Weeping and howling

The Bible says a lot about riches, and most of it isn’t pleasant. For some reason I find myself skipping these passages, or explaining why they don’t really mean what they say . . . or why they don’t apply to me or the people I’m teaching.

Could it have something to do with the fact that—merely because I have access to clean drinking water and plenty of food—I’m among the world’s wealthiest?

It might.

Here’s one of the Bible’s strongest warnings:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you (James 5:1-6).

Here’s the caveat you’re expecting: James isn’t teaching that rich Christians are inherently living outside of God’s will. It seems clear he was addressing some specific sins in his audience. They were using their money and the position it gave them to mistreat people who were beneath them on the socio-economic scale.

With that caveat aside, however, James reflects a principle that’s consistent in every Bible warning about money: having it brings dangerous temptations.

That’s why Jesus told the rich ruler to sell what he had and give the money to the poor.

That’s why the villain of one of his stories was a rich man who wasn’t guilty of anything overtly “bad” (according to what the story said).

That’s why he condemned a man who made the seemingly wise business decision of replacing his storage buildings with bigger ones.

And that’s probably why we ought to listen carefully to what he says about our money. Having things can cause us to think we’re above other people. It can take our eyes off Jesus. It can lead us to put our trust in what we’ve got instead of in God. It can cause us to mistreat people to our advantage (as with James’ readers).

In short, it can become a god to us.

We should read James carefully and resist the temptation to apply what he says to the all-about-his-stuff guy we work with or the mega-rich entrepreneur we know.

There’s a pretty good chance we ourselves have been tempted to let our stuff take our eyes off the Savior.

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