A few years ago the luxury watchmaker Romain Jerome introduced a crocodile skin strapped watch which they called the Titanic DNA night and day watch, because it included salvaged materials from the luxury liner.
If you looked at it the first thing you might think would be, How do I know what time it is? Great question. Because it doesn’t have any hands on the face. It’s only able to tell you if it’s day or night (like, you can’t look out of the window).
Here’s how they advertised it, for the discerning buyer:
World First – An exceptional timepiece that does not indicate the time!
With no display for the hours, minutes or seconds, the Day and Night offers a new way of measuring time, splitting the universe of time into two fundamentally opposing sections: day versus night.
A new interpretation of Time based around two Tourbillons operating sequentially. The Day Tourbillon operates during the day, defining the wearer’s period of activity, and stops after twelve hours, handing over to the Night Tourbillon dedicated to man’s own private sphere.
They made an extremely limited edition of just nine pieces, which of course sold out as soon as they were offered, with a price tag of just £250,000 each.
The watch is for me a perfect picture that combines two themes we’re looking at coming out of the last study and into the last chapter of the Book of James with today’s theme. If you remember James just wrote about people who planned their lives and spent their time as if there was no God. He said they were fools. Now he’s going to speak to people who plan their finances and spend their money as though there is no God, and he says they are wicked.
This is serious stuff and let’s not just listen to these words but as James said earlier treat them as a mirror to check ourselves in what we are doing, as he sounds like an Old Testament prophet of social justice announcing the judgement to come on the wicked wealthy, the filthy rich.
(Read James 5:1-6)
That’s telling it like it is. Pulling no punches.
James starts out, “Now listen” and it’s like, “Oi! Hey! Listen up – you rich!” And we’re like “Who’s he talking to? He can’t be talking to me.” Some commentators on this part of the letter are quick to say he can’t be talking to Christians but rather about people oppressing them.
The problem with that is, he’s not writing to those outside the church. They wouldn’t read it anyway. But all the way through we saw he’s been laying out tests. Tests of faith to see whether we really are Jesus followers or not. External tests showing what’s inside us. Testing times of trials and temptations. Tests of not just hearing what God says but doing it. Tests of prejudice, taming the tongue, of where we get our wisdom from and who’s really in charge of our time.
This is the money test.
The Money Test
Remember that James was living in a day when Rome was not a democracy (which means the people rule) but a plutocracy. That means a government of the wealthy (ploutos “wealth” + kratos “strength, authority”) where you were either part of the rich ruling elite, or the rest, the proles. There was no such thing as a middle class, that’s a very recent idea in the world.
We have to recognise that no human system whether national or local is perfect, but that doesn’t excuse us, look at our own systems too with regard to injustice and who profits from power and who loses out. These words challenge everyone who holds power, that in the end they’ll be judged as to whether they used it and ruled fairly for others, or just for themselves.
But it’s not saying that it’s necessarily wrong to be wealthy. Who is the richest being in the universe? It is God isn't it? So having wealth or possessions in itself is not sinful or wrong.
The Bible says God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He declares, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine” (Haggai 2:8). Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lords and everything in it.”
Having wealth does not mean you're automatically evil or greedy, any more than being poor means you're necessarily good or kind person.
But money does provide a paper trail of evidence. That's what James is saying here, and the evidence is all against them. Money is a litmus test, a visible demonstration of whether you really do love and live for and serve God, or mammon, and Jesus said you cannot do both.
In James’ day there were three main sources and indicators of wealth: Corn and wheat were the commodities traded. Clothes showed you were wealthy. And precious metals like gold and silver were the ways rich people secured and secreted away their wealth for the future. In today’s terms we could say it this way: Eating gourmet food, wearing luxury branded fashion, and a big balance in the bank so you can afford whatever you want is passing the money test.
But James says no. These people have all that but are failing it badly.
And here’s one thing none of us can afford. We can’t afford to assume it’s not us, because one day either when we finish this life or Jesus returns, we’ll find out. So right now is the time to check and adjust our investment choices accordingly.
The Final Exam
Jesus gave a sneak preview of what’s on the final examination in Matthew 25. His disciples had been asking what would be the signs of times of what we often call ‘The end times’. Here’s how that reads in The Message Version.
(Read Matthew 25:31-46)
Jesus says some people will pass and be glad forever, and others will fail and be miserable forever. That changes everything, because we have been told you'll be miserable if you don't have enough, so to win at life is to live to get more than you want.
But Jesus says true happiness comes when I realise I need less than I have, so I live to give. To care. To share whatever I have. Because having anything to share above the basic necessities, means I’m already rich.
The distinction there was not between the rich and the poor. It’s not about how much you have, it’s about what you do and don’t do with it. That’s the test. And James gives us it in three parts so we can check today and ask if we are failing or passing as we head toward the final exam.
We might think if I had more I’d give more but that’s usually not true, especially in terms of percentages. In 2019 2/3 of people earning over £250,000 in the UK gave nothing to charity. Money doesn’t really change who we are, it just magnifies our true natures and shows what we’re really like. If you’re stingy and selfish, you’ll have more to try to grasp and stockpile. If you’re grateful and generous, you have more to appreciate and give.
James is really calling out anyone, especially anyone who says they’re a Christian, who lives as if earth is their heaven, focusing on wealth, riches and possessions. He says rather than cheer and pop champagne, such people ought to “Weep and wail” literally, ‘Shriek and howl.’ Burst out crying. Why?
Because all the excess food they can’t eat will rot. The fashions they can’t find room to wear will ruin. And the gold and silver they trust in will rust. The whole lot will be burned up anyway in the end when Christ returns but not before it’s laid out plain for everyone to see, the evidence that if those were our focus in life, you chose the wrong god.
