“Woe to you who are rich!” are the words of Jesus Christ as recorded in Luke 6:24.
Jesus then goes on to say in the same verse: “For you (the rich) have received your consolation.” These words continue on from Luke 6:20 where Jesus, “lifting up His eyes to His disciples, said, ‘Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.'”
Interestingly in the New Testament, there is nothing good said about the rich. Indeed, as we will see in Epistle of James, it is almost as it being rich and being a Christian, are mutually exclusive.
It is also interesting how the modern Church and Jesus vary in their approach to the rich young seeker recorded in Matthew 19:16-24
“Just then a man came up to Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what good deed should I do to have eternal life?”
Jesus asked him, “Why ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you want to get into that life, you must keep the commandments.”
The young man asked him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “‘You must not murder, you must not commit adultery, you must not steal, you must not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘you must love your neighbour as yourself.'”
The young man told him, “I have kept all of these. What do I still lack?”
Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the destitute, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me.”
But when the young man heard this statement he went away sad, because he had many possessions. Then Jesus told his disciples, “I tell you with certainty, it will be hard for a rich person to get into the kingdom from heaven.
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were completely astonished. “Who, then, can be saved?” they asked.”
As the rich young man left Jesus, note what Jesus did – nothing. Jesus did not invite the man to a pot-luck dinner in a non-threatening environment, He did not invite him to attend a seeker friendly church, He did not invite him to attend a cell group where he could be introduced to Christianity over meals and fellowship. Jesus just let him walk away.
Based on the current teaching of the evangelical churches and their courses on evangelism, Jesus would have flunked all their courses big time! Telling a seeker to “go and sell what you own and give the money to the destitute,” and then ignoring him when he refused, would be an anathema in today’s Church. Perhaps this is why the Church is in such dire straits in rich countries today, for they fail to pursue biblical principles of evangelism, preferring instead to use humanist methods, invented by man.
James 5:1-6 continues the biblical diatribe against the rich saying:
“Now listen, you rich people! Cry and moan over the miseries that are overtaking you. Your riches are rotten, your clothes have been eaten by moths, your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be used as evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have stored up treasures in these last days.
Look! The wages that you kept back from the workers who harvested your fields are shouting out against you, and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of the Heavenly Armies. You have lived in luxury and pleasure on earth. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the one who is righteous, even though he did not rebel against you.”
But why this condemnation of the rich? Does God not love the rich as He loves the poor?
Actually James has already mentioned the rich a couple of time in his epistle:
James 1:10-11 “and a rich person in his having been humbled, because he will fade away like a wild flower. For the sun comes up with its scorching heat and dries up the grass. The flower in it drops off, and its beauty is gone. That is how the rich person will fade away in his pursuits.”
James 2:5-7 ” Listen, my dear brothers! God has chosen the poor in the world to become rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who keep on loving him, has he not?
But you have humiliated the man who is poor. Are not rich people the ones who oppress you and drag you into court?
Are not they the ones who blaspheme the noble Name by which you have been called?”
James has also used made passing reference to them, the rich, in other verses, without specifically labelling them as Christians or not Christians:
James 2:2-3 “Suppose a man wearing gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor man in dirty clothes also comes in. If you give special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Please take this seat,” but you say to the poor man, “Stand over there” or “Sit on the floor at my feet.”
James 4:13 “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town, stay there a year, conduct business, and make money.”
However, by reference to the context of the verses, you will discover that those who do not carry the ‘rich’ label are Christians, while those who do cannot the label, are not Christians. In the Epistle of James, it is as if the terms ‘rich’ and Christian’ are mutually exclusive.
James, however, has no qualms about linking ‘poor’ and ‘Christians’ as the following show well:
James 1:9 “A brother of humble means should rejoice in his having been exalted.”
James 2:2-3 and James 2:5-6 both quoted above.
The reason for this is likely to be that Jesus has established the principle for James in Luke 6:24 and Luke 6:20 as saying “Woe to you who are rich!” and “Blessed are the poor.” Indeed it could be asserted that Matthew 19:16-24 can initially be seen as effectively amounting to a ‘stumbling block’, on the matter of rich Christians. Certainly for the poor who were receiving this teaching from Jesus, this was undoubtable good news; for today’s Church, this is a hard teaching. So hard indeed, that in my experience it is rarely preached in its bare essence, but given a non-biblical ‘spin’ and sugar coating, perhaps so as not to offend the rich in the congregation. I have heard it preached that “obviously the interpretation that the rich cannot get into heaven is wrong, or there would be no rich in heaven!” Similarly, the teaching that “It is impossible for anyone to enter heaven, poor or rich. All must enter through a miracle of God.” Both are biblically incorrect and not supported by scripture, for as in Luke 4:18a Jesus specifically says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to tell the good news to the poor” and Luke 6:20 “How blessed are you who are destitute, because the Kingdom of God is yours!”
No matter how you search the Bible, you will not find such good news for the rich. Indeed, the teaching of Jesus ends in Luke 12:34 saying of the rich, “Because where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The interpretation of this passage is that man has a limited capacity to love and focus, such that we tend to focus heart where our treasure is: in our riches and worldly possessions. To attain heaven, we need to change. Luke 19-1:10 exemplifies this understanding as we see Zacchaeus coming to understanding and salvation before Jesus:
“As Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it, a man named Zacchaeus appeared. He was a leading tax collector, and a rich one at that! He was trying to see who Jesus was, but he couldn’t do so due to the crowd, since he was a short man. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, who was going to pass that way.
