Bible Note #52: James 2:5-7 & the Problem of Wealth


Photo by GAC

I think I can safely say that James has a very low opinion of money and the accumulation of wealth.  Along with Paul, James gets his ideas about money and wealth from Jesus.  Jesus and all the New Testament writers are concerned about money and the accumulation of wealth because they believed that it had the power to deform and corrupt the human heart.  That way of seeing things is what’s behind this passage from James that I’m going to talk about today.  Here’s what James says in chapter 2 verses 5 to 7 of his letter:

Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? Yet you dishonored that poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism?

Now, there’s a lot packed into these verses, and I’m not going to be able to go into everything now.  But it is really clear that James does not think that becoming rich and accumulating a lot of wealth is a good thing for Christians to do.  So, we’re going to explore that a bit.

It is fair, I think, to say that James is not saying that simply having money makes a person a bad person.  But I think James does believe that having money is more likely to make you bad than to make you good.  I’m going to say that again:  I think James does believe that having money is more likely to make you bad than to make you good.  James would, I’m sure, agree entirely with Paul, who says this in I Timothy 6:10:  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Yes, you are right if you noticed that Paul does NOT say, “money is the root of all evil.”  He says, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  But I believe that Paul and James would both say that it’s very hard to have a lot of money and not love it.  It’s very hard to have a lot of money and not begin to depend on your bank account rather than God.  That’s why money—loving it and having a lot of it—can mutilate our hearts and souls.

I remember a conversation I had one summer while I was in college.  I was talking to a man who was a motivational speaker for high school and college students.  He knew I was working at a hospital to make money for my last year in college, and he asked me what my career plans were.  I told him that I was planning to be a pastor.  He told me that I should consider being a hospital administrator, because, he said, hospital administrators make a good living.  I responded that I thought I could enough money as a pastor.  His reply to me is still burned into my memory.  He said, “You can never make enough money.”  When he said that, I knew I was talking to the devil.

Photo by GAC

Even though they might not quite realize it, I find that most of us modern Americans believe exactly what that man believed:  you can never make enough money.  Most of us have lost the concept of “enough” in our lives.  And we don’t really feel safe and secure until we get a little more and then a little more and then maybe just a little more.  We trust God, well, that is as long as we have money in the bank.  You see, that’s how money corrupts and distorts and deforms our hearts and minds.

Now, you may be thinking, “Yes, well, but you don’t have to be rich to love money.  Poor people can love money too.”  And you would be right.  Anyone—rich or poor—can love or lust after money.  Lusting after money is something that everyone can do, and when you do it, it will deform your soul whether you are rich or poor.

And yet, James seems to believe that there are some special problems that come from having a lot of money.  And if we think about things a moment, James’s reasons aren’t that hard to understand.  Money is power.  Money gives us the power to do what we want.  And what we want most of all is to please ourselves.  Money will always tend to make us selfish.  Money enables us to exert power over other people.  We will always be prone to use our money to benefit ourselves.

Almost every American is rich by comparison to the majority of the world’s people.  And if James saw the way middle-class Americans live, he would certainly call us rich.  We need to listen to James’s warning in these verses.  And we need to do something to guard our hearts.

Giving is one of the actions we need to take in order to safeguard ourselves from the dangers of money.  We need to train ourselves to be very free about letting go of our money.  We need to give our money away freely and sacrificially.  Sacrificial giving means that we give away so much money that it begins to interfere with our spending.  We should give away so much money that we don’ have as much money to spend on ourselves as we would otherwise like to do.

I’m going to give you a tough word here.  Every middle-class American should be giving away at least 10% of their income.  I’ve never met a middle-class American who couldn’t give away 10% of their income if they wanted to.  The only reason middle-class Americans don’t give away at least 10% of their income is because they are spending too much on themselves.

I’m sorry if that sounds harsh.  But I’ve seen many people do it.  My wife and I have always given away at least 10% of our income.  Yes, occasionally a crisis might happen that makes it hard to do that.  But the main reason most American Christians don’t give away at least 10% of their income is because they spend too much on themselves.  They have a house that’s too big; they have cars that are too expensive; they have too many fancy doodads in their houses; they spend too much on clothes; they spend too much on vacations.  We American Christians spend too much money on ourselves.

If you want to heed James’s warning here, then start giving away more money.  Work toward 10%.  Then work toward 15%.  See how far you can go.

© 2022 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved; use with attribution.

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