If I Were A Rich Man
by Jack Wald | January 26th, 2014

James 5:1-6

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be rich? Imagine what you could do if you had more money than you knew what to do with? Do you ever spend time thinking about this? Fiddler on the Roof is a musical set in 1905 Tsarist Russia. The protagonist is a poor, Jewish dairyman named Tevye. In this song, If I Were A Rich Man, he laments his poverty and fantasizes about what it would be like to be wealthy.
I’ll be coming back to the lyrics of this song because they illustrate why I think James included today’s text in his letter. But first let me go back to last week when I preached from the end of chapter 4 and James’ exhortation to wealthy merchants in the church who were making plans without considering what the Lord wanted them to do. Rather than arrogantly boast about your plans for the future, James wrote (James 4:15)
you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

James wrote his letter to Jewish followers of Jesus in Palestine and the people he addressed were part of the church. In the text from last week he exhorted the wealthy merchants in the church. But in the passage this week, the next thought of James as he wrote his letter, he addresses people who were not necessarily part of the church. He gives a stern warning to the rich of the world and the question is: Why is James addressing people outside the church in this letter written for people in the church? James gives a stern, prophetic warning to the rich, but why does he do that in this letter that is not going to be read by them? He could have stood in front of the market place and delivered this warning. That is what the prophets of old would have done. Why does James deliver this prophetic warning in his letter to people in the church?

This raises the question of how this passage relates to us? Why should we pay attention to this text? Are any of us rich? Forbes magazine reported that the 85 richest people in the world control the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people in the world. Half the world’s wealth is controlled by the top 1% of the world’s population. You need to earn $350,000 US annually to qualify for this exclusive club. I don’t think any of us are living in that rarified 1%. Billionaire J. Paul Getty said, “If you can actually count your money, you are not really a rich man.” Even the wealthiest of us is dwarfed by the super-rich of the world.

But wealth is relative. I know a woman who lives near Francisco, California in a house that is assessed at 3.5 million dollars. She and her husband are comfortably in the top 1%. She has expensive cars, horses, and deluxe horse trailers and yet if I ask her if she is rich, she points to a member of the Saudi royal family who lives down the road and tells me he is the one who is rich. To us, she is rich. She has far more than we do. But some of us have men and women who come to our homes to clean, cook, and tend to our garden. If I asked these people to name someone who is rich, our names would be mentioned. Wealth is relative.

Sometimes we are wealthy, not because of what we currently have, but because of our future prospects. Most students in our church do not have a lot of income. There are some who come from wealthy families. But even the poorest of the students are rich because of the opportunity that awaits them when they finish their education.

I point out our relative wealth as a way of helping us to take the warnings in this passage to heart. There may be many people who are wealthier than we are, but most of us are still among the most privileged in the world and we need to hear this warning to the rich and take it to heart. We need to see how the truth in this passage speaks to us.

James is not alone in warning of the danger of wealth. The Bible is full of warnings to those who are rich.

Listen to these teachings of Jesus:
Luke 6:24
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.

Mark 10:23–25
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.”

Luke 16:13
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

Paul wrote to Timothy: (1 Timothy 6:17–19)
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Jesus talked a lot about wealth and possessions. Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables, 42%,  are concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses deal directly with the subject of money. The Christian New Testament offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. And much of the teaching on wealth and possessions warns us against the misuse of what we have.

You cannot live a life pleasing to God without considering your relationship with wealth and possessions and a large part of drawing near to Jesus is to let go of the hold our wealth and possessions have over us.

The Mark 10 passage I just quoted comes after Jesus spoke with the rich young ruler who came and wanted to follow Jesus. This was an admirable man: pious, respected, honest – by all our measures he was a man we would love to have in our church fellowship. But Jesus saw his heart and told him to sell his possessions, give the money away to the poor, and then come follow him.

It is in the light of the extensive Biblical teaching about the danger of wealth that we need to read this passage in James. Some of us have more wealth than others but the relevance of this passage is not how much wealth we have, but how much we want it. The danger of wealth is not in having it, but wanting it.

There is nothing wrong with wealth in itself. There are wealthy followers of Jesus who use their wealth for the advancement of the kingdom of God. Barnabas, in the book of Acts, was a wealthy man. John Mark, who wrote the Gospel of Mark was part of a wealthy family in whose home the church met. Lydia was a wealthy woman Paul met in Philippi who became a leader in the church and a great support to Paul.

