Our society is mesmerized by the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The wealthy grab headlines and are the subject of documentaries and entertainment pieces on television. We long to have access to piles of cash and Atlas-like power so that we too can experience the luxurious lifestyles of those who are paraded around like a superior species of humanity. The rich are sought out to write books, lecture at universities, speak at conferences, and impart to all of us their vast Google-like knowledge on everything under the sun…whether they have any knowledge about the subject or not. The rich are idolized because of their multiple homes located in beautiful places across the country. The rich are revered because of the power their money affords them. People treat those who are wealthy differently, they want to get to know them, and work to make them feel like they are someone special. The rich are admired because their deep pockets allow them to do what they want without having to think about what it will cost them. If only we were rich!
The poor on the other hand are admired and emulated by no one. Who wants to be poor? Who wants to be powerless? Who wants to live wondering where their next meal will come from, wondering how they will keep their lights on, if they have lights to keep on, or exist just one step away from homelessness? Who wants to read a book written by someone who hasn’t even come close to making it? Poverty is more than a lack of money, it’s worse than living under the poverty level set by the government. To be poor means you lack the ability to do anything to change your impoverished circumstance in life. To be poor means to be looked down on by those in society, to be reminded of how you have failed to achieve, and to have no hope of anything better than what you are presently experiencing in life for yourself or for your children. Many in our society look down upon the poor as nothing more than the victims of their own decisions.
Yet, we find this strange theme repeated over and over again in Scripture: “Blessed are the poor.” This truth is not an abnormality of Scripture. It’s not a sentiment expressed by an unknown, obscure prophet or rabbi long forgotten. It’s a major theme that is stated and restated over and over again throughout God’s Word by prophets, priests, pastors, and God Himself. Let me show you what I mean.
As those who had been slaves for 400 years were making their way through the wilderness, God spoke to them about how they were to treat one another. In Exodus 22:25 we read,
25 “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. (Exodus 22:25 ESV)
And when Moses led the former slaves to the edge of the Promised Land, God wanted to remind them of how they were to live their lives once they settled into the towns the Lord would soon give them and they began to prosper. He said,
7 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. (Deuteronomy 15:7 NIVO)
The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible is filled with reminders of how valuable the poor are to God, of how the Lord is watching, closely watching how we treat those who are poor among us, and we find warnings, dire warnings, for those who mistreat the poor. Turn with me to Proverbs 22:22-23.
22 Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, 23 for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them. (Proverbs 22:22-23 NIVO)
Those who take advantage of the poor, exploit the poor, mistreat the poor, and use the poor for their own benefit are warned that God will take up their case and deliver justice on their behalf. At the same time, we find God’s promise of blessing to those who come alongside the poor to help them, encourage them, and treat them as invaluable bearers of the image of God. Proverbs 19:7 tells us,
17 He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done. (Proverbs 19:17 NIVO)
The prophets hammered God’s people for the way they lavished themselves in opulence while turning a blind eye to those who were struggling to find bread to eat and being oppressed by those who had the power to do so. The Lord spoke to His people through the prophet Jeremiah and said,
26 “Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. 27 Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful 28 and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor. 29 Should I not punish them for this?” declares the LORD. “Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this? (Jeremiah 5:26-29 NIVO)
Throughout Scripture we find that God has Good News for the poor. The prophet Isaiah foretold of a day when the Messiah would come, and when He came He would preach Good News to the poor, oppressed, and forgotten. We read in Isaiah 61 the words that would be on the lips of Jesus when He preached His very first sermon.
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor… (Isaiah 61:1 NIVO)
These are the words spoken by Jesus when He entered the synagogue in Nazareth and took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in His hand to announce His mission statement. Just two chapters later in Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus preaching to a huge crowd of people who had come from all over Judea, Jerusalem, and from the coastal towns of Tyre and Sidon. We read,
20 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. (Luke 6:20-23 NIVO)
When we come to our Scripture for today, found in James 1:9-12, it is interesting to remember that James never believed a word his half-brother, Jesus, said while He was alive, yet once James became a believer, every word of Jesus came to life. James sounds like an echo of Jesus in this letter. We also have to remember that James wrote his letter, probably the earliest of all of the New Testament documents, to those who were suffering, most of whom were probably very poor because of the persecution that took place, which we read about in Acts 8:1, which scattered Jesus’ followers throughout Judea and Samaria. James opens his letter in an unusual way. He begins by writing about the trials they were facing. In verses 9-11 we learn that poverty and wealth present trials for which we need God’s wisdom. Read along with me.
