Shelby G. Floyd
A statement in the book of James suggests our topic under consideration:
Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.
The first chapter of James deals with the various kinds of trials that Christians will go through. You may wonder what the words of our text are doing in the midst of that chapter about trials. You will see the reason as we develop this lesson about the rich man and the poor man.
This lesson deals with one of the trials of the Christian life—the trial of persistent poverty and passing prosperity. That is a trial that many of us will go through in our lifetime. James is advising Christian people how they should approach money and their status in life!
We need to remember that in the absolute sense we do not own anything. We are stewards and not owners. We are overseers or managers and not owners of anything, because everything belongs to God according to the Bible: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalms 24:1). That is a very comprehensive statement. It all belongs to God and he has given it to us to manage under our watch.
Let it be understood at the outset that we in America are rich compared to most of the people in the world. Even the poorest of our people are rich compared to people who are in dire poverty in many countries today. But even in America there is a struggle between the rich and the poor, the “haves” and the “have-nots.” As the saying goes, “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” The middle-class that has made our country great is shrinking.
STATEMENTS ABOUT WEALTH
Let us look at some statements concerning the proper attitude toward wealth and poverty. In reference to money someone has said, “It can master you or you can master it.” Benjamin Franklin our great statesman, scientist and philosopher said, “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature that creates happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one. If it satisfies one want, it doubles or triples that want another way.” The Titan, John D. Rockefeller in his youth was very poor, but later became one of the wealthiest men in America. In the last years of his life he worked harder giving his money away, than he did in making it. He believed that God gave him great wealth to help other people. He once said, “The poorest man I know is a man who has nothing but money.” Robert Horton has said, “The people who set their hearts on money are equally disappointed whether they get it or whether they don’t.” Someone has said that, “Money is a universal passport to everywhere but heaven, and is a universal provider of everything but happiness.” These statements sum up the true attitude that we all should have toward money and poverty.
REAL LIFE ISSUES
The issues of poverty and wealth are real life issues that are going on all the time. We face them daily. We all want more money to buy more things and to do more things in our lifetime including retirement. In this quest there’s a tendency of the poor to envy the rich. And there is a bias of the rich to despise the poor.
Let us notice some examples of how the rich and famous will pass away like a wild flower. Ronald Reagan was one of our greatest presidents. He became very wealthy also. But on his recent birthday he hardly knew what was going on around him. He suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Our wealth will not pass away, but according to James the rich person will pass away like a wild flower! Death is the great equalizer. Whether we are rich or poor we all will leave this world on a level playing field. Death is a universal statistic: “one out of one is!”
All of us have heard of the Borden Milk Company. William Borden was a wealthy young man who grew up in Chicago. He was an heir of the Borden Milk fortune. When he was in his first year at Yale University he committed himself to reaching the Muslim people living in northern India. Three years later he sailed to Egypt to study the Arabic language before going to India. He realized that money would not provide the ultimate security. Before leaving he donated his inheritance of one million dollars to various missions. He was in Cairo just a few months when he contracted spinal meningitis. He was dead within a few weeks. Under his pillow he had scrawled these words on some paper, “no reserve, no retreat, and no regrets.” He had the right attitude toward his wealth.
In the real life issues of poverty and wealth, so many people are caught up in greed. We are all aware of the scandal going on in the Enron Corporation—the seventh-largest Corporation in America before filing for bankruptcy. When one reads of executives in high positions in that company investing $25,000 and in a few months turning that into 4 1/2 million dollars, we know “something is rotten in Denmark.” Greed and power was the driving force.
Many of us can also get caught up in the game of greed—trying to get more and more and hold on to it at all cost. This poem illustrates the different attitudes toward position and power, toward poverty and wealth, and the animosity that is often displayed toward people in the various stations of life:
THE COLD WITHIN
Six humans trapped by happenstance,
In black and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood,
Or so the story’s told.
Their dying fire in need of logs,
The first woman held hers back
For on the faces around the fire
She noticed one was black.
The next man looking cross the way
Saw one not of his church,
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The third one sat in tattered clothes
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store.
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy poor.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight,
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
And the last man of this forlorn group
Did naught except for gain
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
The logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without,
They died from the cold within.
