November 16, 2014
November 16th, 2014
James 1:9-11; 1 Timothy 6:17-19
On this subject of being rich, which James (Jacob) deals with in our passage, I want to begin by asking the question:
While there is a lot of self-denial out there …
people who cannot see themselves as opinionated or negative (realist) or stubborn or wrong – have too high of an opinion about themselves,
while others who think of themselves as unredeemable, worthless, unable to make decisions and insecure have too low of an opinion about themselves.
But by and large most people have somewhat of a realistic picture about themselves. Athletic people know they’re athletic, introverts generally will admit that they are shy. Extroverts will let you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are extroverts. People who like music and art and decorating will usually have no problem admitting that they are artsy.
But most people who are rich deny that they are rich. In the US, the average American, when asked what they considered to be rich, responded that if the total family income is around $ 150,000 a year or more, then a person is rich. By the way, the average family income in Fort McMurray is $ 191,000, the highest in Canada – so everyone there should consider themselves rich.
Now I venture to guess that if you ask the folks from Fort McMurray, you will find that they may be aware that their income is above average in Canada, but I doubt if they would consider themselves to be rich – because they’ll compare themselves to those in their community who make millions a year.
In a UBS study, 70% of those with at least $1 million in assets that are invested or available to invest, not including the value of their homes, don't consider themselves to be wealthy. (CNNmoneyinvest July 24, 2013)
Subscribers of Money Magazine were asked who they would consider to be rich: The average response was that people are rich if they have $ 5 million of liquid assets.
A 4 year study out of Boston College funded by the Gates and the Templeton foundations on the super-wealthy, those whose average net worth is $ 78 million and who have at least $25 million in assets. Surprisingly, most of the super-rich still do not consider themselves financially secure, on average claiming to need ¼ more wealth than what they currently possess.
One respondent, the heir to an enormous fortune, says that what matters most to him is his Christian faith, and that his greatest aspiration is “to love the Lord, my family, and my friends.” He also reports that he would NOT feel financially secure until he has $1 billion in the bank. (The Atlantic, April 2011)
The reality is that most rich people don’t believe they’ve reached that magic line where they would be content with what they have. Why is that? Well, stuff feeds their appetite for more stuff. The more someone has, the more that person needs. The higher the income, the higher the expenditures. The higher the expenditures, the higher the level of what is necessary.
Most people want to be rich, but most rich people are not good at being rich. So I’m hoping that I can forewarn you so that when you get to that point of being rich, you will be good at being rich.
For one, I want to warm you that rich people do some weird stuff. And I’m just hoping to prepare us so that you and I, when we get rich, won’t fall into those same weird and wonderful behaviours that rich people do.
Let me just give you a few examples: You would think that once people have the necessities in life, you know, food on the table, clothes on one’s back, a roof over one’s head … they would become more content.
But the reality is that rich people are filled with discontentment. They think that the more stuff they get, the more they need. They more that they have, the more they want.
So rich people have a lot of stuff, but they want more stuff. They want bigger stuff, better stuff, more fun stuff. So let me just warn you. If you ever get rich, just realize that your appetite for stuff is going to get bigger. That’s just how human nature works.
Another weird thing that rich people do is they upgrade. That’s when they have something that works perfectly fine and they buy the same thing again, just this time it’s newer, better, bigger and more expensive.
You won’t believe this, but some rich people do upgrades on their homes. So they go into a kitchen that looks perfectly fine and they rip it out. They get rid of all the appliances in that kitchen, sink, refrigerator, stove, and then they build another kitchen where the old one was. And they fill it with a stove, a fridge, a sink … the very things that were there already. Rich people do that, I’m not kidding you.
Or they tear out a perfectly fine toilet in their home and get another one because the new toilet has to match the colour of the sink and the shower.
Rich people upgrade.
Rich people also do this weird thing where they stand in front of a closet full of clothes and say, “I don’t have anything to wear.” And yet, they have clothes to go to work in, clothes for working in the yard, after work clothes they can lounge in, work-out clothes, and going out clothes.
Some rich people are so weird that they have 9 or 10 or 12 pairs of shoes. Why would anyone need so many shoes? Well, there are shoes to go to work, shoes to lounge in, shoes to dance in, shoes to paint in, shoes to bicycle in, shoes to work out in, shoes to go for walks on, shoes to go shopping in for, among other things, more shoes …. Now remember that I’m telling you about all this weirdness, so that when you are rich, you won’t fall into this trap.
Rich people have perfectly good clothes and stuff which they gather up and give away to make room for more stuff. And of course they feel good about giving away stuff they don’t use.
Or they have garage sales to get rid of stuff they don’t want to throw out or give away.
