James 5:1-6 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
Who is the richest person you know? I imagine some of you have at least crossed paths with people who have significant amounts of wealth. As you think of that person, I wonder, have you noticed anything different about them other than the fact that they probably have more and nicer stuff than you? Do they seem calmer or more anxious? More confident or nervous? More happy or discontent? More prideful or humble? More like Jesus or like the world?
The main thing I’m after in asking these questions is to get you to consider the kind of effect wealth has on people. The NT consistently presents the rich as either illusioned or disillusioned. Almost 100% of the time, when the rich are addressed, it is either because they are still under the illusion that their money can provide for them things that God alone can provide (like the rich ruler in Luke 18) or because they have already begun to be disillusioned, recognizing the actual impotence of their wealth (like Solomon in Ecclesiastes). Either way, the rich almost always live in some state of illusionment. The problem, as we will see, is not wealth itself, but the relentless temptation it presents to those who have it. Have you noticed that in the wealthy people you know?
With that as a backdrop, I have three main points that I hope to make clear to you all. First, being rich is not sinful in itself, but it is dangerous. Second, James’s readers gave into the ungodliness their wealth made possible. That is, rather than hold fast to Jesus, they surrendered to the ever-present enticement of their riches. And finally, I will give some specific, practical counsel on how to avoid falling into the same trap that captured James’s readers. Most simply, this sermon is a reminder that wealth provides a constant, deceptive, and deadly temptation to trust in and treasure it above Jesus. Let’s pray that God would cause us to see Jesus as supreme.
BEING RICH IS DANGEROUS (1)
James’s address lets us know that some of his readers were rich, ungodly, and experiencing the beginnings of a great misery that would certainly consume them if they continued on in their current trajectory.
1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.
Again, James was addressing a particular group of rich people among his readers (or those connected somehow to them). Ordinarily, most people think of the rich as blessed and happy and content. Consequently, James’s command must have been a bit jarring. Rather than charge them to laugh and be merry, the command was to weep and howl because of the miseries that had already begun to come upon them and would break fully over them if they did not repent.
I’m going to unpack that a bit for us in a minute, but even before I do, I imagine that the gist of it is already crystal clear. Words like “weep,” “howl,” and “miseries” are not used in anything less than dire circumstances. The specific rich people James was referring to were in big, big trouble. We’ll find out in vs.2-6 exactly what they did to put themselves in such a perilous position, but let’s first consider exactly how serious this was.
The charge to weep and howl echoed the OT prophets who promised destruction on the day of judgment for all who persisted in rebellion against God.
Isaiah 13:6 Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!
Ezekiel 21:12 Cry out and wail, son of man, for [the sword of God] is against my people. It is against all the princes of Israel. They are delivered over to the sword with my people. Strike therefore upon your thigh.
Amos 8:3 The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” declares the Lord GOD. “So many dead bodies!” “They are thrown everywhere!” “Silence!”
There are many more calls in the OT to weep or howl, and all of them refer to the kind of response that is appropriate for the terrible and imminent judgment of God for sin.
Worse still, more than likely, the miseries James promised were more eschatological than temporal. That is, James was probably referring to the miseries associated with hell (“eat your flesh like fire”) more than the immediate loss of wealth he touches on in vs.2-3. Again, it cannot be overstated how serious of a charge this was and how dire the situation of those addressed by James.
Grace, it probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway: You do not want to hear these words…ever! You do not want to be commanded by God to weep and howl because of the eternal miseries that await you. And consequently, you ought to be wondering what kind of path led to that kind of address in order that you might avoid it at all costs.
We’ll come back to that in just a minute, but I want to say something first. In describing the specific sins of his readers (in vs.2-6), James makes it clear that it was their ungodliness, not their wealth, that was the real problem and the real source of their present and future misery. The wealth of James’s readers tempted them toward ungodliness and made it easily accessible, but did not cause it.
In other words, Grace, having a lot of money isn’t inherently sinful, but it is dangerous. In broadest terms, the dangers tied to being rich are probably best summed up in the story of Jesus and the rich young man (found in Matthew 19).
Matthew 19:16-26 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” … 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 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.”
In short, being rich is dangerous primarily because it makes it harder to get into the kingdom of heaven. Why is that? Simply, it is because the very heart of the Christian faith is trusting in and treasuring Jesus above all else, while being wealthy provides a constant temptation to trust in and treasure your money (or the things it gives you access to) instead. Wealth often appears to be a legitimate substitute for Jesus.
With wealth we can purchase forms of protection and security in the way of safe neighborhoods, alarm systems, and personal body guards. With it we can purchase insurance as a safety net for just about anything. With it we can purchase the best health care the world has ever known to protect our bodies.
