Material Wealth and Spiritual Health (James 5:1–6)

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Warning! Warning! Warning!

Warnings are helpful if heeded. They are beneficial if believed. To overlook or ignore warning signs is to risk or invite varying degrees of inconvenience, pain, and even disaster.

When the light turns yellow, the wise driver slows down. When the parent starts counting, the wise child settles down.

When the teacher says “this could be on the final,” the wise student writes it down. Warnings are helpful if heeded.

This is certainly true in the medical field. Doctors look for warning signs in their patients that may indicate something is awry—high blood pressure or low blood sugar; sensitivity to light or insensitivity to touch; elevated white blood cell count or rapidly dropping body weight; swelling, sweating, or shortness of breath.

None of these are problems but, rather, they are possible symptoms of problems. They are potential warning signs that can be helpful if heeded, beneficial if believed. However, to overlook or ignore them could have devastating results. 

And the same holds true for our spiritual lives.

When lights start to flash on our spiritual dashboard, it’s important to take those warnings seriously, to consider them as possible indictors of a more hidden problem to be addressed. We ignore them at our own risk.

In the final chapter of James the author introduces one such potential warning sign, a potential dipstick for our spiritual oil levels, a litmus test for our relationship with God.

It’s our money. It’s our wealth.

What God reveals in the opening six verses of this chapter is that material wealth can reveal spiritual health. Through these verses, the Holy Spirit will invite us to look at our relationship with our possessions and prayerfully ask the question: Is the warning light on? If so, we dare on overlook or ignore it.

Who, me!?

Now, you may reject the idea that you’re wealthy and, by North American standards you may not be. In fact, you may consider yourself poor.

But when the Bible talks about poverty, it’s typically referring to those who are homeless, hopeless, helpless, and totally destitute. Those characters in Scripture who are labeled or treated as poor often have nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and nowhere to stay.

So, with the bar that low, I think it’s safe to say that most of us, having what we need and then some, are varying degrees of wealthy.

A warning for the wealthy

And so, we can all heed James’ stern warning for the wealthy.

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you (5:1).

He’s prophesying, looking to the future and revealing that tragedy is on the horizon should this warning be ignored. It’s a disaster so intense that its anticipation causes audible lament.

Like a doctor who tells a patient that if they continue to live the way they have been living, their body will inevitably shut down, organ by organ, until it stops functioning. So too, James is saying, for those who trust in their physical wealth, there is heartbreak on the horizon. 

For the Christian who struggles with the love of money there will be a day when that idol is exposed.

For the non-Christian, those who trust in their material prosperity instead of Christ, the consequences are far more serious.

Where their wealth came from

As the text moves on we learn more about these particular rich people to whom James is rebuking. We learn, for starters, where their wealth came from.

Behold, the pay of the labourers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth (5:4)

At least part of their wealth was built by exploiting workers. They were wealthy enough to have hired hands but were getting more wealthy by not paying them properly.

This was in direct disobedience to God’s commands. For example:

You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning (Lev. 19:13).

In an age where people lived day-to-day, that is, what they earned fed their family, to withhold wages wasn’t only an inconvenience, it was a matter of life and death! James is warning these rich people, pointing out the error of their ways.

And that’s a warning you and I would be wise to heed as well and ask ourselves, where have my riches come from? Has it been entirely by righteous means? 

Remember, there’s no indication that the rich being warned by James made every cent they had by exploiting others. Some of it was probably honest money. The point is some of it was dishonest, and that was enough to reveal their hearts.

Have I exaggerated to get a raise? Have I deceived to make a deal? Have I stolen time from my employer? Is my resume accurate? Are my taxes handled honestly?

I heard recently someone talk about the reputation of a specific church that included dishonest businessmen in leadership. Singing on Sunday, slippery on Monday. Is that me at all?

Our sources of material wealth can reveal our spiritual health.

How their wealth was used

But where wealth comes from is only warning light. James’ audience is also being rebuked for how their wealth was used. Not only how it was coming in, but also what they were doing with it once they had it.

First, they stored it up. They were just collecting it for the sake of collecting it. 

It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure (5:3c)!

