For the Love of Money
Scripture Reading: James 5:1-20
Text: James 5:1-6
Sermon by Rev. Martin Overgaauw
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Bowmanville, Ontario
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 20, No. 2
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,
We live in a generation that is very much in tune to the world of high finance. Never before has there been so many investment companies with individuals who are there at your beck and call to dispense with their financial advice. It used to be that this group was reserved for, and catered only to, the wealthy, but nowadays they are a dime a dozen. But of course, the perimeters of wealth have widened to take in a large portion of society today. All of this might be something that is simply never talked about in our circles, but you would be surprised at how many people you know have a financial adviser. That’s not to say that going to such an individual is bad. But I only mention this to point out the world we live in today here in North America. How different it is now compared to what it was 30 years ago!
Naturally, along with all of this opportunity to invest wisely comes the fruits of those investments — a stock portfolio that will keep us out of the poor house for years to come. We’ll have money to last us, to see us through, even if hard times come. At least those are some of the promises made, but indeed, those are also some of the experiences of many individuals who have invested in the past and have tasted of the profits.
We’ve all heard the stories of people getting in on a good investment at ground level and riding it all the way to the top. So what we have is a society better educated in the world of stocks, mutual funds, and other forms of investment more so than in any other time in the history of the world. This also means that this truth flows over into the realm of the church. Christians are also in this business of investing money to make money. For some it is their livelihood, for others it is their hobby. For yet others, it is their future — their retirement. Again I add, it is not wrong to plan for your future. You are called to be stewardly with what God has given you. It is important to stress that final point — that this is what God has given you, because all too often it is noted as being “my” money, or “our” money. No, it is not, it is God’s money. All things come to us by His hand of providence. As Solomon says in Proverbs 10:22, “The blessing of the Lord makes one rich and He adds no sorrow with it.”
But the Bible also has some negative things to say regarding money. In I Timothy 6:6-10 we read: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (I Tim.6:6-10). Elsewhere, in II Timothy 3:2, Paul warns Timothy of those who will become lovers of money. Again in I Timothy, where we read of the qualifications for elder and deacon, we find that an elder or a deacon should not be greedy for money.
We come to the conclusion that the Lord does indeed bless His people, and some are even blessed with great wealth. Abraham was wealthy, as were Isaac and Jacob, and there are many others. But when wealth is acquired and it becomes a god, as it were, then trouble is sure to follow. Wealth that is not acknowledged as being from the Lord does not carry the Lord’s blessing. It breeds contempt and brings out characteristics of envy, hatred, disrespect, injustice and oppression. Those who have much in these situations are more concerned with gaining more, and so their levels of moral justice are all but wiped out.
These are friends with the world and enemies of God. They are the ones that James referred to as those who plan their lives without acknowledging God’s will in any aspect of their life, which also included their business trips into the city. Jesus called on such as these, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt.6:19-21).
If there is anything that will show the true condition of a man’s heart, it is his view of money. Many professing Christians deny their profession of faith when they engage in the materialistic lifestyle of the world around them. James, throughout this epistle, was putting forward tests that would either show one’s faith to be real or show it to be lacking of any substance whatsoever. Here, in the opening verses of chapter 5, there is no exception. Here we find James engaged in a strong rebuke of those who profess to worship God, but in fact worship at the throne of money. Their motivation is “The love of money.” James points out the self-focus that wealth brings.
So today let us consider wealth, and let us see, first, the self-centeredness of wealth; second, the self-indulgence of wealth; and third, the self-righteousness of wealth.
The fact that wealth makes us self-centered, I think, goes without saying. When one is no longer wanting he is no longer depending. He becomes independent — self-sufficient — self-reliant. Where does God fit in when one has more than he needs? Yet I would dare say that everyone secretly desires a certain level of wealth — over and above what they already have. Oh, some hide that desire under the guise of wanting just enough so as to buy a few little extras. Others are more open about it all, and make the declaration that they would then give more for the work of God’s kingdom. You ought to hear those who justify the lottery. But the focus every time is on self and how much better life would be for self.