With it we can also purchase forms of pleasure. All of us are able to buy things that give us temporary joy. Imagine having enough money to be able to purchase a never-ending stream of temporary joys. For a time at least, it would certainly seem to offer unending pleasure. Similarly, with it we can purchase pleasure in the form of admiration and adulation. Most people are impressed with success and wealth. The wealthy never have to seek out people to praise them.
All of these things provide a constant contest with Jesus. That is, they constantly entice us to trust in and treasure the money that makes them available instead of Jesus who made and rules them all. Again, the danger in wealth itself isn’t the money itself, but that which it continually offers—a seemingly genuine alternative to Jesus for trust and treasure (1 Timothy 6:10 and 17).
What’s more, although this passage speaks exclusively about the financially rich, it also applies to people who are rich in skill or beauty or intelligence or anything else that might deceptively overshadow Jesus in our affections. None of those things are bad in themselves. Indeed, they are gifts from God. But they are also dangerous if those who possess them forget the purpose for which God gives them—and that is all too easy to do.
The rich among James’s readers were in an exceedingly dangerous position. So much so that James said they ought to begin weeping and howling right now for the miseries that were coming upon them. Importantly, however, it was not their wealth itself that was the problem, but how they viewed it, how they’d gotten it, and what they were doing with it. In the way of a warning for us, we’ll consider each of those things now. Let’s turn our attention, therefore, to the specific forms of ungodliness that flowed from the enticement provided by their wealth.
JAMES’S READERS GAVE INTO THE UNGODLINESS THEIR WEALTH MADE POSSIBLE (2-6)
If the rich among James’s readers were in dire straits, but it was not the actual possession of wealth that put them there, what exactly was it that did? My favorite James commentator (Manton) noted that every “woe” must have a “for”. That is, where God commands His people to weep and mourn, He also tells them why in order that they might repent. We can see four “fors” in the text that are the cause of the call to “woe”: (1) They hoarded their money, (2) They became rich through sinful means, (3) They used their money for luxury and self-indulgence, and (4) They used their money to pervert justice.
They Hoarded Their Money (2-3)
In Matthew 6:19-21, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded His hearers, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Paul says almost the same thing in 1 Timothy 6:17-19.
In direct contradiction to Jesus and Paul, James rebuked his readers, “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.”
The only way goods can rot, garments can be moth-eaten, and money can corrode is if they are gathered in excess and not even used. That is, if they are hoarded; not shared with those in need, and not even used for themselves.
Jesus promised that every earthly possession would eventually be lost, stolen, or destroyed. Jesus promised to provide now and forever for all who would trust in Him rather than temporal things. And Jesus also promised heavenly treasures that would far outlast and outshine anything and everything mankind might accumulate on earth. Rather than trust in Jesus and store up treasures in heaven, however, James’s readers chose instead to gather and hoard wealth on earth. That’s the essence of what it means to “lay up treasure in the last days.”
Their Wealth Was Gained Through Theft (4)
The second reason James commanded his rich readers to weep and howl in anticipation of the onslaught of unending miseries, was because their wealth was gained through theft of the most vile kind and God will not tolerate such extortion.
4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
James’s readers had gotten rich, in part, by hiring temporary workers to work their fields and then refusing to pay them. Most simply, they violated the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).
More seriously still, they violated God’s repeated commands not to steal from the vulnerable.
Leviticus 19:13 You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.
Deuteronomy 24:14-15 “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.
Malachi 3:5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against…those who oppress the hired worker in his wages… and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
The hired servants of v.4 were among the more vulnerable in the land. The words of the prophets condemned James’s rich readers even before James did. Getting rich through honest means is dangerous even if is a blessing. Getting rich through theft, and especially theft of the vulnerable, is deadly.
They Used Their Money To Live in Excess (5)
The third way in which James’s readers sinned with their wealth was in the fact that rather than using it to serve the poor, bless the saints, reach the nations with the gospel, and glorify God, they lived in luxury and self-indulgence.
5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
The problem is not that some of James’s readers had opportunity to celebrate or feast or experience blessing and pleasure. They are meant to occasionally be ours, but we are never meant to be theirs. By God’s grace all of us will and should experience such things on earth. But while we are meant to have them, we are not meant to live in them. Excess is meant to be an event in this life, not a lifestyle.
This is the heart of Jesus’ words in Luke 6:24-25, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” And again in 16:25 in the story of Lazarus, “remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”
When God gives financial blessing, it is to accomplish His purposes and demonstrate the uniqueness of His glory. It is not to enable us to continually fulfill the desires of our flesh; for if we do, that will be our full reward. James’s readers had missed this entirely. They gained their wealth through sinful, exploitive means, they hoarded it, they and spent it on worldly pleasures rather than use it according to the Word of God. And as such, they were preparing themselves for the “day of [eternal?] slaughter.”