9 The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10 But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and 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. 12 Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:9-12 NIVO)
This is such an interesting section of James’ letter. There are two kinds of people addressed by James: the brother in “humble circumstances” and the “rich.” The phrase, “humble circumstance,” translates the Greek word, “????????” (tapeinos). The word appears eight times in the New Testament and it’s translated, “small, insignificant, lowly, downcast, humble, and weak.” The word includes those who have no financial resources, but it includes more than that. It describes those who are powerless, vulnerable to those who can take advantage of them, use them, and make their situation even worse. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, we find the same word used. Listen to these examples. In Psalm 82:3 we read,
1 Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. (Psalm 82:3 NIVO)
Again, in Psalm 102:17, we read about God’s love for, and quick response to, those who find themselves destitute in the truest, most all-encompassing, sense of the word. Read along with me.
17 He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. (Psalm 102:17 NIVO)
I’ve taken all of this time to show you Scripture and describe for you the destitution of the “tapeinos,” the lowly, insignificant, and impoverished people James was writing to, and who are still with us today, so you might be prepared to be absolutely rocked back on your heels, stunned and shocked. Are you ready? Brace yourselves. James writes that those who are low should take pride in their high position. What in the world does that mean? What high position? Don’t forget, in James 1:5, James told the people they needed godly wisdom as they were going through the trials of life. Both poverty, destitution, and wealth are trials. I don’t know many of my friends who would categorize vast sums of money and it’s twin, power, as a trial. Even if you were somehow able to convince them that wealth is a trial, then that would be one trial they would welcome.
Why does James say the low are in a high position? It is because they are in a position to be totally dependent on the Lord and isn’t that what He desires from all of us? Let me illustrate what I’m talking about by pointing you to the story of a woman who was truly destitute. Ruth was a foreigner, a widow, a woman of no means, no standing, and no hope. Ruth told her mother-in-law she would go to the fields to try and find leftover grain for the two of them. Unbeknownst to Ruth, she was searching for leftover grain in the field of one of Naomi’s relatives. When Boaz arrived he saw her and began to ask questions. When he was told that she was a foreigner who was with Naomi, Boaz went to Ruth and told her to glean with his servant girls. He told her that he had told his men not to harass her and when she was thirsty, she could get water with the rest of his workers. Then we read,
10 At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She exclaimed, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me– a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10 NIVO)
Ruth knew she had absolutely nothing to offer Boaz, there’s no way she could improve his life whatsoever. She had no leverage, no bargaining chips, she was at his mercy. Boaz honored Ruth. He commended her for being willing to leave her father and mother so she might help Naomi. He blessed her, asked God to bless her, and then proclaimed, “May you be richly rewarded by the LORD…” Then Ruth spoke up.
13 “May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord,” she said. “You have given me comfort and have spoken kindly to your servant– though I do not have the standing of one of your servant girls.” (Ruth 2:13 NIVO)
Boaz was a kinsman redeemer, a male relative of Naomi who had the responsibility and privilege to act on behalf of his relative who was in trouble. The Hebrew term describes one who delivers or rescues. Jesus is the perfect Kinsman Redeemer and we are Ruth, each and every one of us is Ruth. Destitute of spiritual resources, foreigners to the Kingdom, aliens to the holiness and righteousness of God. It was in her low position that Ruth could boast of her high position. Her glory was in her relationship with Boaz. And so it is for you and me.
We’ll all agree that God wants us to depend solely on Him. We hear this call from God over and over again throughout His Word, but are we really? God has really been working me over this past week. Each Sunday I pray The Lord’s Prayer with all of the people at Britton Christian Church. We ask God to “give us this day our daily bread,” like we were the Israelites crossing the desert trusting God to provide manna in the morning, but in actuality I’ve got enough food in my fridge and cupboard to host a block party. Now that prayer means something altogether different to those living in Puerto Rico, or the refugees who have been fleeing Syria, or those who live in the Sudan, Malawi, or Somalia where drought has left millions scavenging for food. For those who are destitute, who can’t rescue themselves, but who know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, God’s wisdom will enable them to know that though they are poor, yet they are rich.
There was no middle class when James sat down to write this letter. There were poor people and there were rich people. In verse 9 James addresses those who were rich. Read along with me.
