Cashing In On Sin
Scripture: James 5:1–6
Cashing In On Sin
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Pastor Randy Smith
Many years ago the famous American writer, Mark Twain, gave his perspective on money couching it in spiritual language: "What is the chief end of man? To get rich. In what way? Dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one and only true? Money is God. Gold and Green Backs and Stock - father, son, and ghosts of same, three persons in one; these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme" (Reflections, Christianity Today, 6-12-00).
You might find the language offensive, but the reality is true. The biggest idol in the world, including the church, is money. I have seen it cause tremendous spiritual and personal destruction. So as your pastor who loves you, I am not ashamed to deal with this sensitive subject.
But it is beyond me. Money and the ways we handle it are a big deal in the eyes of God. I am not surprised that over 800 verses in our Bibles deal with the subject of money. Jesus frequently taught on this topic. As a matter of fact He spoke about money more than He taught on the subject of heaven and hell combined.
Randy Alcorn in his book, "The Treasure Principle" said, "There is a fundamental connection between our spiritual lives and how we think about and handle money. We may try to divorce our faith and our finances, but God sees them as inseparable" (p. 8).
Jesus Christ could not have been any clearer: "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth" (Mt. 6:24).
Permit me to say from the start that money in and of itself is not evil. As I said last week, there is nothing wrong with capitalism. There is even nothing wrong with being wealthy (cf. Dt. 8:18; Pr. 10:12). We know from Scripture that several individuals who God commends were very well off, people to the likes of Abraham, Job, David, Josiah, Philemon, Joseph of Arimathea and Lydia. Money is not the culprit. The culprit is our hearts promoting the sinful attitude and use of the money. That is what we'll be talking about this morning.
We have been learning that God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Jas. 4:6). We have been learning how these believers were deprived of God's grace because they were filled with pride. They were living in arrogance. They were speaking against one another, failing to consider God and His authority alone to judge (Jas. 4:11-12). They were planning on their own, failing to consider God and His will (Jas. 4:13-17).
Now as we turn the page to chapter 5 (no chapter breaks in the original), we see where God highlights more arrogance in the community. In this case He is addressing wealthy landowners who were using their money and again failing to consider God and His expectations. I personally think these were unbelievers, but mentioned in this letter to the church so that the Christians who were being exploited would not envy their financial status and also so that they would be comforted that God would avenge their injustice.
Warning: These are perhaps the six harshest verses in the book of James. No punches are pulled. Yet I trust there is application for all of us. I have no doubt that when we conclude you will have a better understanding of how God wants you to use your money, which as we know is really money that ultimately belongs to Him.
The group is addressed in verse 1: "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you."
So the audience is the rich. As I have said already, we do know at this point that these were wealthy people exploiting the Christians, yet there is nothing wrong with being rich in and of itself.
The calling for them in verse 1 is to "weep" and "howl" (cf. Jas. 4:9-10; Lk. 6:24-25). These are words we often see used in the Old Testament in connection with the prophets who called people to repentance (Isa. 13:6; 15:3; Am. 8:3). The context is always the coming judgment for sin. The point is judgment will involve "weeping" and "howling." You ought to be "weeping" and "howling" now because you recognize the awfulness of your sin leading to repentance, rather than continuing in your sinful action and face eternal misery on the Day of Judgment and a much greater "weeping" and "howling." You see my friends, either we are broken now over our sin and its offense to our heavenly Father, or the day will come when we will be eternally broken with no hope of relief. Or as James puts it at the end of verse 1, "for your miseries which are coming upon you" (again compare with "miserable" from 4:9).
So with verse 1 under our belt, how we use our money is important to God. Money can keep us out of heaven. Our use of money is one of the finest indicators that reveals the state of a person's heart. As a matter of fact, we will see this morning that wealth can either be a great blessing or a great spiritual handicap (Mt. 6:24; Lk, 12:15, 34; Mk. 10:22-17).
So why the harsh condemnation? Exactly what were these people doing wrong with their money that was causing them to face eternal damnation? I have four points for you this morning.
First, they were hoarding. Back in the ancient world, especially in this agrarian society, wealth was measured by three sources: Harvested crops, clothing and precious metals. Keep those in mind as I read verses 2-3: "Your riches [probably crops] have rotted and your garments [clothing] have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver [precious metals] have rusted." In a sense, James is speaking metaphorically of the foolishness of hoarding that which is temporary in nature (Pr. 23:4-5).
