“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Do you remember the original House Hunters on HGTV? I do. It caught on because it’s format was unique. I’m certain there were shows about people buying houses before, but something about the visit-three-pick-one approach caught on. Big time. Like, 183 seasons and almost 1,800 episodes caught on. Not to mention more spin-offs than you can probably imagine. And while there’s nothing quite like the original, the most popular spin-offs are the ones that focus on rich people buying big houses. A recent version is even called “My Lottery Dream Home.” What is it about seeing wealthy people buy stuff the rest of us can’t afford that is so addictive to watch?
The answer to that is simple: We want to be like them. We want to be rich. Populist denunciations of millionaires and billionaires (ironically made the loudest by politicians who are very wealthy) aside, having lots stuff has always been the desire of most people. And the reasons for this are many. Money brings power. It brings comfort. It brings the illusion of security. It gives us the sense that everything is going to be okay. It makes other people look up to us. Think about how many rich people get interviewed about things on tv about which they don’t actually know more than most everybody else but their money makes us think of them as an expert.
The thing is, nobody feels rich. Perhaps Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world (his net worth is higher than the GDP of all but five African nations), feels rich, but everybody else has somebody who has more than them. And we want to be like them.
And then we read something like what James writes here. What are we supposed to do with this? Is James just a flaming socialist denouncing the rich here? There are certainly some like-minded scholars who have insisted as much. But is that just it? Is being rich somehow a sin? Does amassing a trove of treasure make us bad? I’m inclined to say no.
The reason is, it’s inconsistent with the rest of the Scriptures. Contrary to the thoughts of Marxists and liberation theologians, being rich isn’t a sin in and of itself. Abraham was incredibly wealthy and is still held out as a model of faith. Job was even richer and was one of the most righteous men in the whole Bible. No one should feel guilty for having stuff or a big bank account. We can honor and bring glory to God no matter what our financial situation is.
That doesn’t deal with what James says here at all. It just gives us enough room to not feel condemned by it if we happen to be wealthy (and we would be wise to expand that definition far broadly enough to include ourselves because while we may not be wealthy compared to some, compared to a whole lot more, we are). Yet that accomplishes for us what? Nothing and maybe worse. You see, the fact that being rich is no sin is only half the truth. And the other half of the truth isn’t very comfortable.
Being rich may not be a sin in and of itself, but it can lead to our being an instrument of sin frighteningly easily. And while wealth is not a zero-sum game, it can be pursued and accumulated in such a way that actively oppresses the poor. When someone is—we are—wealthy, it is easy to forget about the hardships faced by poor and to do things that make their lot even more difficult than it already is.
Wait, so does this mean we all need to become social justice warriors on behalf of factory workers around the world? No, but as followers of the God who has a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, we do have a duty to be aware of their situation. For instance, we like for the things we buy to be as inexpensive as they can be. That’s natural. It’s wise to hunt for the best bargains. But, products cost money to make and some of that money goes to pay the people who made them. Is our demand for inexpensive goods leading unethical companies to exploit the poor in poor nations in order to increase their own profits? It’s happened before.
But, simply “buying American” isn’t necessarily a good solution to this problem either. Companies who build factories in other places around the world are bringing an economic lift to a place that may badly need it—perhaps even more than someone here does. Our goal should be to buy responsibly; to use the resources God has given us to honor Him even when we are simply buying underwear and socks.
This is all just a single example of how James’ warning here should make all of us just a little uncomfortable. Are we using our wealth in a way that exploits or otherwise makes life more difficult for the people around us? Are we intentionally honoring God with His stuff? While this shouldn’t become an all-consuming concern for our lives, it should be on our regular radar. It should be for two really important reasons: It’s all God’s stuff in the first place; and God cares deeply for those who struggle to get by. We need to make sure our lives reflect that concern and not just blithely assume everything is fine. Righteousness demands it.