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Sunday, October 31, 2021

Come Now, You Rich People…

 A sermon based on James 5: 1-6

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

October 31th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 10/12


Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.

 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.

 3 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.

 4 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.

 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (Jas. 5:1-6 NRS)


There’s practically websites out there with information about everything; and many of them are also about nothing.  In preparation for this message, I came across one strange article about the most ridiculous things rich people buy like

           a shirt made out of gold,

John Lennon’s tooth,

a weather station---not a small one like many people have, but the same kind as a news room might have; even bigger.   

Also on that list was Steve McQueen’s GT Mustang,

a negative of Abraham Lincoln’s Portrait,

a town called Bridgeville which is mainly a Bridge,

spending almost 4 million dollars to have lunch with Warren Buffett,

            and finally, spending $ 30 million for notes written by Leonardo Da Vinci.


Now, of course, there’s certainly nothing wrong with a wealthy person spending their own money on whatever they want to buy, but there is something terribly wrong with a wealthy person not realizing their responsibility in being rich.



Today’s text from James starts out in the face of the rich and wealthy.   But who are these rich people?


Well, to begin with, it’s not just them, but it’s also us. If you have a somewhat normal life in these United States this conversation includes us too. 


For compared to the rest of the world, we are a rich people.  While the US is only 5 % of the world’s population, we hold over 30% of the world’s wealth.  In most practical terms, most of us have inherited much, been given much, earned much, and have much more than we need.   


If we had a warm place to sleep last night, had a good meal before bedtime, and if we have accessible medical care, even if things are somewhat difficult for us in this moment like it has been during the Covid pandemic, we are still to be considered rich, wealthy, and blessed. We have opportunities most people of the world can only dream about.


So, if being rich is such a blessing and advantage, why is James shoving it down our throats; or it at it least sounds like he is?


Perhaps a story can help us understand where James might be coming from.   This story is about Erasmus, the great Dutch Renaissance scholar who was a contemporary of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the great reformers of the church in the 15th and 16th century.   


The story goes that Erasmus was once watching with the pope as wagonloads of wealth were brought through the gates of the Vatican. Turning to Erasmus, the pope observed. "No longer can the church say with Peter, 'Silver or gold have I none….'"   


Erasmus replied, "True. And neither can the church say to the lame man, 'Take up your bed and walk.'"


Folks, there is something about being too comfortable, too secure….and being able to relax in luxury.   Money can change a person.  Riches can even ruin a person and bring upon us a different kind of pain worse than poverty itself.  This is part of the reason why James gives a warning to the wealthy folks in and around his church. 

In the most graphic words possible James warns, ‘Your wealth can eat your flesh like fire.’ 

Well, what does James mean by such threatening language as this? 

To try to answer let’s start with a sort of overview.  In this short little book, James challenges the “rich” in their way of living and lack of caring responsibility with their money.   While James never goes so far as to say that it is wrong to have money, he does agree with Paul that the love of money can be the root of all kinds of evil; especially when rich employers take advantage of the poor.    In other words, while having money isn’t right or wrong, but how we use the money we have can be.  

In this little short book, this is the 3rd time that money and rich people are the main topic.  

The first word came in James 2:6 were James speaks to the church about how they favor the rich and show favoritism to them, wondering why a poor church would do this.  James asks: Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?   Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?  The point is that the rich often take unfair advantage over others and that they can even speak negatively toward God too.  

In the other reference, it’s implied that the rich live presumptuously, having big plans, saying, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.”   The rich, or the would-be rich have money, but they constantly plan to make and have more money.  James warns anyone who thinks they have complete control over their own destiny:  Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (4:13-14).

Beyond these two warnings the warning in chapter 5 is the strongest.   Here, James speaks most directly to those who are both inside and outside, the church.  In no uncertain terms, he warns about the negative effects of having money and wants his readers to understand that judgement is coming upon those who are being irresponsible toward others. 

Getting everyone’s attention, so they can avoid these very negative consequences is what James meant when he wrote so graphically, “Your wealth can eat your flesh like fire!”


So, what is James’ point?   Why does James seem to speak so graphically?  What is James trying to say and why should we even listen?

Years ago, there used to be a commercial that ended with the phrase, “Well, It’s Your Pocketbook.”    That little catch-phrase can guide our understanding of what James is talking about.    

After James gives us his very graphic warning about the misuse of money, the then gets to the ‘pocketbook’ question of the average, working person.   In other words, it’s not only the wealthy who are being hurt because of what holding on to wealth can do to a person, but the poor, working-man and woman are being hurt even more.  This is what James is referring to in verse 4, after the says, “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.