—James Patrick Kinney
And we will all die from the cold within unless we learn to have the right attitude toward poverty and wealth. When God gives us wealth we must learn to share with those in need. And when we are in poverty we must learn to live within our means and trust God to supply our needs.
There is a group of natives in Africa that learned how to trap monkeys so they could sell them. They would find a hollow log and drill a hole in it just big enough for the monkey to stick his hand in it. Then they would put some bait in the hollow log. Any passing monkey would see the bait, put in his hand and grab the bait. As long as he held on to the bait he could not get his hand out. That is how the natives caught the monkeys. Sometimes like the monkeys, we go after more wealth and Satan catches us because we will not let go.
AN INTERPRETATION ISSUE
Let us notice again the statement of James in reference to the contrast between the poor man and the rich man: “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 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” (James 1:9-11). James refers to the one as the brother of low degree. Are the poor man and the rich man both brothers in Christ? Is the poor man a member of the body of Christ and the rich man a citizen of the world? That is the question that needs to be decided. When we look closely at the context, it seems that both individuals are members of the body of Christ. They are both brothers in Christ. In many respects the church reflects what we see in the world. Experience teaches us that in the church there will be people in humble circumstances and there will be those who are rich or at least much better off. It is important that both have the right relationship with each other and the right attitude toward their stations in life.
We all have heard the saying that if you work hard enough you will have money and success. That is not always true. We all have seen people who worked long and hard and yet never had very much of this world’s goods. If you work very hard and make $50,000 each year, do you suppose that the man, who works very hard and makes $1 million, works 20 times harder than you do? Not likely! Therefore, whether one has little or much, it is not always contingent upon how hard you work. There are other factors that come into play. And concerning his people God had a hand in creating wealth. He promised wealth to those who would obey him in the Old Testament: “But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today. (Deuteronomy 8:18).
Perhaps Satan has something to do with worldly people and their pursuit of fame, fortune and power. Many successful people have become so at the expense of their marriage, their children, and yes, their soul. There is always a trade-off to achieve something. To gain wealth often a person must be willing to give up things that in the sight of God are more valuable than what they are trying to achieve. At least Jesus thought so:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
James then is writing to members of the church who are in contrasting positions—one is rich while the other is in humble circumstances. God wants us to have the proper attitude toward wealth or a humble position in life.
THE POOR MAN
Let us notice the poor man first: “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position” (James 1:9). That is a simple statement. James teaches that the brother in humble circumstances should take pride in his high position. You are probably wondering what in the world James is talking about! How can a poor brother rejoice and take pride in his high position? In New Testament times many Christian people were poor when they came into Christ and many stayed that way for the rest of their life. What was their attitude to be toward money and their humble position in life? James teaches them to take pride in their humble circumstances and rejoice in their high position. This is possible because of the riches and high position we all have in Christ Jesus. The poorest person in the body of Christ has greater riches than the kings of the earth, because of his exalted position in Christ.
Jesus Christ and the other inspired writers in the Bible concur with the teaching of James. Notice what Christ wrote to the church at Smyrna: “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty-yet you are rich!” (Revelation 2:8-9). Here was a congregation that was in humble circumstances. They were in poverty and afflictions, but Jesus said they were rich!
Let us also notice what the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). The poor brother can rejoice in his humble circumstances because he has the hope of the riches and glorious inheritance of the saints. Oh! My brother and sister in humble circumstances, you have riches in Christ that are immeasurable. Take pride in your position and glory in your riches in Christ.
We are rich because Christ became poor: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” ( 2 Corinthians 8:9). Christ did not have a house or a home to call his own. He once said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has not where to lay his head.” He was born into a poor family and humble surroundings, yet he was to become the sovereign of the universe. And we are to rejoice since we are allied with him, and also exalted with him to the heavenly places. We are like the poor man who had a rich uncle who died and left it all to him. Christ died for us and we became millionaires! Because of the poverty of Christ on Calvary, we have inherited the spiritual riches in Christ and eternal wealth in the world come. Christ is exalted to the right hand of God and that is our position with him today.
Do you see the point that James is making to his readers? “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in his exalted position.” That is to be our attitude when we find ourselves in humble circumstances.
