When Catherine was small I had to use a local clinic for something or other. I don’t even remember. What I do remember is this. I went into the doctor’s office and when he saw my motorcycle helmet he said, “Do you have a wife or child?” I said, I did and he said, “No one on a motorcycle in an accident with a car escapes without serious life changing injuries.” He then went on to tell me about the variety of motorcycle victims he had treated at the clinic over the years – and then threw in some he had only read about. “If I could tell you one thing from my experience it would be to sell your motorcycle and your chances of being around to raise your daughter will have improved dramatically.” That’s the last time I rode the bike. Why then and why him? I had been told many times about the dangers of riding motorcycles but something clicked that night and I heard it.
I think it is the same here in this chapter with James. There is nothing different in what he is saying from Jesus and Paul about the danger of riches but some people will be ready to hear from James who might have not heard others. Some people need to hear about the future of those who love wealth from James before it will register for them. He’s blunt and some say he is biased against the rich more than others…but my doctor that night was likely the same. For some reason he got through to me in a way that no one else had.
We’ve heard from James before about the rich. He makes it personal, doesn’t he? He doesn’t say wealth or riches. He makes it more than that. It is rich people. We do the same when we call money “resources” instead of money. We like to find euphemisms that are not as direct and soften the blow a little. James goes even a step further. He points to them as people – almost a class of people like our current identity politics.
“The scorching heat of the sun withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.”
“Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?”
“A final word to you arrogant rich. Take some lessons in lament. You’ll need buckets for the tears when the crash comes upon you. Your money is corrupt, and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your stomach destroying your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth. What you piled up is just judgment. All the workers you have exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of the master avenger. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up, but all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse. In fact, what you’ve done is condemn and murder perfectly good persons who stand there and take it.”
You can understand why James did not have a career as a church growth consultant.
Of course, our first response – and a hundred different surveys prove this – is to say we are not rich. We are middle class. Most of us want to be rich but not be recognized as such. There are a few unhealthy people who desire to be known as rich but, for the most part, people will find a way to deny they are rich. Rich is someone with more money than them or a bigger house. It’s interesting, isn’t it. We strive most of our lives to have enough to be rich but don’t want the label. There is something in us that makes us hesitate about people who want to be known as rich.
But, of course, James is not talking about people who have worked all their lives at legitimate jobs and accumulated wealth. He is not talking about people who have inherited money or had what we call a “liquidity event” early in their career so they never really have to work again. He is not really talking about an amount of money but the character of the person who holds it. That is why “rich man” is such a special term for him. It is not someone like Barnabas in the early church he is describing although Barnabas was likely wealthy. The definition of “you rich” or “rich man” is kept for those who have accumulated their wealth illegitimately by taking advantage of the poor or who use their wealth to buy privileges and influence. It’s only secondary that they are also people who live in luxury in almost total disregard of the poverty around them – like the rich man and Lazarus. The worst thing about the rich man is he uses wealth to do things it was never intended to do and ignores using it for things it does for good. It’s not neutral. It is using money to hurt people with less power. It is using wealth to take advantage of the poor. It is using the courts to avoid paying people what they are rightfully owed and have earned. You get the picture.
Yes, it is also hoarding and piling it up until we have more than we could ever put to use. It is living in luxury that is not just comfort but conspicuous consumption to prove to others that we are rich. It is becoming fat on the system that rewards loopholes, schemes, breaks and bribes.
But here is the irony. It is cattle who fatten themselves because they don’t believe in the slaughter. They become even more appealing to the one who takes them to the slaughterhouse and they have done it to themselves. No one force fed them. No one locked them in cages. They have fattened themselves by their own choices and have said to themselves, “The fatter I get the safer I am from being slaughtered.” Just the opposite is true and they never believe it. Everything in their world lies to them about the end that awaits them and, I suspect, that is part of the joy of the devil – knowing he has them forever through their own self-deception. Very little real tempting had to be done. They did it to themselves.
Some people say that wealth has no inherent obligation to be shared. I have a friend who tells me he is not just a steward of wealth. He is the owner because God gave it to him. If he decides to share or give or lend that is totally up to him and no one has any right to tell him otherwise. Some have said this is true of corporations and businesses. They have no social obligation except to the shareholders. Public virtue is none of their business.
I read an article this week on the founder of Panera Bread – Ron Shaich. He believes one of the reasons for our political divide is “the fixation on short-term profits is jeopardizing the future of American business, and creating social instability that has contributed to our current state of political polarization. Stock owners have no public accountability for what the company does, and no responsibility, as executives do, to place the company’s interests above their own. The costs of prioritizing shareholders’ interests are borne by the company, and by society as a whole, which is robbed of innovations, jobs, and tax revenue. When we live in a world where we view value creation as the end, and not as a by-product, which is what short-term thinking lends itself to, we end up doing great damage to every other constituency, and that’s what ultimately drives back to the kind of ‘let’s rip down the establishment’ nihilism that we see today.
