I want you to take a little imaginative journey today, one which will ask us to use a little creativity of the mind. It’s sort of a little play that I want you to see in your mind’s eye as I describe it and visualize in the best way you can.
It is Sunday morning, one not unlike this one, a little humid, a little warm. People are beginning to arrive at the church, going through their usual routines and tasks, unlocking buildings, greeting one another, setting things up for the worship service. The Sunday school hour comes and goes, everyone having what looks to be a normal gathering for the church service. Then, things change.
A woman pulls up in a pristine black 1926 6.5-liter Bentley hardtop, perfectly restored to its original factory condition. She gets out and straightens the jacket and trousers of her custom-made Thom Browne suit while removing her Tag Heuer sunglasses and leaving them on the dash. She walks in and chit-chats with a few people before sitting in a seat that is next to the air conditioning vent but still with a good view of the altar area of the church. She is approached and greeted by several more parishioners before the service starts and everyone sits down. She nods her approval and offers a smile as she reacts to things in the service. As the offering plate is passed to her, she reaches into her Christian Louboutine handbag and casually drops a banded stack of bills into the plate, an amount that looks to be the equal of what the entire church gives in a month. The services end and the woman shakes hands and speaks with several more people on the way out including a very enthusiastic minister who seems to be quite happy that this stranger is here and may well come back again next week or at the very least, maybe once a month.
The same morning a man wanders into the church. He is equally noticed except in a light that is not nearly as favorable. He has walked to the church from somewhere in a wooded area nearby. His clothing is caked with dirt and covered with holes here and there that have been unraveling their basic shape. The smell of sweat and stale food emanates from the man’s body and attire. He stands just outside the door of the sanctuary, looking in at the people and the service but not daring to try and find a seat. A reluctant usher tries to get him to sit but the man refuses, embarrassed by his appearance and the usher, seemingly grateful to get away, goes back to his duties. The man watches the service and as the offering plates are gathered in the back he shyly drops in a small handful of pennies and nickels. The service ends and as people clamor to see the new woman, he slips out the side exit and back to his simple existence in the woods.
We all know that this story is a little over the top or is it? Could this kind of thing really happen? Quite possibly. In fact, the church has not always had a good relationship with money. There are those who have handled it well and used it to further God’s Kingdom. Others were corrupted by the love of money and the power and prestige it brought them. Justo Gonzalez, a professor of church history, writes,
…it is clear that, in the New Testament as well as the early church, it was affirmed that the Gospel was first of all good news to the poor and that the rich had particular difficulty in hearing it and receiving it…But now beginning with Constantine, riches and pomp cam to be seen as signs of divine favor.
This struggle to know how to use money as a tool for ministry rather than a means of comfort and privilege has continued to plague the church for centuries. Sometimes the church did well, as under the Frankish rule of the ninth century when two-thirds of the money received as tithes went to helping the poor of the kingdom. Sometimes the church did not do so well, [011.5] such as the church under Pope Leo X where indulgences (get out of hell free cards) were sold to the wealthy to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a practice that would eventually lead to the Reformation.
Poor, in the way we use it, meant something else in Jesus day. You could be a person without money and still be considered a person of honor – the real goal in that culture – and much of that came not from wealth or prestige but from the family connections one had. Being born into an honorable family gave someone honor. Even with that distinction, in Jesus day, the situation was quite dire for those who had limited means. As many as ninety percent of the people in the region lived on what can only be described as subsistence living. Some worked daily just to have food enough to get to the next day. Others found themselves in unfortunate circumstances: in debt, in a foreign land, having lost a spouse (widow), or physically disabled in some way and unable to work, which by cultural definition, was poor. A better way of understanding this idea of poor is to think of the poor as those who had little to no way of supporting or care for themselves.
The writers of the New Testament have a great deal to say about how to treat the poor, something we will look at in depth later. Our scripture passage today is the tip of the iceberg in discussing the matter in the letter from James. There are three major sections on wealthy and privilege in the text: the first in 1:9-11, the second in 2:1-12 which talks about showing favoritism to the wealthy when they come to the assembly of believers, and the third in 5:1-6 where the wealthy are chastised for hiring but not paying day laborers whose very existence depended on being able to make enough money to buy food each day.
Each of these passages in James has a connection to the long history of what God has revealed to us about the nature of wealth and poverty and the care of those in need. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the scripture is clear on how we should look at wealth and poverty. Some of the common themes are:
- There will always be those in need – the hungry, the homeless, the hurting – who need to be cared for.
- God does not see rich or poor but the soul of the person, which means that whether you have means of not, the issue is the content of your character and the behavior that it brings out of us.
- The poor are to be cared for and provide for by those who can do so.
- Those who make their money by cheating or misusing the poor anger God.
- We are called to a life of charity that we may be freed from the love of wealth and privilege.
Ultimately though, the crux of all the discussion in our text and throughout the Bible comes back to something the writer of James says in 2:8 – You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [011.7] Everything we have – homes, cars, possessions, money – is a gift from God to be used in making disciples for the Kingdom of God. All the things we have at our disposal give us the opportunity to show the love of Jesus to those around us who most need it. Think of the community meal we have and how much that touches those in the community who genuinely need it both physically and spiritually. Think of those who received school supplies at the beginning of this year for whom it would have been a struggle to choose between that and the meals or utilities that the money would have gone for.
I think of something I heard someone say earlier this week. I’ll paraphrase but it was something like this, I can’t do much for people, but I cook. She simply makes a little extra and takes it someone who might be struggling, might need a meal. This is the heart of the gospel message and the heart of what I think we are here to do as disciples. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus said,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And in Matthew 25,
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
The heart of the gospel message, the good news that Jesus came to tell us, was not that we can pray a prayer and punch a ticket. The good news is that we can be part of the Kingdom of God, the work that God is doing here and now on the earth, to lead people into a life of discipleship – following the Way of Life Jesus lived. A huge part of that is recognizing those neighbors in need around us and caring for their needs as Jesus would have cared for them.
The point: Wealth or poverty does mean character. The real question is – do I love and care for my neighbor as myself?
daSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume One – The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1984.
—. The Story of Christianity: Volume Two – The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1985.
Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Maynard-Reid, Pedrito U. Poverty and Wealth in James. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1987.
Witherington III, Ben. Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James, and Jude. Downers Grove/Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
Wright, N.T. The Early Christian Letters: James, Peter, John, and Judah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
 (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume One – The Early Church to the Dawn of the Refomation 1984, 134)
 (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume One – The Early Church to the Dawn of the Refomation 1984, 268)
 (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume Two – The Reformation to the Present Day 1985, 21)
 (Malina 2001, 99)
 (Malina 2001, 100)
 Deut. 15:11; Prov. 21:13; Mark 14:7; John 12:8
 Prov. 19:22; Gal. 3:28
 Luke 4:18, 14:13, 14:21; Rom. 15:26
 Exo. 22:25; Prov. 22:16, 22; Prov. 28:27; Amos 2:7, 4:1, 5:11, 8:4; Zec. 7:10