Would you like to be rich? Very few would say, “Nah, it doesn’t interest me!” As Christians, we know that the Bible has many warnings against the dangers of pursuing wealth. In 1 Timothy 6:9-10, for example, the apostle Paul warns, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” But most of us read that and think, “I could handle it, or at least I’d like to try!” It seems as if more money would solve a whole lot of our problems. But, we often forget that wealth can create a lot of problems as well.
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” (James 5:1-6)
In our text, James again assumes the role of Old Testament prophet, thundering against the ungodly rich who oppress the poor. The words of our text are not an appeal to repentance, but rather a scathing denunciation of wrath to come. While there may have been some professing Christians in the churches to which James wrote who were guilty of the sins he confronts here, his main target was the ungodly rich outside of the church. This is evident both by his prediction of judgment to come and also by his shift in 5:7 when he addresses those in the church as “brethren.”
Why would James spend six verses denouncing those who are outside of the church, who would never read this warning anyway? The warnings serve two main purposes. First, they should encourage us who know God to be faithful and endure, knowing that in due time He will judge the wicked. Second, it should warn us not to fall into any of the sins that will bring judgment on the wicked. In the case James is addressing, it is easy when you’re poor and oppressed to think, “If I can just get rich, I will no longer have to deal with these problems!” So we can be tempted to pursue wealth, mistakenly thinking that happiness lies in getting rich. So to the church, James is saying, Because wealth can be a dangerous trap, we should be careful not to use it in an ungodly manner, but rather to be faithful. He makes three points:
1. Wealth can be a dangerous trap that leads people to eternal destruction.
The Bible does not teach that money itself is evil, but rather that it is extremely dangerous when it falls into the hands of those who are prone to sin, particularly pride. Jesus calls it “unrighteous Mammon” (Luke 16:9, 11), because those who get their hands on it often use it sinfully. Money is like a loaded gun: it can be extremely useful in certain situations, but you’ve got to use it carefully, or you may hurt others and yourself.
In our text (James 5:1-3) James is making the point that wealth is temporary and that judgment and eternity are ahead. So to pursue wealth to the neglect of pursuing God or to trust in wealth as the solution to your deepest needs is sheer folly! As the rich fool in Jesus’ parable found out, he had plenty stored up for this life, but when he died, he was poor where it mattered most—he was not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21). To be rich without God is to be short-sighted in light of eternity.
2. We should be careful not to use wealth in an ungodly manner.
Since misuse of wealth will bring a person into horrible judgment that will make him weep and wail in misery (5:1), we should make sure that we do not profess to know God, but by our ungodly use of wealth deny Him (Titus 1:16). Although there are far more dangers than James lists here, he hits four ungodly uses of wealth: hoarding (5:2-3); cheating people out of money (5:4); living in luxury while disregarding the needs of others (5:5); and, hurting innocent people for the sake of gain (5:6). These seem to move in a progression from least to worst. Yielding to what may seem like a small sin always exposes us to worse sins.
3. Our responsibility is to be faithful to God in the realm of financial stewardship.
This life is not final. The wicked may live luxuriously on earth and oppress the righteous with no consequences. The test will be the final judgment and eternity. It requires faith to accept this. You either trust in money that you now see or in the Lord that you will see one day. If you trust in the Lord, then you will be a good steward of the money and possessions that He entrusts to you. He owns it all; we must give an account to Him of how we used it.
Everything we have is a gift from God (James 1:17). Anything we have used on this earth to amass any wealth was created by God (John 1:3). He created man (the labor force and the minds used to create all things from the raw materials He created (Genesis 1:27). Men can’t boast about anything God created (2 Corinthians 10:17). We are to be careful not to fall into temptations (1 Corinthians 10:12-13), but instead to be thankful to God for all that He provides (Psalm 100:3).
Jesus says (Luke 16:10), “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.” In the context, the “very little thing” is money! It’s a big thing to us, but to God, it’s a little thing that He uses as the litmus test to prove whether you’ll be faithful with more important things. In the context, the “much” refers to eternal souls. If you want God to entrust true spiritual riches to you, prove yourself by being faithful in managing the finances He has entrusted to you.
Wealth is a good tool, if we are careful to use it as stewards for the Lord. But it is a dangerous trap if we adopt a worldly perspective towards it. Remember Paul’s words, “It is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (1 Cor. 4:2). (See also Do the Good You Know You Ought To Do)
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13) Money can easily take God’s place in your life. It can become your master. Money is a hard and deceptive master. Wealth promises power and control (in the world), but often it cannot deliver. No amount of money can provide health, happiness, or eternal life. How much better it is to let God be your Master? His servants have peace, joy, and security, both now and forever.