Bertha Adams was seventy-one years old. She died alone in West Palm Beach Florida on Easter Sunday, 1976. The coroner's report read "Cause of death…malnutrition." After wasting away to fifty pounds, she could no longer stay alive. When the state authorities made their preliminary investigation of her home, they found a veritable "pigpen…the biggest mess you can imagine." One seasoned inspector declared he'd never seen a dwelling in greater disarray. The woman had begged food from neighbors and gotten what clothes she had from the Salvation Army. From all appearances she was a penniless recluse - a pitiful and forgotten widow. But that was not the case. Amid the jumble of her unclean, disheveled belongings, two keys were found in her home which led officials to safe-deposit boxes at two different local banks. The discovery was unbelievable. The first box contained over 700 AT&T stock certificates, bonds, and solid financial securities, and a stack of cash amounting to nearly $200,000. The second box had $600,000 in cash. The woman had over a million dollars. (Hughes, James, p. 214).
This is an extreme example, but it depicts the tragic reality of hoarding what God has given us. There is wisdom in preparing for the future, but when does the point come that we have accumulated too much? At what point does our accumulation of stuff reveal a heart that is selfish and too absorbed with the things of this world? When do our luxuries cross the line and become needs?
The warning is found at the end of verse 3, "And their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!"
Let me put a positive spin on each of the four points. So if this tragic outcome reveals a heart that has rejected Jesus Christ, what reveals a heart that truly loves Him?
People who hoard are obsessed with their possessions. Accumulation is the key. Their life has become a cul-de-sac. Everything that God provides reaches a dead end street once it hits their hands. They become like that "fool" in Luke 12 who was always building bigger barns to hoard more possessions (Lk, 12:18).
Such an attitude is subChristian. Jesus Christ blesses us so that we may be His vessel used to bless others. We are His conduits. Perhaps it is to care for the needy or support a ministry or win the lost. The goal is to advance His eternal kingdom with the temporary treasures He provides. There will be no U-Haul behind your hearse. Keeping perishable items to ourselves is foolish when we can exchange them for eternal gold. Using them to glorify our Savior brings us the greatest joy. We are not part of a rotting world. We have been called to newness and life and regeneration and transformation. View all things as a means to those ends.
In addition to sinful hoarding, they were also cheating those dependent upon them, point number two. We read in verse 4, "Behold, the pay of the laborers 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."
In this culture, as it still is for many around the world, people lived day-to-day. For example, in our Lord's Prayer we are to ask for our "daily bread." With the difficulty to preserve food back then, combined with absolute poverty, every day was a challenge to stay alive. Every day was a call to provide food for your family (cf. Mt. 20:1-16).
So these Christians to whom James is writing are working for these wealthy landowners. They put in a full day's work, but then are not given their fair salary. The text says their salary was not delayed, but "withheld." In such a situation, we are not talking about the family going without Christmas presents. We are talking about the family going without food!
Obviously it goes without saying that our Lord expects us to make financial decisions that do not cheat others around us. We are to sell at a fair price. We are to keep our word when we promise money. We are to in many situations lend without interest. And we are to pay others who work for us in a respectable way.
When we hurt others with our financial decisions, especially when we jeopardize their ability to meet the necessities of life, the text says we bring upon ourselves God's judgment. This theme is frequently read in the Old Testament. For example, "Woe to him who…uses his neighbor's services without pay and does not give him his wages" (Jer. 22:13; cf. Lev. 19:13; Dt. 24:14-15; Mal. 3:5). The end of verse 4 indicates the same. The withheld money "cries out against you [cf. Gen. 4:10]; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth" [which is a literal interpretation for "The Lord of armies/hosts" or as NIV puts it, "The Lord Almighty"]. What we think we do in secret is not hidden from the eyes of God.
Again, if cheating another financially is the mark of an unredeemed heart, what does the heart of Jesus look like?
I think of those false teachers in Ephesus (mentioned in 1 Timothy 6:5) who supposed that godliness was a means of financial gain. Whatever it takes to make a buck! If godliness is in, then sell godliness! Just like those wealthy landowners, they used God's people and God's money for their own personal gain.