10 But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. (Jas. 1:10 NIVO)
Isn’t it interesting? James tells the low to boast about their high position. He also tells the financially wealthy, the upper crust economically, to boast about their low position because, as he says, “he will pass away like a wild flower.” G.K. Chesterton once said,
There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. (G.K. Chesterton)
On a global scale there’s not one person here today who would not be considered rich. When you consider the average Haitian lives on $350 a year, the average Syrian $600 per year, average Sudanese $960 per year, and the average Guatemalan lives on $2,740 per year–we’re rich, we’re all rich! The danger posed by riches increases as our income increases. The more money you have the greater peril you are in my friend. I’m not pointing a finger at anyone, I’m rich and need to be acutely aware of the dangers present because of it. Wealth has a way of changing us, it can change our thinking, and it can change the way we treat other people. Wealth is an illusion. If you have money then your money will attempt to convince you that there is nothing you can’t do, no place that you can’t go–you don’t have to take “No” for an answer. There’s no such thing as “sold out” if you have enough money.
At this year’s US Open, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were on a collision course to meet in the semi-finals. The hoped for match was sold out, but that didn’t stop one fan from paying $22,879 for two seats. You could have watched Rafa play in the same stadium in the Quarters for $25. The fan never got to see the match because Roger lost in the Quarters, but my point is this: money can convince us that we can get into any place we want and get out of any predicament we find ourselves in. Money can change our thinking and convince us we are far more powerful and capable than we really are. Money can convince us that everyone has a price and if everyone we know operates on this basis then surely God does as well. If you believe this my friend your money has deceived you.
Wealth can also be more addictive than any drug on the face of the planet. When is enough enough? John D. Rockefeller, America’s first billionaire, the founder of Standard Oil, was asked by a reporter, “How much money is enough?” Mr. Rockefeller said, “Just a little bit more.” Frank Bourassa lives in a town in Quebec, Canada. He loved money from the time he was young. He was an entrepreneur working both legally and illegally. He sold items to his classmates while he was in school. He sold stolen cars on the side while he worked as a mechanic. He got into selling drugs and began to make lots of money until he was busted in 2006 and spent three months in jail. When he got out of jail he had an epiphany. Frank said he thought to himself, “Why go through all of the work of finding a product? I loved money so much I decided to make my own.” Frank spent thousands of hours learning how to counterfeit American $20 bills. When he perfected his craft he produced $250 million dollars of twenties. “I loved money so much I decided to make my own.” Money is addictive, yet it’s never enough. Sydney J. Harris was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune until 1978. He said, “Men make counterfeit money; in many more cases, money makes counterfeit men.”
Jesus loves us too much to allow money to destroy our lives. He told the people of His day not to accumulate treasures on earth, but to store up treasure in heaven. Turn with me to Matthew 6:19-21.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 NIVO)
How do you store up for yourselves treasures in heaven? The answer is quite clear if we will listen to God’s counsel and apply His wisdom. Turn with me to 1 Timothy 6:17-19.
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19 NIVO)
Those whom God has blessed with financial resources are to be “rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” It takes wisdom, the wisdom of God, wisdom from God, to be able to see the wealth God has entrusted to us as a gift from His Sovereign hand to be used for His glory and not the building of our own little kingdoms. James says the rich can boast about their low position, that they will pass away like a wild flower. Whether you are rich or poor you are going to die and you have no control over when that day will come. If we live mindful that each moment is a gift from God then we are much more inclined to focus not on what we have or what we lack, but on the One who has claimed us as His own. The One who calls us His very own.
In Luke 12 Jesus told the parable of the rich fool who would have been on the cover of Fortune magazine for his great success. He was a farming phenom. His crops just kept producing more and more grain. He tore down his old barns and built new and bigger barns. Then he said to himself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” (Luke 12:19 NIVO) But God said,
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?’ (Luke 12:20 NIVO)
15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15 NIVO)
Your life, my life, does not consist of what we have. Our value is not determined by our worth, our status in society, or by the size of our bank accounts. We need God’s wisdom, desperately need God’s wisdom. His wisdom comes to the poor person to let you know that you are richer than Mark Zuckerberg my friend. Your wealth won’t fluctuate with the markets, your riches are hidden in Christ. His grace and mercy are of greater worth than all of the gold in the world. One day He will crown you with the crown of life and until that day keep your eyes on your King and not on what you lack. Trust Him to provide what you need and to sustain you through the hardships of life. God’s wisdom comes to the rich person to show you, to remind you of the hollowness, the emptiness, and meaninglessness of earthly possessions. He wants to remind you that wealth and possessions are incapable of bringing lasting satisfaction to your heart and soul. He alone can satisfy. He wants to warn you that your possessions will possess you, if you don’t keep your eyes on Him, if He does not have your heart. Won’t you surrender your heart to Jesus this very morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
October 15, 2017