When wealthy people, especially those who are employers, only hold on to their money so they can live in luxury, while their workers struggle to make ends meet, people suffer unnecessarily, and as James implies, ‘If we aren’t listening, we better become aware, that God is listening!

Back in 1885 a young man became pastor of the Second Baptist Church in New York City, which was located at the edge of a depressed area known as Hell's Kitchen.   

Almost immediately, the new enthusiastic pastor confronted extreme levels of unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, disease, and crime. "Oh, the children's funerals! they gripped my heart," he wrote. One of the things he couldn’t stop thinking about was ‘why---why did the children have to die?"

The young pastor then immersed himself in the current literature of social reform and he began to participate in social action groups.  

Slowly his ideas took shape. He had come to the pastorate "to save souls " but not all the problems he confronted could be addressed in this way.  Though his friends urged him to give up his social work for spiritual work, he believed his social work was also Christ's work, because Jesus not only cured souls, he cured bodies as well.

That German-American pastor, Walter Rauschenbusch was both an optimist and a realist.   He never believed society could become perfect, but he saw that could pray toward the kingdom, with deeds, not just words.   He worked out the implications of his thinking and pastoral work with a group of other young Baptist ministers in a group called, ‘The Brotherhood of the Kingdom’.   His approach toward the gospel, as not only spiritual, but also social, came to be called ‘the social gospel’.   Later, in 1907, after becoming a Baptist professor, his work was introduced to a much larger audience and has impacted the social consciousness of Christians across all denominations.

When I was growing up, I heard a lot of negativity concerning ‘the social gospel’.  The social gospel was preached as the neglect of the spiritual gospel of the Bible.  But here, we see clearly that James, based upon the life and ministry of Jesus, did see that there was a ‘social’ side of the gospel too.   What James reminds us, just as he reminded his own readers, is that the true gospel of Jesus Christ is ‘social’, not only spiritual, and the true gospel has earthly, not just heavenly ramifications.

It’s interesting to know where the pastor, Walter Rauschenbusch began to be affirmed in his thinking that the gospel was also social.   First, of course, it came from reading the Hebrew Prophets, and realizing that the kingdom of Israel fell because it neglected the needs of the poor.  But the pastor was also inspired by a little book by Charles Sheldon, entitled, “In His Steps”.  In that book, Pastor Walter Rauschenbusch couldn’t avoid the question, “What Would Jesus Do!”


To sum up, everything James says reminds us that God cares about not only spiritual issues, but also the social issues in our lives.   This means that not only does God care, but we’d better listen and care about the social and economic needs of working person and the poor too.    


Just like the Hebrew prophets warned Israel, long ago:   If we don’t address the needs of people, especially the needs of the poor and vulnerable, then those problems will come to haunt us.  We may think that our money and wealth can shield and protect us, but if we neglect the needs the world around us, judgement is coming.


During the Covid Pandemic, I think we’ve all learned important lessons about life and living.   These are some hard lessons we even didn’t want to learn, but often needed to learn.   One of those hard lessons is how interconnected we all are in this world.   The Virus that is impacting one part of the world can impact another.  The Vaccines that are given out in the rich nations, need to also reach the poorer nations too.  If not, this deadly virus can mutate and come back around to us, again and again.


It’s that way most parts of life, but we don’t always see it.  We don’t see that poor health care in one part of the world or society can also impact the health care even in the richer parts of the world too.  We also don’t realize that the difficult, and often unfair economic situation in some people’s lives can come back to lessen the quality of life everywhere.  


Still, as Christians, our reason for caring to prevent bad things from happening to us.  No, as Christians, we must care, because Jesus taught us to care.  And this real Jesus in the Bible and of the Bible, not only cared for people’s soul’s, he also cared about people’s bodies too, and not only spiritually, but also socially; not only religiously, but also economically too.   The true Jesus came, not only to grant eternal life, but to give us abundant life, here and now.


I’m convinced that the much of the problem behind much of the social unrest in our times, isn’t simply black or white, Hispanic or North American.   No, I’m convince that behind much of the racial issues, is really fear.  Since we still don’t have a strong social, medical-safety net in this country,  people are still afraid.  People know, subconsciously, that in a world without a safety net; everyone is just one sickness away from poverty.  


It was that way in James’ day too.  If the employers withheld funds from their workers, just so they could enrich themselves; families could go hungry.   Most people then, like people too many people today, work three jobs to survive, and then barely live from paycheck to paycheck, due to no fault of their own.   That kind of situation shouldn’t happen in the richest country of the world.    James reminds us that God hears the cries of those who are struggling.  Hopefully, we all are listening too.   Amen.   

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