bible reading and prayer time, whether it’s first thing in morning, or last thing at night. You work at letting everything else fit around that. You’re jealous and guard that time. All those things are bang on with God’s will.
So I’m going to give you a moment to pause and commit to putting this into action, because James is after doers, not just hearers of his word. Why not pull out your phone, jot down a note, or write down something to get the ball rolling on your plan for godliness for this coming week. That’s what I call planning with God in the picture!
Come chapter 5, James switches gears. This time. he’s got a different group of people in his sights. Chapter 5:1:
Now listen, you rich people (NIV)
By ‘rich people’ I take it that James is talking about rich unbelievers here. James gets stuck right into these guys. Verses 1-6 contain some of the strongest language in the entire New Testament. James does not hold back. He talks of weeping, wailing, and of misery that’s coming upon the rich, and their flesh being eaten like fire as they have condemned and murdered the innocent. This seems a bit of the top and a little too harsh. What’s going on here?
Even though James is addressing rich unbelievers, that’s not an excuse for us to tune out, because James is writing for the benefit of believers. He is basically saying that if you’ve been on the receiving end of unpaid wages, and you’ve been exploited by this corrupt and greedy outfit, then James wants you to know that God takes this stuff seriously. There’s no getting away with this sort of behaviour.
Before we go any further, let’s just name the elephant in the room. We’re talking about money again! Now remember that here at MBM we only talk about money at specific points in the year, like during November, which is our pledging season, and when it comes up in the Bible text. Well, it just so happens that these two things have fallen back to back here in James. So James 5 is warning us that whatever you do, do not be a hoarder when it comes to wealth. James 5 verses 2-3:
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. (NIV)
What we have here is a picture of heaps and heaps of stuff going to waste. It’s as if the owner wanted to accumulate it simply for the sake of showing off how wealthy they are. Now that might make sense if this life was all there is. I’d be trying to get as rich as I could so I could indulge in spending it on whatever I like.
Only did you notice how James ends that sentence? He says to the rich people that they’ve hoarded wealth “in the last days”. That’s code for Jesus coming back at any moment now, because the time we’re living in are the last days. We are right now in the last days. The Promised Messiah the Old Testament was waiting for has turned up in the person of Jesus on that very first Christmas. Jesus has died, risen, and now rules and reigns as the boss of this entire universe, so that all that has to happen now is for Jesus to return to judge the living and the dead.
Given this is the theological timezone we’re living in now—“the last days”—James is saying that your hoarding is completely foolish and pointless. The moths have feasted on the clothes you’ve had lying around. The gold and silver jewellery have become corroded, because they’ve just been sitting there. If you were to put a 21st century spin on it, the market has suddenly crashed and off come a few zeroes from the end of those numbers in your investment portfolio. Friends, we breathe in on a daily basis slogans like “Greed is good” or “whoever dies with the most toys wins” or “having more is the name of the game”. Because it is part of the air we breathe in our materialistic, consumerist culture, together we need each other to help us be on our guard against greed.
Now don’t mis-hear James. He’s not saying you shouldn’t save for the future, or that you shouldn’t put extra money into your super from time to time. But hoarding wealth for the sake of being able to show off, or to just to keep it for yourself, is a big no-no as far as God’s concerned.
There are good ways and bad ways to use our wealth. When it comes to our money, our wealth, the Bible gives us five ways we can use it in a godly way. First we can use our wealth to bless ourselves. In other words, it’s good to not be dependent on others for our basic necessities. That’s why we work. Second, we can use our wealth to bless our families. Anyone who doesn’t provide for their family has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever. That’s how strong Paul puts it in 1 Timothy. Third with our money we can bless the poor especially within the household of God. Let’s face it, no one did it better than the Macedonians who in excelled in the grace of giving. They in fact gave out of their extreme poverty. Fourth, you can use your wealth to bless local church workers (1 Timothy 5:17-18; Galatians 6:6). As one who directly benefits from your generosity, let me just say how deeply thankful I am to God for your generosity. And fifth, we use our wealth to bless our missionaries (1 Corinthians 9:14), because that’s what enables the good news of Jesus to go to the ends of the earth.
The Bible expects that we’ll use our wealth to look after ourselves, but more than that, to also use our wealth to bless others. As those who have, we’re to be those who give. Now come verse 4, and James says that it’s not just hoarding that’s wrong, but also exploiting others with your wealth is not on either.
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. (NIV)
James is having a go at wealthy people who think they can get away with short-changing their workers. Sure, going without a day’s worth of wages might not mean much to them, but for the worker in the field, no wage means no food for their families. So the key question for us here is this: Is my wealth exploiting others or is it blessing others? If you’re a landlord, are you good to your tenants? Are the repairs done. Is the rent reasonable? If you’re a business owner, make sure you pay your staff properly. And even if you’re not either of those two, chances are that you’re someone who pays taxes.
And so James says to you guys that you’re mind set ought to shift from “The government’s got no right to take my money from me” to “this money is for the good of society and others.” That’s all of us. Your tax dollars are at work when you are in hospital, or your kids are in schools, or you are enjoying the beach.
This passage has made me stop and think, that rather than doing my usual Asian thing of looking for the cheapest price, or the best brand, but instead do the Christian thing and think, “hang on, do I know where this money is going? Who are the people who are involved from beginning to end? This is all part of stewarding, of using our wealth, responsibly, the way God wants us to. Let me end with another proverb. Proverbs 30.8-9:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.
Just like James, this proverb encourages us to throw ourselves on a God who bottom line is rock-solid dependable. God might not give us what we want, but he’ll sure give us what we need. He is a God who invites us to depend on him daily, that we wouldn’t have too much that we forget him entirely, nor that he’d give us too little so we end up dragging his name through the mud by resorting to stealing. I’ve been praying that proverb over these last few days. Maybe you’d like to as well. I’ve found it’s kept my greed in check just that little bit more, especially before I clicked buy on that Black Friday and Cyber Monday sale this week.
We have a God who is rich in mercy, who has given us every spiritual blessing, who hasn’t held back at all. We have a God who in James’ words has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of this world, to be rich in faith, a God who has promised us an eternal inheritance. And so, what a wonderful privilege it is to steward our wealth, to make our plans, with that kind of God in the picture, who is for us and on our side.
Now I don’t have the gift of song-writing like our very own Scott Lavender, or Veronica Li from our 6pm service, but I thought I’d sum up what James has been saying here in this passage by adding another verse to that Colin Buchanan song from the start. Here goes:
As you make your plans and decide where to go,
As you make your money, and watch it grow,
Remember the Lord, Remember that he is in control
Remember the Lord, He’s watching his children,
He cares oh-oh, Remember the Lord.