When Jesus came to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down! I must stay at your house today.”
Zacchaeus came down quickly and was glad to welcome him into his home. But all the people who saw this began to complain: “Jesus is going to be the guest of a notorious sinner!”
Later, Zacchaeus stood up and announced to the Lord, “Lord, I’ll give half of my possessions to the poor. I’ll pay four times as much as I owe if I have cheated anyone in any way.”
Then Jesus told him, “Today salvation has come to this home, because this man is also a descendant of Abraham, and the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”
But it was not only Zacchaeus who came to understanding and salvation and gave away his possessions, as we read in Acts 2:45 as “they made it their practice to sell their possessions and goods and to distribute the proceeds to anyone who was in need.” Note clearly here that “they made it their practice” to give away their possessions. Those in the early Church who had a propensity to earn much, just kept giving it away to the needy!
With this understanding and examples from of the early Church, we can now see that those whom James called ‘rich,’ were not Christians. Being a non-Christian was then and is now, a condemnation to hell, but for the rich whom James was mentioning, there was more which condemned them than just their wealth. As we saw above in James 5:1-6, James was condemning the rich for their attitude towards the poor, and their treatment of the poor. As the rich stored up their wealth, it ultimately rotted and became worthless to all. This relates directly to the warning of Jesus from Matthew 6:19 “Stop storing up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” By the wealthy storing their goods and wealth and have them all rot and corrode, no one benefitted from it, as the goods simply deteriorated over time. It was ultimately a squandering of God’s resources.
Secondly, we find in the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:20-21); a stinging condemnation by Jesus of the hypocrisy of the rich Jew who, no doubt attended the synagogue punctiliously and outwardly complied with the laws of Moses and God, yet failed to acknowledge God’s provisions in his life and share them with his the needy beggar who lived at his door.
Thirdly, in James 5:1-6 we find that the rich absentee land owners had not paid the wages of their workers, a clear breach of Leviticus 19:13 which states that “You are not to oppress your neighbour or rob him. The wages of a hired labourer are not to remain in your possession until morning.” Again we see the laws of Moses and God had clearly been broken by the rich. What is so important about this law was that it covers those daily workers who live hand-to-mouth. If they are not paid daily, they do not eat. No money – no food. If these workers are forced to borrow money to eat, they enter into a life of bondage, never being able to pay back their debts and be set free.
Fourthly, the rich have been feasting and become totally self indulgent. Again the parable of the beggar Lazarus comes to mind with the rich man who, one surmises, even during the Feasts of the Lord, did not include the beggar. As one reads Leviticus 16, one can see that not only were all intended to eat at the Lord’s Feasts, there is a presumption of clean clothes and washed bodies, for the participants. From the description of Lazarus, “who was laid at his gate, full of sores and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs came and licked his sores,” we can see that the rich man has not obviously not complied with his Levitical obligations.
Finally, as Jesus describes anger, killing and murder in Matthew 5:21-22, we can view the allegations against the rich in a wider sphere, not directly killing or murdering themselves, but through the courts and through law, whereby they dispossessed poor farmers. Once a farmer lost his farm, there was a pretty good chance all the family would eventually starve to death, or live at best subsisting in serfdom. The NIV calls them the innocent ones. Many theologians suggest that these poor souls, the innocent ones, the righteous, referred to here were indeed poor Christians; a viewpoint which goes some way to explaining James’ outspokenness about the rich.
However, in the Epistle of James we can see that the charges which he brought against the rich were neither arbitrary or unsubstantiated. What is certain, is that none of the rich were Christians.
We are all called to repentance, rich AND poor, but as the Bible says, it is much easier for the poor than the rich. The classic example and clearest demonstration of God’s love for all in this respect, comes from Nineveh, where Jonah eventually declared his message. Despite their wickedness crying out to the Lord, such that it warranted them being overthrown by God, because they repented and covered themselves in sack cloth and sat in ashes, both the Ninevites and their animals, God relented and spared them.
Looking back at the rich and James’ condemnation against the rich in James 5:1-6, we need to remember that any one of the five charges laid against them was more than sufficient to condemn them to an eternity in hell. Though as born-again Christians we are not under the old Covenant law, the principles still apply for our guidance. As Second Corinthians 3:6 says we are: “of the new covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive.” This means there is no point in avoiding legalism, but be condemned for self-indulgence, as those around us, go hungry and ill clothed.
What is the correct and appropriate response for a Christian? James 5:8 tells us how to respond: “You also be patient, establish your hearts, for the coming of your Lord draws near.”
In specific regard to wealth and riches, we have been given a clear roadmap by Jesus in Matthew 6:20 in which He requires us to “lay-up treasures in Heaven for yourselves, where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If we store our riches in heaven, not only will they not be plundered or fade or spoiled, but our heart too, will be in heaven. Further, these riches of which Jesus speaks are virtuous, and worthy to be sought after. For as Jesus says in Matthew 6:24 “ No one can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Amen and Amen.