Yes, we all have a desire for wealth. After all, money is needed in order to pay for food, clothing and shelter. But what happens when we fall into the patterns just spoken of? What happens when we, because we work hard, or because we have invested wisely, accumulate wealth at a quicker rate than we can spend it, or at a quicker rate than we dare spend it? We begin to hoard it, and so we begin to focus only on ourselves. Some may follow this pattern because of the hard times that they went through during the depression. Knowing what it is like to be without, they pray that they will never be without again. And so they dare not spend a penny. All their energy is spent on maintaining their investment portfolio. Fear plays more of a role, and because of that fear, greed overtakes the reasoning of these ones. These problems are not immune to the church.
As we all know, James wrote to those in the church. In our text he first of all warns those who are rich. He says in verse 1, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you!” There is a day coming, he says, where you will answer for your actions. Your wealth may be your pride today, but tomorrow it will be your downfall. Stop looking only to yourself. Then he goes on, “Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten.”
In those days riches were measured in different ways. James here considers a couple of those ways. “Your riches are corrupted.” That means that your wealth accumulated in material things such as perishable goods are now rotten. The self-centeredness of wealth has caused you to keep more than you need and now you are unable to keep it any longer. It sits and rots and goes to waste. And “your garments are moth-eaten.” The garments of rich cloth just hang in your closet. They have become food for the moths. How foolish is that?
Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days.” This is what happens when you hoard your wealth, when you allow it to be the central focus of your life. Your collection of precious metals becomes corroded. Your gold and silver are beginning to rust because they are no longer being used — they just sit there. But this is going to catch up with you.
The world today is a far cry from what it was then. We don’t measure our wealth in the same fashion, but the same principle applies. The government allows a certain percentage of your taxable income to be set aside in RRSPs. If I were to set aside my allowance there wouldn’t be anything left for me to provide for my family. But that is precisely the way some go about it. There is enough to live on, but the rest is put away to plan for the future. Again, let me emphasize that there is nothing wrong with RRSPs, or investing for the future, but the problem comes when it becomes our obsession — when we do it to the neglect of laying all things before the Lord. “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (James 4:15). That’s the principle by which we must live.
But James goes on. “Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” Your self-centeredness has made you to overlook your fellow man — he who was created in the image of God just like you.
Beloved, we’re all familiar with unions. Some of you are members of a union. Unions were established to compensate for those employers who took advantage of their employees. They gave a voice to the voiceless. They kept things in order. They have served their purpose. But now it is they who carry too much weight. Their demands have now put the shoe on the other foot. The self-centeredness of employers has now widened to include the self-centeredness of employees. Everyone wants to be rich. No one wants to be ripped off. Everyone thinks that he/she is worth more than they are getting. These actions are self-centered and they deny God. They deny the work of Christ. They deny the profession of faith of those who give lip-service to God, but whose main desire is to get back to the business of making money. These two cannot co-exist. Where your heart is, that is where your treasure will be.
There is also the self-indulgence of wealth. Here too, it goes without saying. Wealth — at least wealth that is built up without the blessings of God, by virtue of that fact alone cannot help but be self-indulgent. Glory is denied God, because God is no longer the central focus of life, and because these ones are more intent on self-gratification than on giving glory to God. It all comes down to no longer being dependent.
James writes, “You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter.” There are two statements here and the premise of each one is obvious. These wicked rich, who have increased their wealth on the backs of their laborers, live the soft life. They live luxuriously. We all would like a taste of that — the pampered life. But look at what expense. You remember the rich man and Lazarus? This rich man had it all. He lived the good life. But he was so self-indulgent that he could not see the need of his fellowman. He walked right by Lazarus. His life was more important than this so-called low-life of the earth who took up space at his gate begging for a crumb — a crumb that this one refused to give. The pleasures of life were the attraction, and not the service to life — the service to God. Wealth makes the world revolve around the wealthy, while everyone else is subservient to the keepers of the cash.