They Used Their Money to Pervert Justice (6)
Finally, misery was fast approaching the rich among James’s because they used their money to pervert justice.
6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
The language implies some type of courtroom setting; some type of formal, legal charge. That is, the rich were using their wealth to pervert justice for the poor and effectively leaving them in a position where they were unable to survive.
The rich loved their riches so much that they were willing to fight with murderous intent to get and keep it. They loved their riches so much that they were willing to falsely accuse and condemn the innocent to get and keep it. They loved their riches so much that they were willing to worship it above God. And for all of these reasons, they stood condemned before God. Thus, James told them that if they really understood the peril they were in, they ought to have been weeping and howling continually.
HOW NOT TO GIVE INTO THE ENTICEMENT OF RICHES
We’ve seen how deadly riches can be when God’s people give themselves to trusting in and treasuring them in place of Jesus. How, then, might we avoid the danger and certainly the death that wealth can lead to?
The first thing to settle on is the fact that we are all—every one of us—in the top 1% of the wealthiest people in the history of the world. What we take for granted, and what seems modest to us, is miles and miles beyond what 99% of all people have known. The reality that hunger, nakedness, and homelessness are not dangers for us puts us in a truly unique place in the days of men.
The point I’m trying to make is that there is a way in which we are all rich and, therefore, in which the danger described in this passage applies to all of us. How, then, do we avoid the dangers and death riches can lead to?
Don’t Be Rich
First, don’t be rich. If you have more money than you need to provide for your family and be responsible for the future, don’t use the excess to increase your luxury or be self-indulgent. Instead, give it away with exceeding generosity to gospel causes. Find a missionary who is consistently and sacrificially sharing the gospel in a hard place or a gospel-centered pregnancy resource center or ministry that cares for vulnerable moms and kids and use your excess to provide for their needs and encourage their faith. It would be fairly easy for some of us to give $1000 (or more) a month to help Dustin and Kellie focus on reaching the nations rather than raising support or Together for Good serve the ever-increasing number of moms reaching out to them rather than hassle with the cost tied to building out their new resource center in downtown Minneapolis.
The best way I’ve ever heart to put this into practice is to commit to a lifestyle. Commit to living frugally, decide how much money it would take to do that, and give away everything else to truly gospel-centered discipleship.
Spend Time with People Who Aren’t Rich
Second, surround yourself with those who do not have a lot of money. When your friends are all able to eat out or vacation or purchase whatever, whenever, it’s difficult to keep perspective. On the other hand, if you are regularly spending time with the kinds of people Jesus spent time with, people without a lot of earthly resources, you will feel less pull to spent money on worldly, excessive, self-indulgent things.
More than that even, if you spend significant time with those who are frugal by necessity, you’ll be exposed to a great deal more ways to meet real needs.
Have Godly Friends
Third, have godly friends. Having godly friends means having friends who are more impressed with God than money. It means having friends who are continually pressing in on obedience to God with their money. It means having friends who will tempt you to join them in godliness, rather than in worldliness. It means having friends who will pray for you and challenge you if it looks like you’re living in excess and self-indulgence. It means having friends with real stories and examples of how they are handling their money in godly ways and how God has been faithful through it.
Remember What’s True
Finally, remember what’s true. Remember the commands of God and use your money (whenever necessary) to obey them. Remember the promises of God for your money and believe them. Remember that money itself is inherently valueless. It is God (and God alone) who assigns value to things. Remember the truth that on its own all wealth can offer is a fake, temporary version of what Christ offers for real and forever. Remember that Christ is supreme. Remember the gospel.
One way or another, in this life or the next, James’s rich readers would realize that they were naked. While James’s reader’s wealth had given them the illusion of being clothed with power, protection, and significance, the illusion wouldn’t last. They would eventually be stripped bare—naked—of everything they’d trusted in.
As bad as things had gotten, however, all was not lost. James’s readers had given into some truly evil things, but those things had not placed them beyond redemption—even as no sin can ever place us beyond saving while we have breath. James wrote our passage not to eternally condemn them, but to explain their dire situation in order that they might repent. Grace, Jesus will always receive us when we come to Him in humble faith. No matter what you’ve done or how many times you’ve done it, the grace of God is bigger than all your sin. Whether your sin relates to money or sex or anger or violence or selfishness, Jesus Christ is a sufficient savior for all who will turn to Him. He alone is worthy of our trust and is the supreme treasure. Look to Him today and He will receive you, forgive you, heal you, and bring you into everlasting fellowship with God.