September 30, 2018: The Rich Problem

Pastor Steve Mechem

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James 5:1-5
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

It should be noted, as we look at this passage about the vulgarity of riches, that, according to first century middle eastern standards, most of us in this room are wealthy, rich beyond measure.

So, when we point our finger at the rich, three fingers point back toward us.

Having said that, let’s listen to James:
Chapter 5, verses 1-6 in the Message Bible.

“And a final word to you arrogant rich: Take some lessons in lament. You’ll need buckets for the tears when the crash comes upon you. Your money is corrupt and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your gut, destroying your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth. What you’ve piled up is judgment.

All the workers you’ve exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of the Master Avenger. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up. But all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse.”

Wow. Nothing positive there! Woe to you Rich!

Here, as in many places, the bible seems to put God on the side of the poor and against the rich. The wealthy are despised and blamed for the plight of the poor.

Time and time again, God declares his love for the poor and downcast, and promises judgment to the rich.

But is it true? Rich equals bad. Poor equals good. Is it so black and white? Poor people are loved by God and the rich are despised. Is that the way it is?

Well, the poor, in Scripture, in the prophets, in Jesus, in the Epistles are described as being loved by God because they are
mistreated,
left behind,
cheated,
victims of injustice,
with everything weighted against them.

Why does the bible seem to emphasize God’s love for, affinity toward, the poor? Because of the specific plight of the poor.

I think its kinda like when people react to the phrase “black lives matter” by claiming that all lives matter. Sure, all lives matter. The point of the phrase “black lives matter” is that there is, in this moment in time, a real problem with black people, especially young males, dying in ways and in numbers that others are not. The phrase, “black lives matter,” emphasizes the reality of the situation.

Perhaps the reason the Scripture emphasizes that God loves the poor, and stands with the poor, and fights for the poor, is because poor people were experiencing the worst realities of life.

The scripture doesn’t proclaim that God hates the rich. No, God’s love is the same for each of us, but there is an emphasis on those who might feel the least loved- the poor.

And the reason the scripture seems to beat up on rich people is the injustice that political and societal systems impose on the poor.

Being rich doesn’t make a person evil or bad. Who that person becomes because of wealth is what makes them evil.

Wealth isn’t the problem.
It seems to me, anyway, that the problem with wealth is is threefold:
1) how people get their wealth and
2) how they respond to their wealth and
3) how they use their wealth.

Some people get rich through hard work, some through having a special skill set. Others get wealthy through inheritance, still others through the luck of the market.

But woe to the person who gets wealthy by taking advantage of others, by destroying other people to get ahead, by being dishonest, by using and abusing. They are the rich that Jesus and the Prophets condemn.

One of Jesus’ great confrontations is with a rich man who made his fortune cheating people out of their money. After Jesus’ words to the man, the man makes the decision to try to make it right by repaying his victims four fold, and giving half of his wealth to the poor.

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible have lots to say about rich people. They make a clear connection between wealth and idolatry. They also make a crystal clear connection between wealth and the neglect, misuse, and abuse of the poor.

Jesus tells his followers that it is impossible to worship both God and money. 1) Because there is not enough room for both in a person’s life and 2) the worship of money leads one in the opposite direction of the worship of God.

Instead, Jesus says, we should strive for heavenly treasure, you know, love, grace, kindness, goodness and mercy rather than striving for stuff that blows away in a tornado or burns up in a fire or disappears when the market bottoms out.

Jesus tells a pointed parable about a Rich Farmer who becomes incredibly wealthy and self absorbed. Jesus reminds his listeners that the man is a fool for hoarding his treasure here and neglecting treasure befitting the Kingdom of God.

Jesus would say,
“woe to you when you are rich for you have received your consolation.”

To a young religious man, Jesus said “sell all your stuff, give to the poor and come follow me.”

The man left sadly, because he was rich and was not willing to give it away. The Scripture says that he “went away grieving.”

Jesus warned his followers, “it is
hard for a rich man to enter Kingdom.
Not impossible, but hard, because with riches come barriers to the kingdom akin to a camel sliding its hump through a tiny opening. It may be doable, because of God’s grace, but it hard work.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction”

James writes that the problem with riches is that they corrupt the possessor of them.

C.S. Lewis wrote “One of the great dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realize your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing checks, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.”

The English abolitionist politician William Wilberforce declared “Prosperity hardens the heart.”

Woe to you, rich guys!

but…

Before we get out the pitchforks and torches for the rich (which most of us are, at least by 1st century, or third world, or many parts of this country’s definition), we should be reminded that it isn’t riches that are the problem. It is our response to wealth as it comes to us.

Paul says it wonderfully as he writes to his protege,Timothy.

“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”

If we are to handle wealth correctly, we start at the point of humility. Money does not make us better than other people.

And we recognize that wealth is temporary.

Here today, gone tomorrow. And even if you keep it around during your time here, it doesn’t go with you when your dead.

You may have an expensive funeral, but you aren’t taking any of it with you. From this life to the next you take your relationship with God, and your acts of kindness, but you won’t be taking the checkbook.

It starts with humility but it shows up in doing good and in being generous and in being willing to share with others.

Now, Jesus’ understanding of sharing is radical and sacrificial - sell what you have and share it. And the example of the early church is of people giving up possessions to make sure others had enough. Radical sharing.

The reality is that we are blessed to bless.
If we have been blessed by God, it is our responsibility to use that blessing to bless those around us. What that looks like is different for each of us, but it makes a difference in the lives of others.

Jesus tells a parable of a wealthy man who decides to host the feast, a banquet. His first set of invitations are ignored so he sends out a second set, this time the invitations go to the poor, and the dispossessed, to the left behind, and the straggler.

And all are invited to the feast. And all have the time of their lives there.

You my friend, are an extension of the wealthy one in the story who uses the blessings of life to bless others.

Amen.