James 4:13–17, 5:1–6
I have a friend back home in England whose great love is to talk about money. He will happily explain to me the meaning of cost-push inflation (비용상승 인플레이션), implied volatility (내재 변동성) and quadruple witching days (네 마녀의 날). At those moments I really do try to understand but it never makes sense, much like when I start talking to him about salvation.
Let’s try today to talk about money from a biblical, Christian point of view. I have a question for you to start with, How much money is enough? Do you think that you have enough money, or perhaps you have not enough money?
There has actually been some research that tried to answer this question. The researchers decided that ‘enough’ was the amount of money to satisfy a person’s emotional well-being and life evaluation. The amount needed for emotional well-being (happiness) had a limit. Once a person reached that level, more money often reduced their happiness. With life evaluation, which is basically how we think of ourselves, there was no upper limit. One conclusion to be drawn is that you will be happy when you decide you have enough money. In other words it’s not the money, it’s your attitude that will decide if you have enough money.
Some people choose a simple way of life and need very little to be happy, some people have more but still feel poor and are depressed because the lack of money is forced on them.
In the time of Jesus a worker would have only one set of clothes. He would go to bed and wake up, work and live in only that one garment. When it was cold his cloak would be his blanket. He would earn enough money in one day to feed his family, often with nothing left over. This is why it was so hard to be a widow. The rich people were the ones with more clothes, nicer clothes and of course clean clothes. Rich people would eat meat sometimes, but when an animal was killed they had to eat all of it. Nothing could be left for later because it would spoil, and so they would have to invite other people to share the feast.
Our reading today is a letter from the brother of Jesus to believers everywhere. In this letter, James talks about money and our attitudes toward money. The opening words of chapter five are: “Look here, you rich people.”
Six verses earlier James began with the same words – “Look here, you…” – when he laid into the merchants who arrogantly made plans regarding their wealth. Because James started his letter by saying that he was writing to believers, some scholars say he is probably attacking wealthy complacent Christians. The more usual view among scholars is that when James speaks of “you rich people” he is talking to wicked rich non-believers. There is no invitation in his letter for them to repent and return.
These people are wealthy landowners, a class that was frequently criticised in the Old Testament and in the wider Greco-Roman world for their greedy acquisition of land and abuse of workers. There was an acute conflict in the first century between these people and those who were forced to work on their land.
We must be careful to understand what James means by ‘rich’, as I hope I showed in my introduction. We are reading the Bible, and so in addition to an economic sense there is a theological sense. James is not condemning these people simply because they have more than enough money for themselves. He is condemning these wealthy people because of how they use their money and how they abuse their power.
So we should not rush out and apply this to all wealthy people. It isn’t a call to overthrow the wealthy ruling class and set up a socialist workers paradise. On the other hand, James is giving us all a serious lesson about money and possessions.
God condemns all of his people for the sin of selfish accumulation of money and things. In some parts of our world, in some societies today, amassing material wealth is held up as the purpose of life and a good thing. People who succeed at this are admired as role models, but as Christians we need to seriously grapple with this view and ask ourselves, When do people have too much?
James says the reason the rich people are destined to “Weep and groan with anguish” is that they have selfishly hoarded wealth. They have also cheated and defrauded their workers, who are crying in the fields. They live soft lives of self-indulgent luxury while at the same time they oppress people who are righteous and kill innocent non-resisting people.
Perhaps you are asking yourself, Why is James preaching this message of severe condemnation against non-Christians in a letter to the church?
The readers of this letter are members of the Christian community who are being oppressed and abused by these wealthy people. One thing is that this is a warning to us all not to be like these people who are destined for “terrible troubles” because of their wickedness. Do not envy them, for God will avenge your current troubles and the wrongs you are suffering. Instead we should look toward God with faith and trust.
The weeping and groaning the James says is going to be their future is spoken like an Old Testament prophet. These are words often spoken to show what it will be like on the day when the Lord arrives.
“Scream in terror, for the day of the Lord has arrived—the time for the Almighty to destroy.” (Isaiah 13:6)
What this makes clear is that the misery and suffering that is coming to the wicked rich isn’t earthly or temporal. This is punishment that God will deliver on the day of judgement. Misery is coming, and it’s coming in abundance for those who life selfishly.
Many of God’s laws reflect his concern for the poor, the weak, the innocent. The word ‘rich’ can also be found as a synonym for ‘the unrighteous’ and the prophets often denounced the practise of socio-economic oppression.
Jesus himself often issued serious warnings about the threat of wealth to true discipleship, especially in the Gospel of Luke.
“What sorrow awaits you who are rich, for you have your only happiness now. What sorrow awaits you who are fat and prosperous now, for a time of awful hunger awaits you. What sorrow awaits you who laugh now, for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow.” (Luke 6:24–25)
If you have hired a man for a day, do not hold back his wages for he needs them to feed his family. And if you do and he cries out to God, you will be the one who suffers the greatest sorrow. Do not mistreat the weak, because God will enact revenge on their behalf. If you are one of the weak, do not seek your own revenge but wait patiently upon the Lord.
I suggest that James wants us to look closely at ourself, and examine if perhaps we have more than we need. If you have too much, what is God calling on you to do? He is saying that you shouldn’t make plans and store it up, but actively use the extra for the benefit of others.
The only justification for having more than you need is to use it all, every single part, for the benefit of others and for the establishment of God’s kingdom.
God does not want you to enjoy wealth in this life, but to use what he has given you for the sake of his kingdom and his righteousness. Instead of hoarding wealth that will “eat away your flesh like fire” you should be righteous and protect the innocent.
For example, the British philosopher William MacAskill of Oxford University gives away all his income above the amount that he calculates is enough. James does not tell us what to do in his letter, but instead he points to a way of love that will lead us to do the right thing.
“Don’t grumble about each other, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. For look—the Judge is standing at the door!” James 5:9
Examine your life carefully and work out how much money is enough, and then get rid of the rest in the service of God.