THE RICH MAN
Now in contrast to the poor brother, who is to rejoice in his high position, let us notice what the attitude ought to be of the brother who has great riches:
But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 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.
In the desert country in the springtime the wildflowers will be very beautiful, but by early summer the scorching heat will cause them to wither and die. This illustration from nature demonstrates why the rich brother should take pride in his low position. But how can a rich man take pride in being humble or in a low position? He should humble himself because no matter how much money or power he possesses, he is going to pass away like a wild flower. Howard Hughes was one of the wealthiest men in America, and after he died someone asked how much money he had left. The reply was that he had left it all! He had passed away like a wild flower. That is the low position that every rich man will find himself in. Howard Hendricks has said, “Wealth has nothing to do with amount, but it has everything to do with attitude.” Our true wealth has to do with our attitude toward money, position and power. James does not teach that it is wrong to have money or wealth. Many of God’s people down through the ages had money, wealth and power. If a rich brother will take pride in his low position, then he will have a humble attitude about his money and wealth.
The Lord doesn’t encourage people to be slothful, lazy and to stay in poverty. God promised Israel wealth if they would but obey him: “But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today” (Deuteronomy 8:18). The rich brother in Christ is therefore to humble himself, because he will pass away like a wild flower in the scorching sun. James is actually quoting his statement from the prophet Isaiah:
A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever.”
We are all like the grass of the field. We will all pass away swiftly as the season’s come and go.
So many people are in awe of rich people. Even Christian people bow down to the wealthy as if they were an idol to be worshipped. There is no doubt that many in our country and in the church worship money and power. What should our attitude be toward those who have great wealth in this world? We should not be overawed with them and desire to be in their position and have their power. David told us why and gave us the right spirit that we are to have:
Do not be overawed when a man grows rich,
when the splendor of his house increases;
for he will take nothing with him when he dies,
his splendor will not descend with him.
Though while he lived he counted himself blessed–
and men praise you when you prosper–
he will join the generation of his fathers,
who will never see the light [of life].
A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish.
Many do have riches without understanding to go with their wealth. According to David, they are like the beasts that perish! What is the exhortation of David? Don’t be overawed when a man grows rich!
When Christ was born, the refrain of the song states that God brings down rulers and lifts up the humble: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
Once, Jesus encountered a young man who did not have the right attitude toward wealth. He was rich; he was a ruler; and he was young. Therefore we refer to him as the rich young ruler:
17 Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
18 So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”
20 And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”
21 Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”
22 But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is [a]for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
In this interview Jesus used a hyperbole—an exaggeration to demonstrate the difficulty of a rich man having the right attitude about his wealth. Christ said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. He refers to it as a sewing needle, or as Luke the physician says, a surgeon’s needle (Luke 18:25). While this is something impossible for man to do, it is not impossible for God to do. Therefore, even a rich man can be saved if he will adopt the low position mentioned by James—“he will pass away like a wild flower.” Therefore, don’t trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God. The rich young ruler did not have the right attitude about his riches—he loved them more than he loved Christ.
We are all rich even though we are not millionaires. Paul’s charge to Timothy and all gospel preachers was to deliver the message to the people that our riches are to be used to do good: “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. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 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). This is the right attitude toward money and wealth. We are not to be arrogant and despise the poor. We are to do good and lay up treasure in heaven against the day of judgment.
We all are to boast and rejoice in our high position in Christ. Though Christ was rich he became poor that we might be rich: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). “All spiritual blessings in heavenly places are in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1: 3). Redemption from sin is in Christ (Ephesians 1:7). Salvation is in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10). Every blessing available to us is to be found in Christ and his spiritual body—the church. If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, repent of your sins and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Be faithful through all the trials of life—including poverty and riches—and God will give you a crown of life: “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 1:12). Whether we are rich or poor, let us obey and serve the Lord Jesus Christ all the days of our earthly pilgrimage.*
*Shelby G. Floyd delivered this sermon February 10, 2002 at the Heartland Church of Christ, Greenwood, Indiana. Copyright © 2008 2019 Shelby G. Floyd All Rights Reserved
Shelby G. Floyd
Heartland Church of Christ
1693 West Main Street
Greenwood, Indiana 46142