However as I read the Gospels I see Jesus pursuing the poor and meek. I see the Great Physician going after those who know they are sick (Mk. 2:17). I see the Savior of the world pursuing people who acknowledge they are sinners. He was fair. He was honest. Far from cheating people, He gave at His own expense to help people. He did that for me and He did that for you, Christian.
As we move to the third point, we see that these rich people were robbing the poor of basic necessities and then using that money to pamper their own lifestyle to the point of sinful indulgence.
There is nothing sinful with enjoying some of the "finer things" of life (cf. 1 Ti. 6:17), but there comes a point when we cross the line and these "finer things" become our god and lead our hearts away from the true God. Products of an indulgent lifestyle are slothfulness, gluttony, wasteful spending, worldly focus, pleasure-seeking, undisciplined attitudes and actions. In a nutshell, indulgence is an over-consumption with the god of self with a total disregard for others and God's kingdom.
Look at verse 5, "You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter."
When I was driving through Texas a couple months ago I would continually pass ranch after ranch packed with cattle. Though I did not study their behavior, it seemed every cow did one of three things: It would either sleep, sit around and do nothing, or eat. That was their life until that fateful day that they would be herded on a truck hauled off to the slaughter house.
That is also the imagery James uses in verse 5. Self-indulgent people, revealing no heart transformation from Jesus Christ, sleep, waste time and eat with no conscious attention toward Jesus Christ. An end time judgment is coming and all they are doing, as James is saying metaphorically, is fattening their hearts for that eschatological "day of slaughter" (cf. Isa. 30:25; 34:5-8; Rev. 19:17-21). What a vivid description!
So again, if this is the heart and the final destination of an unbeliever, what reveals a heart that loves Jesus Christ?
This one is simple! As Christians we know all of our sins have been forgiven through the work of Jesus on the cross. We know Jesus took upon Himself our "day of slaughter" so we can have the promise of eternal life with Him in heaven. Therefore since this world is not our ultimate home, a true believer will live in light of that reality.
I see nothing from our Lord that prohibits us from pursuing investments or rewards. He just tells us that we are sinful (and foolish) to pursue them here on earth. Why would I in my right mind want to indulge in the temporary things of this earth when I can use these resources to enjoy greater gains in heaven? It's a question between fleeting second-rate pleasures or soul-satisfying eternal rewards?
Back in James 5:3 we read that they were "hoarding" their treasures on earth in these "last days." Foolish! Listen to our Lord's contrasting words from Matthew 6: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal [same imagery from Jas. 5:2]. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal" (Mt. 6:19-20)
Finally, as we move to point number four, James climaxes his accusations. Verse 6, "You have condemned and put to death the righteous man."
Were they actively killing the poor Christians? Perhaps, but I am led to think it was done in a more indirect manner. As I said, withholding their pay meant withholding their food (apocryphal book Sirach 34:22). Additionally, the rich controlled the courts back then, which made it virtually impossible for the poor to receive any justice on a human level.
But despite the injustice to these believers, James adds, "He does not resist you." The oppressed Christians acted like…Christians! It reminds me of our Lord's words, "But I say to you, do not resist an evil person" (Mat. 5:39). It reminds me of our Lord's actions, "And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats [here comes the "how" and "why"], but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously" (1 Pet. 2:23).
Again, if this oppressive attitude toward money is wrong, what reveals a heart that loves Jesus Christ?
People who oppress others with their money have clearly shown that they are the kind of individuals who have settled for the love of money over a love for God, which according to 1 Timothy 6:10 is the "root…of evil." Oppressing others for financial gain is the natural end result when we make money the center of our lives.
Yet the heart that emulates Jesus goes in the opposite direction. Rather than oppressing people (and murdering people) with our money, we seek to provide life (both physical and spiritual). We are aware of the billions in the world who are starving and the billions who have never heard the Gospel and the thousands in our own neighborhoods that are presently living without Jesus. We do not want to kill them. We want to give them life, the very life we ourselves have received because someone somewhere cared enough to share the Good News - oftentimes with a financial investment somewhere along the line. How much are we willing to sacrifice in helping others for the cause of Christ?
This is what it comes down to my friends. This is what a little baby born in a manger two-thousand years ago did for us. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). Praise God for the wonderful gift of His Son. And praise Jesus for leaving the glory of heaven and giving His life for us on the cross. In Him we are all spiritually rich.