James 4:13-5:11 – Rich and Poor (part one)

This week we’re continuing in the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. Over the next two days we look at James 4:13-5:11.

Life is short, is it not? What’s more, we don’t even know exactly how short ours is going to be. Statistically, I’m around the halfway mark. But it could end tomorrow, if there’s a bus out there with my name on it. Or a chicken bone, or an exploding backyard crystal meth lab (that’s near where I live).As it says in Ecclesiastes: life is a vapour. A mist. We’re here one minute, and gone the next. Life is short, and its end is unpredictable.

You might remember that Jesus once told a story about that. It’s called the parable of the rich fool, because the guy was rich and… well… a fool. (I love how creative they are with the headings in the NIV, don’t you?)

The guy’s rich, because he owns lots of land. His family probably acquired it over many generations of smart business dealings, so now he’s a big player in his area. And one year he becomes super rich because his land yields a massive harvest. This is how Jesus tells it:

Luke 12:16-19  And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” [And play X-box, according to some late manuscripts]

Ah yes, the problems of the rich. All this wealth – what to do with it? So he decides to hoard it. Stop working. Retire early. Live for pleasure. Get some hideous pants and play golf. After all, he’s got everything under control! Or does he?

You might remember from the snappy title, he’s not just rich, he’s also a fool. Why? Jesus explains:

Luke 12:20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

He’s a fool because he’s forgotten that life is short. He’s forgotten that he’s just a vapour. A mist. He thinks he’s the one running the show, and gets a nasty surprise when God reminds him of reality.

And just in case we miss the point, Jesus reminds us that the world is full of rich fools like this:

Luke 12:21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” 

The message: God’s in control of our destiny, not us. No matter how much we eat healthily and exercise – we could be diagnosed with cancer tomorrow. No matter how much we’ve got saved up for a rainy day – the fragile global economy could wipe out our notional wealth in days. No matter how carefully we drive – a drunk could run a red light and who will enjoy our no-claim bonus then?

So don’t run around acting like you’re in control. ‘Cause you’re not, says Jesus. God is.

God is in control

And that’s pretty much what Jesus’ half-brother says, too. James must have paid some attention to those chats around the family dinner table. In James chapter 4, he takes some rich Christian businessmen to task for just this: thinking they’re in control, and forgetting about God.

How do we know they’re rich? In the first century, only the rich would have the time and resources for business travel – especially to be away for a year. Here’s how James puts it:

4:13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”

In the Greek, it’s a little more forceful than that. Every verb is in the future tense: we will go, we will stay a year, we will do business and we will make money. There’s an arrogance there that’s totally out of touch with reality.

And this is what James has to say to such people. People who claim to follow God, but when it comes to how they live their lives, they act no differently from the rest of the world. He says:

4:14a Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.

Wise words. Sounds a bit like Proverbs:

Prov 27:1 Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.

James continues, sounding this time like Ecclesiastes:

4:14b What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

You fool! Life is short. And what’s more you’re not in control of it. God is. So how should you go about planning for the future?

4:15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Remember that God’s in control, even as you plan and prepare. Because not to do that is evil. It’s a rejection of God’s rule:

4:16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.

So what’s the take-home point, then? Don’t just assume the future will be how you plan it – make sure you factor in God? And add the phrase ‘Lord willing’ every so often to show that you’ve got the point? Or is it deeper than that?

Sins of omission

The next verse gives us a hint that there might be a bit more going on in this scenario. Because on the face of it, it’s a bit of an odd fit with what he’s just been saying. Listen closely:

4:17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

Riiight… What’s that got to do with it? James has just told rich traders not to live like they’re running the show. To acknowledge that they, too, are just as dependent on God as the poor person who struggles to put food on the table each night. But then he draws the following conclusion: therefore, if you don’t do the good you know you ought to do, it’s sin. How’s that linked?

Think back to James’ brother’s story about the rich fool. He was rich, we established that. And a fool. Because he didn’t factor in God. Didn’t think that he might die before he got to enjoy all his wealth. But is that the only way in which this guy was a fool? Is the message of Jesus’ parable simply: build bigger barns if you like, but you might not get to enjoy your wealth for much longer?

In Old Testament wisdom writings, being a fool wasn’t about being intellectually stupid. It was about making choices that ignored God. A fool was someone who made bad moral choices.

Think of our rich fool with the abundant crops. At first glance, you might just think he’s being a smart businessman. A wise investor. A careful saver. And he is all of that. Yet if you look at in the context of a first century agricultural society, it’s also very selfish behaviour.

For a start, he’s keeping back grain from the local economy. And if his crops are that big that he needs extra barns, it’s clear this guy’s a big player in his local area. So his decision to hold back grain has a knock-on effect. You see, in a bumper year like this one, you’d expect food prices to be quite low. Which is good news for the working poor! Yet, by holding it back, he’s effectively keeping prices artificially high. (Yes, this strategy was around in the Middle East long before the discovery of oil.) Of course this is good for him, not so good for everyone else.

And more significantly, his inner monologue makes it clear that he’s only in it for himself. ‘What shall I do? … I will store my surplus grain… I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ In a community in which the vast majority of people were living in poverty; in which most people only had enough food for today, and had to go out and earn their ‘daily bread’ again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next… In this kind of world, the idea of storing up surplus grain for years is obscene!

But without God in the picture, why not be selfish? Without an understanding of God as the loving Father of everyone; without a grasp of the responsibility that comes from being so richly blessed by God – it makes perfect sense just to look after himself.

And this is why Jesus condemns not only this rich fool – who, after all, is a fictional character in a parable – but everyone who acts in this way.

Luke 12:21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” 

This is how it will be with those who know the good they ought to do for the poor, but don’t do it. These wealthy merchants – they weren’t just ignoring God. They were also ignoring their responsibility to others. That was their sin of omission.

4:17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

To think about

We’ll continue this tomorrow, but for now – think about the ways in which you are planning for the future and building your wealth. Is God in the picture? Not just in how he could destroy it all in an instant, but are his values informing the way you go about it?

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