There are godly ways of saving money presented for us in the Bible: Saving money to leave an inheritance for your children (Prov. 13:22; 2 Cor. 12:14) and saving to give to the church (1 Cor. 16:1–3).

But far more often the Bible warns about ungodly types of saving—futilely hoarding wealth like the people in James 5 (e.g., Psa. 38:7; Zech. 9:3; Matt. 6:19; Luke 12:16–21). They aren’t saving for their children or for their church, but for themselves.

And this is highlighted by the second way they were using their money: they lived in luxury.

You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure (5:5a).

They were storing up their wealth and using it on themselves in frivolous, extravagant, and wasteful ways. 

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying God’s gifts, but when it becomes the primary focus of affluence, when the goal is hedonistic opulence, we are fattening ourselves, metaphorically (and, perhaps literally), for the day of judgement when all true motives will be exposed.

Finally, we find the rich in James 5 using their affluence to control the courts.

You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you (5:6).

They were leveraging their influence and power to bend the law to their own benefit. James has already bemoaned the negative influence the rich can have in 2:6 when he asked them, “Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?”

Not only were these wealthy people acquiring their wealth in ungodly ways, but they were using it in ungodly ways as well.

And just as you and I were forced to examine our income, so we should be pushed to examine our use of God’s money. As believers, we confess that it’s all his and it’s out of his generosity that he’s entrusted some to us. How are we using it?

When I examine my bank statement, is there evidence of selfishness? What percentage of my spending is acts of generosity and what percentage is self-serving? Do my expenditures communicate that luxury is important? There’s nothing inherently wrong with comfort, but when it becomes a priority, that may be an issue. Do I use my wealth as leverage to get what I want?

Our use of material wealth can reveal our spiritual health.

What their wealth will do

We’ve seen where their wealth came from and how their wealth was being used. James next points to the future and reminds his readers what their wealth will do. He wants to remind them of reality.

First, it will fade.

Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted (5:2–3a).

Everything that they store up, everything that they enjoy for luxury, and everything they use to leverage to get their way, all of it will eventually corrode, rust, fade, and spoil. It’s been rightly observed that you never see a hearse pulling a U-haul. In other words, you can’t take it with you. It will rot, it will spoil, it will fade.

Secondly, and of more concern, it will judge. The way they have used their wealth will be used as evidence against them in the day of judgement.

… and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. … Behold, the pay of the labourers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. … you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter (5:3–5).

If the Lord asks me one day, “How committed to me were you? How hard did you follow after me? How dedicated to my cause were you?” I could answer a number of ways, I could plead my case, I could suggest I was pretty good. But no matter what I say, if my life-long bank statement is called to the stand to testify, the truth is going to be revealed—the good and the not so good. Though it will fade, my material wealth will reveal and judge my spiritual health.

Why we should care today

So, why should we care today? James wrote two millennia ago, why should we take heed of this same warning? Why does our relationship with money matter? I want to suggest two reasons in summary. 

First, because it has eternal significance. What we do with our wealth today matters tomorrow and into eternity. It’s not a time-locked issue. It has long-lasting consequences. 

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to set aside some time each year to prayerfully and submissively examine you use of money. How am I getting it? How am I using it? Do I understand its temporary nature? Am I laying up treasure in heaven?

We tend to think of money as non-spiritual, but as we’ve seen today it really is anything but that. Our church budget, just like your home budget, is a possible indicator of our spiritual health. We should care today because it has eternal significance.

Second, because it has gospel significance. Jesus couldn’t have said it more clearly: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). When we, as Christians, understand that in Christ we have all the riches we could ever want (e.g. Eph. 3:8), it should change the way we look at our earthly riches!

I would suggest that the more one understands the meaning and implications of the gospel as it applies to their life, the less likely they will be included in James’ warning. When our hearts and minds are filled with the riches of Christ—eternal life, rewards, kingdom positions, etc.—material wealth on this side of eternity matters far less. We are less likely to gather riches wrongly, use riches selfishly, and we are more likely to understand that it all fades away.

Warnings are helpful if heeded. They are beneficial if believed. To overlook or ignore warning signs is to risk or invite varying degrees of inconvenience, pain, and even disaster. Let us not fail to mind the warning light of our finances as our material wealth can often reveal our spiritual health.