In the last couple of months, we’ve all likely been tested about the power of wealth in our lives. We’ve seen portfolios and 401(k) assets fall and wipe out whatever gains they had for the balance of the year. One of the benefits of age and experience is having been through these events a number of times but it does test us, doesn’t it? It does make us look again at the power of money as security in our lives. What would we do if we lost it? Some here have been through that and, likely, would choose not to go through it again. Some worry about what they would do if that happened. What else would they lose if their money went away? Friends, social standing, respect, memberships? So much of who we are is tied up with what we have. It’s not just the money. Some might be able to say, as some have, losing their money was actually one of the best things that ever happened to them. For others, it would be catastrophic.
“Part of my Dad’s ability to communicate with people was his use of aphorisms. When I was a young man, I thought he either read them heard them from others or they just appeared spontaneously as he spoke. “Wait to worry” “Only criticize as much as the person can correct” and “It’s unfortunate when money accumulates faster than wisdom” were among the hundreds of one-liners we heard growing up. I never thought about the real source of those one-liners until late in his life.
We were sorting through his papers and found a stock certificate for 100 shares that were practically worthless. They were all that was left of what had once been his retirement plan. He had worked for the company for years when he was young and had such confidence in the leadership that he put virtually everything he had in the stock. All of his plans for retirement and his options for the present were based on his belief in that single corporation. For a time, it was well placed trust and the value soared over years. Then the leadership changed, the value evaporated, and Dad was left with a future that was nothing like what he had planned.
I vaguely remember that period because it was about that time he started using a new aphorism “Sit loose to things.” As bad as it was, that disaster was also the beginning of the most productive period of his life. He and my mother moved to Texas and started a new business. He began to write books and spend more time with people as a mentor. In fact, over the next twenty years he made his most valuable contributions to the lives of others. That would never have been possible without the experience of his loss.
Now when I look at my investments and am tempted to say with Peggy Lee “Is that all there is?” I am reminded again to “sit loose to things” and know that this is not the end of the story for any of us.”
“Whereas we were once mesmerized by the lives of the very rich, we are headed toward a revolution against the “Billionaires of Wall Street” and those invisible yet powerful figures behind so much of what is wrong with our country. In the past, the rich gave us momentary escapism or the simple relief of entertainment, but there was always something of value that both sides brought to the relationship. They needed us as an audience for their magic, and we needed them to fill a void. Without them our lives would be reduced to the ordinary. Without us they would be actors without a stage. Yes, they were mostly imaginary but that was part of the draw. They were different – but not alien. They were flawed but not hollow. They had faces and names. Even as the rogues they often were, there was some redemptive quality that kept us curious and not repelled. They glittered.
That’s not so today. The new one percent are nameless, faceless, and colorless shadowy figures who live in guarded enclaves or a place named Wall Street. They are heads of interlocked dynasties and global financial firms, but 99 percent of the people could not tell you their names or recognize them on the street. They bring nothing we value in our lives. In fact, it is just the opposite. They take without giving anything in return. We resent them – whoever they are. They are rich at our expense and, worse, they don’t have any interest in us at all. They are cold and loveless. They consume, destroy and create nothing. They are “those who have worshipped worthless idols and become worthless themselves.”
That is the indictment of the arrogant rich that we find all through the Scripture. There will be a judgment. However, it doesn’t seem fair that they live in luxury with no consequences in their lifetime. They create the systems that favor them and keep others down. They are winners and the poor are losers. Is that fair? No, it is not fair and how are we to respond to that?
Should we lead a revolution? Should we usher in a new era of Progressivism like Teddy Roosevelt did following the Gilded Age? Should we take to the streets against the monarchy and plutocrats like the French in the Revolution? Even now, I can sense those who like Madame DeFarge, are sitting and taking the names of those who will be slaughtered when the time comes.
James says we are not. Instead we are to do something that requires far more courage and perseverance. We are to be patient and wait. There is a timing to God’s justice and while we can do some things to discourage such offenses with laws and regulations there is little we can do to control the distorted human heart and the greed of people. We are to be patient and stand firm while we wait for the Lord’s coming. It is his to judge and not ours to revolt or encourage others to become violent. The word patience is interesting. It is the combination of two words that literally mean “put distance between yourself and anger.” It takes much greater discipline and courage to reject anger than it does to give in. I do wish Jesus had said, “Vengeance is yours – go to it.” But, he didn’t. We are not to be corrupted by their corruption but to persevere in patience knowing that the fate of the rich man is likely worse than anything we could design. It is the slaughterhouse.
So, two things we are to avoid here. The trap of the corruption of being rich at the expense of others and the trap of anger and vengeance at those who strut around in their arrogance. God’s justice is perfect. Let’s encourage each other to keep anger at a distance and to guard our own hearts.