The Epistle of James - Godly Values
Part 35 - Hoarding wealth is sin
15th February 2019
Having read the first few words of that passage, "Listen, you rich people", most of us might be tempted to tune out. We might think this has nothing to do with us. No many of us are rich. In fact, I don't think James at this point is writing to Christians at all. The whole of the rest of the letter is written to Christians but I think this part is written to rich non-Christians who are persecuting and oppressing the church of God.
It reminds me of the Old Testament prophets like Hosea or Amos. They spoke much like this.
In the first few decades after Jesus was crucified, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, and the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, the church, particularly the church in Judea, had a really tough time. If you were a Judean Christian, life was bad enough because you were living under Roman occupation, and as a result you were probably very poor. And life was also difficult because many of those Jews who didn't accept Jesus would also oppress you. They would throw you out of the synagogue, and that meant you couldn't get a job. And some of the Jews, including the Apostle Paul before God saved him, would go from house to house and town to town to throw you into prison and have you executed. Because Paul is such a man of grace we forget that he was a great persecutor of the church. And he wasn't the only one.
So the early Judean churches, not just in Jerusalem, but all over the country, knew real persecution, real poverty, real suffering. And James was writing fundamentally to people in his own generation. There are lessons for us, but let's take a moment to understand that Christianity was birthed in real suffering, real pain, real oppression, real martyrdom.
In these verses James addresses people with power, money and influence, who could take advantage of the church, who could exert tremendous cruelty on the church, and he says, "Listen, you rich people". Listen, you powerful. Listen, you politicians. Listen, you persecutors. "Weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted and moths have eaten your clothes". Again this reminds us of the Old Testament prophets. They often spoke in what's called the perfect tense - speaking in the present tense about something that isn't true yet but will be true. James has seen the situation from God's perspective. The day is coming when a rich man's clothes will rot in his grave. They won't look so stylish then. James tells the rich persecutors that "Your gold and silver are corroded". Theirs wealth will be no use to them then. To quote a secular saying, "you can't take it with you". Sooner or later, all that money will be complete wasted. The day will come when a rich man's wealth is of no value to him whatsoever.
More than that, James says "Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire". He is prophesying the eternal torment that awaits those who persecute the church. As Paul's conversion demonstrates, there is forgiveness through faith in Christ even for persecutors of the church. But for those who will not repent, those who will not trust in the blood of Christ, there is eternal fire. The word of God is very serious.
James continues, "You have hoarded wealth in the last days".
I need to say two things here. Firstly, as this and many other scriptures demonstrate, "the last days" began at the resurrection of Jesus. In Acts 2, Peter said that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was what Joel prophesised, "in the last days I will pour out my Spirit". A lot of people need to think through their teaching on end times again.
Secondly, these wealthy, influential, powerful persecutors of the church had hoarded wealth. What a waste! You've got a bank account full of money, millions and millions of pounds in today's currency, and it's just sitting there. Money is there to be used. When we think of all the poor people, the suffering people, the sick people in this world, when we think of all the people who don't know Jesus, hoarding wealth is a crime.
Now, I'm not saying you can't save a few quid. I'm not saying you shouldn't have a pension plan. I think we should all be responsible with our money, and being responsible means making sure that you can afford not to be a burden on your children when you're old. James is not talking about that. He's not criticising the idea of having enough money to be comfortable when you're old. He's talking about hoarding real wealth. He's talking about the equivalent of having huge numbered Swiss bank accounts and offshore investments.
Why hoard wealth? I do wonder why people with ten million pounds have an ambition to earn eleven million pounds. What are they going to do with it? Put it in the bank? What for?
There are starving people out there. There are people who don't know the Gospel of Christ out there. Money is to be used, and there is a question to ask as a church: how big should our cash reserves should be. It's fine to have a few quid put away because we might want to repair something or hire another member of staff. But some churches have huge stocks of wealth that's doing no good. It's just sitting there. Why not use it to help people? So as individuals and as churches, we should be careful not hoard more than we need. It's a sin to hoard money.