Rich people have houses for their cars. You may find this hard to believe, but they actually park their cars in houses built for cars. And those who don’t put their cars in the houses for cars only do so because the houses for their cars are filled with other stuff so that the cars don’t fit into the car-houses anymore.
And then rich people do another weird thing you’re not going to believe. They rent houses just for their stuff they don’t give away, sell and that no longer fits into their own houses or their car houses. Can you even imagine that?
So who are the rich? I went to the Global Rich List online to try to figure out how much someone would need to make in order to be in the top 1 % of wage earners in the world. The magic number was $ 42,000 Canadian.
But no one who makes $ 42,000 a year in Canada rejoices about being in the top 1 % of wage earners in the world. Our cost of living, in particular the cost of housing, is just one of those reasons. But a second reasons is that our expectations about what is necessary is not based on the world economy, but on comparing ourselves to our neighbours or coworkers or relatives.
I doubt that any of us would want to live in one of the big slums in the world with open sewers but no running water or even electricity.
No medieval king had the kind of conveniences we take for granted. Central heating. Running cold and hot water. Indoor plumbing.
I would venture to guess that most of us would fall into the category of being rich, if we look at it from a global perspective – or even if we think of the cultural difference between first century Israel and today.
The point is that the passages about the wealthy or rich in the NT are not only applicable for those who make more than $ 150,000 or more a year, or even those who have huge savings and large disposable incomes. They are directed at most of us.
So our passage this morning is really a warning to rich Christians living outside of Israel, but it can be applied to wealthy people in general.
1:9 Let the brother of humble circumstances take pride in his high standing. 10 And let the one who is rich take pride in his humble standing because he will pass away like a wild flower. 11 The sun rises with a hot wind and dries up the grass. The flower wilts and its beauty is gone. So also the rich man will pass away even as he goes about his business.
James tells rich people that they actually have a low position in God’s economy. This idea, that those who are considered less in society actually have a higher standing and those who are considered as important in society actually having a lower standing in God’s economy, is reminiscent of Jesus’ comment that the first will be last and the last will be first in God’s kingdom. Jesus said that those who want to be prominent in God’s kingdom should be willing to serve others here on earth (cf. Matt 20:25-27). Jesus also said that whoever humbles himself eventually will be exalted and whoever exalts himself eventually will be humbled (Matt 23:12).
But the reality on earth is that increased wealth not only increases standing in society, but it also increases arrogance.
Some people tend to think that their IQ goes up with their income. And for good reason. Because most people defer to the rich … their opinion counts. And so they think they are smarter than others. Which quickly can turn to thinking that one is better than other mere mortals.
Many rich people carry their wealth in the way they walk and talk. Which is why it’s a pleasant surprise when someone who is very rich acts like an everyday Joe.
A few paragraphs further along in his letter, James bemoans the favouritism that rich people receive within the church (Jam 2:1-4).
Rich people by and large are admired and treated with a lot more deference than those considered to be poor.
It’s as if they have this special wonderful knowledge or talent that made them rich. Perhaps the most popular self-help book out there is how to become rich. I think the answer should be, write a self-help book on how to get rich.
But that deference we often extend toward the rich inevitably breeds pride. And pride can be a terrible thing because it can morph into contempt and unconcern for those considered lesser lights, who just didn’t work hard enough, weren’t smart enough, to make it in the same way.
Arrogance kills empathy. I’ve heard one comment by a rich person about how others deserve their poverty because of their personal choices and that anyone can change their circumstance if they really wanted. In other words, poor people deserve what they get. It’s like believing in Kismet or Karma or fate. It is simply the way the world is that some have it and others do not. But this simply makes no sense to someone born into slavery or indentured labour.
James writes that the reason why the rich are to boast in their low standing is because their lives are uncertain. Even as the rich man goes about his business – likely in order to get richer, he dies.
It is reminiscent of something James will say later in the letter about businessmen who talk about their plans with regard to where they will go and what they will do in order to make a profit – and they do so without acknowledging that their lives are uncertain and God is really the one in charge. This makes their words nothing more than evil bragging (Jam 4:13-16)
By the way, there are a number of other passages in James that tend to be quite negative toward rich people. One in Jam 2:5
Listen my dear brother: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him? … Are not the rich those who oppress you and drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the high name by which you are called? James 2:5-7
A number of questions came to mind as I read through this letter by James. Why are rich people able to dismiss the uncertain, unpredictable nature of life? Is it because they think their wealth will be able to prolong their lives or avert a premature death?
And is James actually implying that only the poor go to heaven and that all the rich do not?
Is he saying that all rich people walk over corpses to make a buck, completely unconcerned about the destruction they might be causing?
In order to make sense of what concerns James so much, maybe we have to go back to some things that Jesus said. Remember these words:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
This was after he challenged a rich man who lived according to the Mosaic Law to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow him, and the man refused (Matt 19:16-22).