Three Parts of the Money Test
So what are the three parts of the Money Test, which runs across the course of your life, to see if we’re Filthy Rich? Could we ask the Holy Spirit to check our hearts and bring conviction now, so we can assess ourselves and adjust ahead of the final examination before it’s too late?
Lord, let your word be the mirror we see what could be within, and shape our lives by, to make us more like you. Amen.
In Verse 3: “You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” That’s it.
This is not about savings or having life insurance policies. It’s wise to save rather than spend everything. Proverbs 30 says even tiny ants are wise enough to store something from summer to get them through the winter. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “hoarding is idolatry.”
When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, one rich young woman did not flee like most residents. She stayed behind collecting as much jewellery as she could carry rather than escape by boat. Her rings went on her fingers, she didn’t have time to pick up a bag but rushed into the street clutching her pearls and rubies, gold brooches and earrings.
Poisonous fumes overcame her, she fell and died and remained under the ashes until in 1981 archaeologists found “The Ring Lady” preserved with her hands still laden with the jewels that cost her everything to hold onto. What could we be holding onto that holds us back from God?
(Read Matthew 19:16-22)
When Jesus met the man we call the “rich young ruler” he cut through the glamourous exterior to show the bankrupt heart of his materialism.
Notice, “he went away sad.” Why? Because he had literally “many possessions,” which possessed him; so much so he couldn’t say yes when the King of Kings offered him a job. He couldn’t go, because he couldn’t let go. He would not pay the price, to gain the prize. Because the gold was his god. Bad choice.
Then Jesus told his disciples they were wiser because, “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29).
The young martyred missionary Jim Eliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
Hoarding is stupid when you realise you can’t take it with you when you go. But you can send it ahead.
So, what’s your score on this? 1 to 100? I’m not saying don’t have a savings plan or ISAs or a pension. Hoarding is not that. The Cambridge Dictionary says hoarding is “the act of collecting large amounts of something and keeping it for yourself, often in a secret place: or a mental condition that makes someone want to keep a large number of things that are not needed or have no value … Hoarding is often linked with depression and anxiety.” It makes you a miserable, and the first part of that word is—miser. Give yourself a score as a hoarder.
Withholding what’s right. In verse 4 James says they’re keeping back what should be given. Cheating, defrauding others of their fair share. This for us would mean not only charity but unethical, unfair, unecological trade. Either setting up business that’s bad for people and the planet or benefitting from it and not caring, because it gives me the lifestyle I want.
I don’t even feel the pain of other people’s deprivations because of one sided trade that only benefits me, aid that doesn’t help, wages too low, and debt so high it enslaves generations.
Money talks. Verse 4: “The wages you failed to pay the workers are crying out.” This was not just a first century issue. The gap has been growing ever wider, tearing societies apart. Today the world’s richest 1% have 44% of the world’s wealth, more than twice as much as the lowest 6.9 billion.
But I can’t compare myself with them, I have to look in the mirror and count myself wealthy while our national minimum wage is £8.21 an hour, and Oxfam say almost half of humanity is still living on less than £4.30 a day. If I’m just content to be a “consumer” then I am deaf, dumb, and blind to that because I’m doing okay, but he says the “Lord of hosts,” literally the Lord of heaven’s armies sees and hears it all.
In 1967 Dr Martin Luther King Jr said:
The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter... The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables men everywhere to live in dignity and human decency.
The clouds are getting ever darker in these days. We must care because God cares about economic equity, focused on justice for the poor, driven by hope and love. But our systems are focused on the prosperity of the few, driven by self-interest and greed which institutionalise oppression to the many.
So give yourself a score on HOARDING and HOLDING BACK what we should give - and then the final paper on the Money Test is what I call hogging.
There’s no other word that comes to mind as James describes piggy individuals, living high on the hog: “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.”
Ugh. Isn’t that a horrible picture? But it’s also the good life that is advertised to us every single day. Look at some of the words more closely, as we check what matters most to us.
“You’ve lived in Luxury.” Truphao. We get “truffles” from that. The word is linked to softness. Delicacy. The easy life. Pampering yourself. Only the best will do, for you. “Self-indulgence” is the opposite of living simply, so others can simply live. It’s linked to excessive eating and drinking, even the worship of food.
In the UK we buy 9 million cookbooks a year, most of them now telling you they’ll help you lose weight. 815 million chronically malnourished people will go to bed hungry. 3 million children starved to death last year, while in the UK 40% of dogs, 50% of cats are overweight. And 63% of people.
James diagnoses the fattening of our hearts. In the Greek kardia. What’s the number one killer in the west? They say Covid-19 has killed 440,000. Heart disease kills 18 million people a year.
What are we trying to fill our hearts with? What matters most to us? Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”
For the wicked wealthy, the filthy rich—this life is as good as it gets. The closest thing to heaven. For those who love Jesus and follow him—this life is the worst it gets. The closest to hell.
To be rich without God means trading the shortest term gain for the longest term pain.
I often wonder about that verse in Revelation where it says he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Why cry in heaven? Maybe my tears looking back over my time here will be because of all the waste, the way I’ve lived, consumed, and spent so much with the wrong priorities, even though I’ve said I follow the One who though he was rich became poor for my sake.
The Bible closes out with these words; “I am coming soon” followed by the response “Yes! Come Lord Jesus.” He’s coming—ready or not.
Let’s take the money test now, and live as though we’re not only waiting but ready for his return.
Anthony Delaney is a Leader at Ivy Church in Manchester. He is also the leader for New Thing and the LAUNCH conference. He is an author and hosts the television show “Transforming Life.”