JAMES and the Paradox of Prosperity. 1
The epistle of James is the first of the so-called General epistles (the traditional name given to the seven New Testament letters that were not written by the Apostle Paul; unlike Pauline letters, these are named after the author rather than the audience) and perhaps the first New Testament letter to be written. James was written in the “Wisdom-literature” tradition of the Old Testament to Jewish Christians scattered throughout the world. The book is concerned about practical aspects of Christian conduct, and what faith looks like when it is lived out in everyday life, among everyday people, doing everyday things; fittingly, it has been dubbed the “Proverbs of the New Testament” by some.
Like Proverbs, many subjects are discussed in this epistle and among the key subjects is poverty, wealth and the believer’s attitude to both. There are five passages in the epistle that deal with this specific concern of James: 1: 9-11, 1:26-27, 2:1-9, 2:14-17 and 5:1-6. Dr Ryrie in his Introduction to James observed that in the 108 verses of the epistle, there are references or allusions from 22 books of the Old Testament and at least 15 allusions to the teachings of Christ as embodied in the Sermon on the mount. As such, James’s concrete and practical ethical instructions on the right view and use of wealth are reminiscent of the ethical imperatives of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus.
James and a Right View of Financial Circumstances.
James begins his epistle by shining a spotlight on the present adversities his audience was going through; he validates the reality of adversity in everyday life but redirects the attention of his audience to the potential inherent in the trials they face. Since trials are inevitable, James wants his audience to know that trials can be used by God to grow their faith. He considers trials as tools for spiritual maturity; and he does not want his brothers to be victims of circumstances, but rather people who are secure in their knowledge of God’s purpose for adverse circumstances.
Verses 9 through 11 of chapter 1 are set in this context; for James, present circumstances are not permanent, thus the focus of the believer should not be entirely in the here and now; present humble circumstances are not to take up the whole of their consciousness or concern, rather what God has accomplished and will accomplish in the future. Based on this truth, he instructs "the brother of low degree" to rejoice in that he is exalted. Although the word thus translated can mean many things, by contrasting him with the rich, it seems as if James is referring to the poor believer here. What about the rich? He is to rejoice in his lowliness. Commentators disagree on the identity of the rich in verse 10- some think they are rich unbelievers because of the context of James and especially his description of the rich in chapters 2 and 5 as we will see while others believe they are rich believers due to the parallelism of both verses, thus they take the verb, "rejoice" and subject "brother" in verse 9 to apply to verse 10 too.
Whichever designation we prefer, what is very clear in the pericope is the explicit eschatological element in both- especially an eschatological reversal of status ̶ the brother of low degree will be exalted to a high station while the rich will be made low. James believes that present physical circumstances are transient, thus believers are not to evaluate themselves using financial/economic indices rather by spiritual standards and God’s redemptive purposes. James particularly emphasizes the transience and unreliability of material wealth in verse 11 by comparing the wealthy to grass which is here today green, beautiful and lovely but tomorrow, withered, dry and its erstwhile beauty gone. We should realize that James is not talking here about poor investment choices that may decimate a large fortune or economic recessions as real as those are, instead he is saying that riches are worthless in the face of death- there are no HSBCs, Barclays or Guaranty Trust Banks in the grave; once one crosses that eternal divide one’s wealth (or lack of it) becomes meaningless.
Although we can understand that God will exalt those who are materially lacking now but rich in faith, and how that should be a source of joy for them but perhaps we wonder how the rich can rejoice in that he will be made low? The answer is seen when we realize that apart from the eschatological reversal of the future, there is in the present day, in the here and now, a spiritual reality whose fullness will be realized in the future. When James says "...the brother of low degree can rejoice because he is exalted and the rich in that he is made low..." what he wants the rich believer to know is that his wealth does not make him self-sufficient, with God his wealth does not count for a thing, he cannot curry God’s favor with his wealth and contrary to the pharisaic view of wealth, wealth does not elevate one in God’s sight. His true worth is not defined by his wealth, and that is cause for joy! For if the worth of one’s life is measured by present economic realities and financial status, transient as that is in view of more significant eternal realities, how miserable would one be!
However if James is speaking to the unbelieving rich, this principle still holds true. In that case, Verse 10 will be ironical! What the rich considers valuable is ultimately worthless, yet he does not know; the rich who thinks his wealth is really something to be proud of does not realize that he has built his house on a very poor foundation that will neither stand the test of time or eternity! And wouldn't that be a sad affair indeed, living all of life ignorant of the worthlessness of accumulated hoard!
Friends, we live in a world where worth is often determined by the size of bank accounts, wallets and investment portfolios, our culture is consumerist and we accumulate possessions to boost our ego, most people (perhaps unconsciously) live by the motto, “he who dies with the most toys wins”; but James is faithful to Scriptures, he wants his audience to know that “he who dies with the most toys, still dies” and thus, learn that present financial circumstances should never be the standard we measure our lives by. The apostle Paul enjoined Timothy, to instruct the rich not to trust in uncertain wealth but instead in God the source of every good and perfect gift. And all of us whether rich or poor, must remember the words of our Lord Jesus ̶ “a man’s real life in no way depends upon the number of his possessions.”