And by the way, Jesus was not talking about a small gate in the city wall called the eye of the needle. Yet he was making his disciples aware of the difficulty that wealthy individuals in particular have of giving money to the poor.
The disciples didn’t get the pointed exaggeration, which is why they asked the rhetorical question, “If what you say is true, then who can be saved (19:25)?” In other words, if it is that hard to get into heaven, no one will have a chance. To which Jesus replied, “with man this is impossible but with God all things are possible (19:26).”
James’ Warning to Rich People: Despite your expectation that your wealth will provide you with a long life, your earthly and possibly your eternal existence is actually very uncertain.
So what happens when all of a sudden our wealth increases? When we get that raise, that promotion, something can happen with regard to our focus in life.
Our focus begins to migrate away from whatever ideal we have, or our belief in God, and move toward the accumulation of wealth. Why, because the more we get, the more we are prone to trust it to protect us from any and all uncertainties of life.
Poor people generally do not place their security, their safety, on their money because they don’t have it. But those who start to get rich, get their whole futures, and aspirations wrapped up in their money and their income.
Paul writes to Timothy about this issue.
Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. 1 Timothy 6:17
Timothy is to say to the rich people in the church: Don’t let your hope, your trust get wrapped up in your money, your income, your possessions.
One of the dangers of being wealthy is thinking that money will protect us. But the reality is that no matter how much we have, how wealthy we may be, we will never have enough to protect ourselves from all the vagaries of life.
Think about this for a moment. How much money would you need to secure your future given all the eventualities of life?
What will make you untouchable … no matter what happens to the economy, no matter what happens to your health, no matter what your offspring may do? The answer for most of us is: more than we currently have.
There is no magic number where enough is enough. Even billionaires are worried about what could happen, how they could lose their wealth, how they could have less in the future.
In his letter, James also berates the rich whose possessions and wealth is horded, who live in self-indulgence and luxury, all the while squeezing the people who work for them by garnishing wages through false charges in court or killing those who had no way of fighting back (Jam 5:1-6)
Maybe you also remember the time Jesus told a story about a rich farmer who had a great harvest, so much so that he couldn’t get it all into his bars. Instead of giving the surplus to the poor, the man decided to renovate – to tear down his old barns and put up bigger barns so that he could store all this grain, which would allow him to live a life of leisure for many years to come. Unfortunate for him, he died the very night he made these plans (Luke 12:16-21). Jesus’ warning words were:
This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves and is not rich toward God. Luke 12:21
When wealth becomes our hope, when it is what we trust in for our safety and security, we will be compelled to hoard. We will always think that we cannot afford to be generous because that would mean that our ability to withstand the eventualities of life will be reduced. And if we do spend money it will be on ourselves because we earned it and what I earn I can consume.
Spencer, you don’t understand, I have to look after my parents, my children, my grandchildren. What if the stock market crashes, what if money devalues, what if the price of commodities drops, what if I should get sick, what if my spouse should leave me? The only thing that will guarantee my safety is more income, more money, more investments, more property, more businesses, more diversification. And there simply isn’t much left over to give away.
So the wealthier we become, the more self-absorbed we can become and the more we run into danger of our hands closing around our wealth.
Now let me just put in a caveat here. Morally there is nothing wrong with being wealthy, with planning for retirement, or wanting to look after ourselves and our families. The problem is when this shift takes place from God to money as our ultimate source of security and we do less and less for those in need. It turns into the love of money that is the root of all evil.
If we go back to Paul’s instruction to Timothy with regard to rich believers, he writes:
18 Tell the rich to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, and always be ready to share with others. 19 By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life. 1 Timothy 6:18-19
If you’re a believer, the chief competitor for your heart and the life that you’ve dedicated to God, is not Satan, it’s money. Rich people have an assumption: All I earn is for my consumption.
That may be why Jesus taught more about money than he ever did about demons. And he told us, when we get to the point that we serve stuff, we are no longer serving God.
Andy Stanley asked his congregation to consider two statements and then as honestly as possible answer this question:
If both statements are absolutely true, which one would create the greatest anxiety in your heart?
1. There is no God!
No God, no eternity with God, no afterlife
2. I lose all I possess!
All the money is gone, the job is gone, the house is repossessed, you’re absolutely broke and bankrupt.
The point is to be as honest as possible.
But then he asked his congregation to imagine themselves laying in the palliative care ward. So imagine. You are in a hospital room and you’re hooked up to a bunch of machines. Which of those two statements, if you knew they were true, would create more anxiety?
In that moment, won’t the issue of God and the afterlife be of much greater concern to you then anything to do with what you may have accumulated in this life and how your stocks are doing?