Jesus relied on the support of wealthy women who traveled with him. (Luke 8:1–3)
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

But when one million is not enough and you want two million, then money has power over you and is destructive. And when you have no money and spend your days dreaming of what you would do if you had a lot of money, once again, money has power over you.

Paul does not say to Timothy, “Money is the root of all evil,” as it is often misquoted. This is what Paul wrote: (1 Timothy 6:9–10)
9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 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.

I know a man, a gifted leader with a vibrant faith in Jesus, who led a movement of house churches. He decided to go into business, something I encouraged him to do because I thought the church needed examples of men and women who had careers and were leaders in the church. But his eyes focused on the wealth and possessions of others around him. He took his eyes off Jesus and put them on a luxurious lifestyle. He took his enormous talent and energy and directed it to becoming wealthy. The consequence is that he has walked away from the church and is separated from his wife. He has wandered from the faith and is piercing himself with many griefs. Disaster is in his future.

This is such a tragedy. The Bible warns us about the danger of wealth. I warned my friend about the need for spiritual protection as he began his business career. We pray for those going out into the world to share their faith. We should pray equally for those who pursue a business career. Wealth is dangerous if we have it or don’t have it. Our love of money and pursuit of wealth is spiritually destructive.

Why does James include this warning in his letter to those in the church? John Calvin suggested he did this because James did not want people in the church to envy the wealthy. Since it is the love of money and not money itself that is destructive, when we envy the wealthy we are on a destructive path. Tevye sings, If I Were a Rich Man, and James tells us why this longing to be rich is mistaken.

Why should we not envy the rich? First of all, James says, judgment is coming.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.

A time is coming, has been a long time in coming, and will come sooner than we may think, when the pursuit of wealth and comfort in this world will come to an end. In the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, the dead will be raised and we will all face the judgment of God.

Revelation 6:12–17 describes this approaching time this way: there is a great earthquake, the sun turns black, the moon blood red, and the stars fall. This is an image of the devastation of the earth. This is understandingly terrifying.
15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

The wealthy who used their wealth to get into hotels and restaurants and resorts the rest of us could not enter, will stand with nothing in their hands to offer as they seek to enter heaven. The wealthy used their wealth to hire servants and security guards but they will have no one to offer them protection. They used their wealth to smooth their passage through life but they will be without resources to smooth this passage into eternity.

Secondly, James sees what is coming to those who put their life into their wealth:
Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 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.

This is a great text to be read this week when the World Economic Forum met in Davos, Switzerland. Each year the elite business, political, and academic leaders of the world gather. The goal this year was to discuss the growing disparity between rich and poor in the world. There are some who are predicting that the next decade will be a violent one with rioting populations angry at the injustice that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Those who are looking into the future know that this will be disruptive to the business community, which is why this was to be discussed. But a CNN reporter I listened to said, unfortunately, most people attending Davos this year were unconcerned with how to reduce the disparity between rich and poor and were focused on how they could make more money.

This warning of James needed to be heard by the attendees of Davos.

Thirdly, James says the rich will be judged because their wealth was accumulated unjustly.
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.

Is it true that all wealthy people have been unjust, have failed to pay those working for them? There are clearly wealthy people who have cheated and abused people to accumulate their wealth, but even ethically wealthy people have benefitted from a system that works to make the rich richer.

CEOs are making 273 times the pay of the average worker. Is this just? Is this fair? I understand the supply and demand forces in the marketplace, but there is something wrong about this huge disparity. When we buy our shirts and sneakers in the West that have been manufactured in the developing world, is there anything unjust about that? When people are put in unsafe buildings and work long hours for low pay so that those in the West can buy an inexpensive shirt or pair of sneakers, is there injustice present?

I would challenge anyone to find one significant financial transaction in the history of the world that has not made the rich richer and the poor poorer. In the history of the US this was true of the creation of the Federal Bank in the late 1700s, the building of a railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the 1800s, all the way up to the burst of the tech bubble in the stock market fourteen years ago at the end of the 1900s. Some have called this collapse of the tech bubble the most significant transfer of wealth from the middle class to the upper class in the history of the US.

The world of wealth is full of injustice.

James’ fourth complaint is:
You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.

When you have so much money, how do you spend it? You build larger and larger homes with more and more toys. You buy the jacket Michael Jackson wore in his video, Thriller, for 1.8 million dollars. You buy Lady Gaga’s autographed urinal for $460,000. You buy James Bond’s Walther PPK pistol for $437,000. I mentioned once in a sermon about a meal served in Bangkok in 2007 that cost $30,000 per person, not including tax or tip. An Australian-based jewelry company is selling a $50,000 diamond encrusted pacifier, or dummy as the English say – which seems to describe very well anyone who buys this.

