16 Nov Worshipping Wealth or Worshipping God
James 5:4 – Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
Several years ago, the world was outraged over the case against Bernie Madoff, a former stockbroker and investment advisor responsible for the largest, longest, and most widespread Ponzi scheme in history. Madoff’s fraud totaled in the billions. At his sentencing hearing, the judge in the case condemned Madoff’s crimes as “extraordinarily evil” and imposed a sentence over 10 times longer than the defense lawyers had requested – 150 years. In addition to the victims who testified against Madoff, his self-indulgent, luxurious lifestyle also testified against him: tens of millions of dollars spent in acquiring personal properties; $45 million in bonds; $17 million in cash; $8.8 million for yachts; $2.6 million in jewelry, and a whole lot more.1 It was an outrageous hoard gained through unthinkable fraud, and Madoff heaped the riches upon himself.
Beginning in chapter 5, James wastes no time making his point clear. “Listen, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries coming upon you.” When reading this passage, one cannot help but see a courtroom setting with the Lord seated high upon His throne, hearing the testimony of victims, and carefully reviewing the irrefutable evidence (v. 4). The accused were rich landowners who were exploiting the poor by withholding wages and, like Madoff, were using the money to live in luxury and self-indulgence. James is in no way condemning all who were rich; after all, James was a devout Jew who knew God had financially blessed many believers, most notably Abraham, Job, David, Philemon, Joseph of Arimathea, and Lydia. Instead, James was condemning the way the rich accumulated their wealth and how they used it. James likened the rich to animals who were being fattened for slaughter.
James is not condemning wealth here. He is rebuking self-reliance and self-indulgence. These men have abused their power and built a fortune on the backs of underpaid workers and overdue bills. We can either worship wealth, or worship God with wealth. This is the heart of this section of Scripture.
Why is the Christian concept of stewardship, that God is the owner of all we have, and we are His manager, a radical outlook that transforms our entire lives?
- Chad Bray, “Madoff Pleads Guilty to Massive Fraud,” Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2009.