The reality is that, when confronted with our own demise, for most of us the question about God’s existence and the possibility of afterlife takes on much greater significance that the question about securing our safety through what we own.
The question that Andy challenged his listeners is why wait to put their trust in God at the end of their lives when they have no control over what is happening, and do so instead at the middle of their lives, when they also ultimately do not have control over their lives?
Why would you put your hope in riches that cannot keep your kid from rebelling or falling in with the wrong crowd? That cannot fix your marriage no matter how much money you throw at it?
So if the rich are to be rich toward God … if they are to do good, be rich in good works, generous to the needy, and always ready to share … does that mean giving a large donation to an elite university? Does it mean giving an amount to charity that is but a tiny fraction of income?
One of the principles that we can glean from Jesus’ teaching and his personal example, is that when we are at our most powerful, most influential, most successful then we should leverage that situation … not for our own benefit … but for the benefit of those who have no power, no influence, no standing.
Jesus said that even bad people look after their own families and those close to them. Even they loan to those where they know they’ll get paid back, with interest. That isn’t charity
Real charity is giving to someone who is not close to us and will never be able or willing to repay, for example, an enemy (Luke 6).
Charity has nothing to do with “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” Like the parable of the good Samaritan. He helped a Jew, knowing that he would never receive anything in return, maybe not even a word of thanks. True charity, according to Jesus is helping someone out of their physical or financial distress without expecting anything in return.
This was so well understood by Jesus’ followers, by his disciples, by the apostles, that generosity was therefore the hall-mark of the first century church … to a fault even. Because many of them believed that Jesus would return within a few short years, they impoverished themselves for the sake of others … and then became charity cases themselves.
But it was also this generosity and care for each other and strangers, that impressed pagans, both Roman and Greeks, slave and free, men and women, to consider and believe in the message of the good news.
When I alleviate the physical, financial or emotional need of a person who is not close to me and who, in all likelihood, can never or will never repay my kindness.
So what is Jesus’ measure of charity?
The undeniable reality is that when it comes to percentage of income, the more that people make, the less they give away. The wealthiest Americans (top 20% in income) donate 1.3 percent of their income; the poorest (bottom 20% in income), 3.2 percent.
And by the way, being rich in and of itself isn’t bad. Money is amoral and everyone needs it. But the danger of wanting to get rich or in being rich is that it causes us to become more and more oriented on ourselves and less and less oriented on the poor, suffering and needy.
It seems that the personal drive to accumulate wealth simply means putting a higher priority on self-interest and almost no priority on helping the less fortunate and needy.
Interestingly, when the very rich do give, they tend to prefer to give to elite prep schools, ivy-league colleges and universities, art organizations, operas, symphonies, and museums. They very rarely give to charities that principally serve the poor and dispossessed.
(The Atlantic, March 20, 2013; see also The Guardian, Oct 9, 2014 – top 1% give 4.6% of salaries; those who earn $ 25,000 or less give 16.6 % of salaries)
Jesus himself wasn’t impressed with the size of the gift, but in percentage giving – the poor widow who gave two small copper coins in the temple. Jesus didn’t say that this was necessarily a good thing, but he did point out that she gave more than everyone else because the two coins she threw in was a much larger percentage of her wealth than what the others placed in the treasury.
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty, put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4)
How much I give in relation to what I have.
And our giving should be focused, among other things, on the “least of these,” as Jesus put it.
This is the reason why we have a food hamper for the Sidney food bank in the foyer … and we would encourage everyone, including children, to place imperishable food items in the hamper on a regular basis.
It is the reason why we partner with the Ministry of Mercy orphanages in Nigeria. We raised a lot of money to make the second orphanage just outside the city of Lokoja possible. And now there is a birthing clinic that is being built there as the funds become available, to help alleviate the terrible death rate of mothers during birth. Just look out on the bulletin board in the foyer behind the information booth at how the building program is progressing. Maybe your family can make something like a gift toward this clinic a project over Christmas.
It is also why we partner with “House upon the Rock” ministries in the Dominican Republic as we’ve gone there numerous times to build homes for the poor, run a children’s program or help out in the clinic – and plan to do so again next March.
Our focus is on those ministries that help the poorest of the poor, those who supply food and education and housing and medical needs, particularly to children –
So the final question is to all of us:
Has my trust started to migrate away from God and toward my wealth and possessions?
If so, what is God calling me to do?
Help us Lord to be good at being rich, not consuming all of our time and money on ourselves, doing good at a rate that is above the average. Let’s be generous and willing to share.
Help us to fall into the trap of trusting our money to the point that we simply want more to spend on ourselves and we give less and less toward the needy. Let our possessions not own us.
Imagine the difference the church could make in the community if we were known as the most generous and compassionate people regardless of how much we earn.