Meanwhile, there are people dying because they don’t have enough food, because they lack access to good medical treatment, because they don’t have access to clean water. One out of every seven people in the world lives in a slum.

Judgment is coming as people are stepping over the poor, frantically working to make more money, buy more things, have more than others around them.

So let me tell you why I think you need to pay attention to this prophetic warning from James.

Don’t envy the rich. Don’t wish you were rich. Judgment is coming. Tevye wants a big house in the center of the town. He wants to be viewed by others as rich. He wants luxury and extravagance. “There would be one long staircase just going up, And one even longer coming down, And one more leading nowhere, just for show.” That’s a perfect illustration of the uselessness of luxury. Wealth is being piled up while the boat is sinking.

Don’t compete to have more than others around you. Tevye wants his wealth to shout out to the world that he is wealthy. “I’d fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks For the town to see and hear.” Their squawking “would land like a trumpet on the ear, As if to say ‘Here lives a wealthy man.’” It is not enough to have wealth, Tevye wants to have more than the others in his village. Do you want to be known as a godly person or a wealthy person. You choose.

When you seek wisdom, don’t look to the rich. If you want to make a lot of money, then it might be a good idea to see how the rich did it and try to do it yourself. But if you want to live a life pleasing to God and enter into his kingdom after you die your physical death, then you would do much better to find a godly woman or a godly man and find out what their secret to success has been.

Tevye wants to be rich so he will be respected. “The most important men in town would come to fawn on me! They would ask me to advise them, Like a Solomon the Wise. ‘If you please, Reb Tevye…’ ‘Pardon me, Reb Tevye…’ Posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!”

And then Tevye shows great understanding of how the wealthy are treated. “And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you’re rich, they think you really know!” When we know someone is wealthy, we defer to them, flatter them, look up to them, because we hope we will benefit in some way from them. Model yourself after someone who is heading for eternal life. Choose the way of life.

Don’t pay so much attention to the rich. This is not a sermon telling you to stop watching movies. But I am encouraging you to stop reading celebrity news. Stop finding vicarious enjoyment by reading about the lives of people heading toward destruction.

Alone Yet Not Alone is a film produced by an Evangelical film company. It has been endorsed by prominent Evangelical Christians. Joni Erickson Tada, a quadriplegic, Evangelical minister, sings a song in this film which, a couple of weeks ago, was surprisingly nominated for an Oscar for best song of the year. When the announcement was made there were boos in the audience. Although the film has nothing to do or say about homosexuality, critics complained that this film was supported by a “Who’s Who of Homophobic Haters.” The response to this song being nominated vividly shows the value system of Hollywood where anyone who views homosexual behavior as sin is condemned and dismissed.

In the film world where marriages rarely last, where unrestrained sexual freedom seems to be one of life’s highest values, it is not surprising that the world view of Hollywood is different than that of the Bible. So stop paying so much attention to the lives of the rich and famous. And pay attention to the world view that comes with the movies you watch. Discern the messages so you can be protected from their influence.

Read biographies of the great saints of the church. Our library has many biographies of unknown Christians who set out into the world to work with Jesus in building his kingdom. Read some of these stories and be inspired. I read a book a couple weeks ago about the marriage of Ken Tada and Joni Erickson. I try to read books like this, especially on my Sabbath day. Christians are not perfect but they sure can be inspiring.

Treat people who serve you, who work for you, with respect and honor. Pay them fairly. Be generous with them. When Tevye envisions his wife as a wealthy woman who supervises the cooking of meals rather than doing it herself, he sings: “I see her putting on airs and strutting like a peacock. Oy, what a happy mood she’s in. Screaming at the servants, day and night.” Tevye is looking at the wrong people for role models. Many rich people think others exist only to make the lives of the rich easier and more comfortable. But when we stand before the throne of judgment, it will not matter who was the employer and who was the employee. What will matter is how we loved people in the name of Jesus.

And one more exhortation. As I mentioned last week, keep your death before you. Realize that when you die you will leave everything behind. Get off the treadmill that keeps you racing for more and more and more of what the world offers. It is only going to disappear, fall between your fingers like sand at the beach. Look to Jesus. Learn from the godly people God puts into your life. Press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called you heavenward in Christ Jesus and leave the wealth of the world in the dust.