But there is an emptiness in this self-indulgence. It is always said that money cannot buy happiness. That is all too clear when we read the testimony of the wealthiest man that ever lived. I read from Ecclesiastes 2:4-10: “I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor.” It all sounds good so far. But listen to this one’s confession in the very next verse, “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.”
But James writes, wealth causes those to “fatten their hearts as in a day of slaughter.” Here he has in mind the cattle who are allowed to gorge themselves on food, oblivious to their end. Just as cattle are fattened for the day of slaughter, so too are these wicked rich men busy living a life of self-indulgent luxury and wild abandon, all the while unaware of the impending day of slaughter. For these ones, their doom is sure and their end is swift. As one author put it, “Blind to heaven, deaf to the warnings of hell, insensitive to the impending day of slaughter and judgment, the unrepentant, selfish, indulgent hoarders stumble blindly to their doom. Unless they repent, James warns, they will experience damnation.”
Finally let us also see the self-righteousness of wealth. To be self-righteous is to look at oneself as being morally superior to those around you. Tell me that this is not a characteristic of the wealthy. These ones are called snobs. They turn their noses up at those who have less than they. Their attitudes are condescending. They walk all over others. They trample them underfoot — all for their own selfish gain. Their self-righteousness pictures their own agenda while all else must fall in line behind. Such as these you ought not to be, says James. He points again at these wicked rich and he accuses, “You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.”
What is implied here in this verse is that the wicked were using the courts to annihilate the poor man. It is not stated that these poor were even in opposition to them. In fact, it says that they did not resist. They turned the other cheek, as it were. But these rich were bound and determined, for whatever reason, to make a lesson of these ones. They used their influence to buy their brand of justice in the courts of law, thereby in effect murdering that one.
It seems that the rich thought that because of their wealth, the world was in their pocket. Oftentimes that is indeed the case by way of payoffs and such. The wealthy buy their way through life. The courts and law enforcement, even today, can easily be persuaded with the financial blessings of the wealthy. Nothing new is under the sun. Those in high places see only those under them, and it is these they desire to subdue. Look at Solomon again as he writes in Ecclesiastes. “If you see the oppression of the poor, and the violent perversion of justice and righteousness in a province, do not marvel at the matter; for high official watches over high official, and higher officials are over them” (Ecclesiastes 5:8).
Beloved, this speaks to a problem in the church, a problem found in others within the church. It serves as a warning to each one of us. Jesus was clear, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt.6:24) In an age where wealth abounds — where money is easily made, given some shrewd investments, some providential purchases of land that, at first, was far outside the city, but now is valuable land needed to expand the city — the temptations are ever before us to look upon wealth as being freedom — freedom from worry and anxiety — freedom to buy those things you’ve always wanted — those things you’ve always felt you needed to make your life complete.
The sin among these Jewish brethren was blatant. It was obvious. These ones did not try to hide. Everything was out in the open. But in today’s world we can hide behind a strong work ethic while the main intent is to make as much money as possible with the idea of a life of pleasure and luxury somewhere down the road. We can hide behind God’s call to be stewardly, and amass a small fortune for a “rainy day.”
Oh beloved, it is a reminder to us again of the dangers of wealth. It is something that is so much desired, yet it can bring so much grief. It can become our master. If that should happen, we automatically forsake the God of our youth. He takes second place over and above our riches. May it be that we would echo the sentiments of the wisdom of Agur, “Give me neither poverty nor riches -— feed me with the food allotted to me, lest I be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:9). Our hearts can find true contentment only in Him. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).
Wealth can be seen as a blessing from God. It could be that God looks upon you favorably and so blesses you, presenting to you an opportunity to do good. But that can be true only of those who are also rich in faith and rich toward God. In order for wealth to be a source of blessing, one cannot be self-centered; he cannot be self-indulgent; he cannot be self-righteous. As the young people enter into the world of careers, set these teachings of scripture ever before you. So often it is the temptation to seek out the career with the most lucrative payout. But it can lead to no end of misery — not only in this life, but for all eternity.
Consider Paul’s charge to Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” (I Timothy 6:17-19) Amen.