How does faith work with your wealth?
Several years ago, the world was outraged over the case against Bernie Madoff, a former stockbroker and investment advisor responsible for the largest, longest, and most widespread Ponzi scheme in history. Madoff’s fraud totaled in the billions. At his sentencing hearing, the judge in the case condemned Madoff ’s crimes as “extraordinarily evil” and imposed a sentence over 10 times longer than the defense lawyers had requested – 150 years. In addition to the victims who testified against Madoff, his self-indulgent, luxurious lifestyle also testified against him: tens of millions of dollars spent in acquiring personal properties; $45 million in bonds; $17 million in cash; $8.8 million for yachts; $2.6 million in jewelry, and a whole lot more. It was an outrageous hoard gained through unthinkable fraud, and Madoff heaped the riches upon himself.
Beginning in chapter 5, James wastes no time making his point clear. “Listen, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries coming upon you.” When reading this passage, one cannot help but see a courtroom setting with the Lord seated high upon His throne, hearing the testimony of victims and carefully reviewing the irrefutable evidence (v. 4). The accused were rich landowners who were exploiting the poor by withholding wages and, like Madoff, were using the money to live in luxury and self-indulgence. James is in no way condemning all who were rich; after all, James was a devout Jew who knew God had financially blessed many believers, most notably Abraham, Job, David, Philemon, Joseph of Arimathea, and Lydia. Instead, James was condemning the way the rich accumulated their wealth and how they used it. James likened the rich to animals who were being fattened for slaughter.
James is not condemning wealth here. He is rebuking self-reliance and self-indulgence. These men have abused their power and built a fortune on the backs of underpaid workers and overdue bills. We can either worship wealth, or worship God with wealth. This is the heart of this section of Scripture.
When it comes to wealth, we tend to think in the two categories of rich and poor. The Bible gives us four categories and not two:
1. Godly Poor
2. Godly Rich
3. Ungodly Poor
4. Ungodly Rich
In the Bible, the issue is not are you rich or poor, but rather are you godly or ungodly. The truth is, you can be Christ-like whether you are rich or poor as Jesus was rich in Heaven, poor on earth, and is right now rich in Heaven. 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Jesus was poor on earth, but the Bible says that Heaven has streets paved with gold, which means Jesus is so loaded He’s trying to find creative uses for all the extra gold and is down to making highways with it.
1. The godly poor include Job when he lost everything to a Satanic attack, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus’ peasant parents, Jesus' rural ministry relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth along with their son John the Baptizer, Jesus while on the earth, and the New Testament saints in Jerusalem.
2. The godly rich include Abraham who God blessed because of his faith, Job after God restored his wealth after a Satanic attack, Joseph who oversaw the wealth of Egypt, Daniel who ruled Babylon through the reign of multiple godless kings, and wealthy women who funded Paul’s ministry like Lydia and Phoebe.
3. The ungodly poor include Esau who traded his birthright for a meal, the sluggard in Proverbs who is lazy and wastes their wealth, Belshazzar who lost his entire kingdom when God had him ransacked, and Judas who had little but stole much of it from Jesus.
4. The ungodly rich include Zacchaeus the tax collector before he met Jesus, the rich young ruler, and a parade of tyrants from Pharaoh to Nebuchadnezzar and Herod who brutalized people to live lavish lifestyles.
The group that James is warning against are the ungodly rich in category 4. Their security, identity, and priority is in worshipping wealth as their god rather than worshipping God with their wealth.
Wealth is a relative term. All of us find ourselves richer than someone else, even while we may feel poorer than many others. What wealth has God blessed you with? In what ways can you better steward His money for His glory and the good of others?