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Churches That Love the Rich

The rich and powerful in the world manipulate the rest of the world to think highly of them. This includes the religious world as well.

In James 2:2 a rich man enters a church gathering wearing a gold ring and bright white clothes. Then a poor man enters the group wearing dirty clothing. Everybody pays attention to the rich man, offering him a good seat among the leaders of the church; and somebody tells the poor man to stand at the back, or to sit at the feet of someone (2:3).

To introduce this church setting–where those in the church cater to the rich–James has reminded his Christian brothers and sisters of the one true Lord, Jesus Christ, the “Lord of glory” (2:1). As the Christ–the anointed king of God–and as the risen Lord, Jesus’ power and glory supersedes all the power and riches of the world.

Unlike this church, however, the “faith of Jesus” (2:1) warned the rich of future judgment and blessed poor disciples with a new kingdom where he was king (for example, see Luke 6:20-26). In this kingdom, disciples of the new king will not show partiality to the rich.

Thus James goes on to accuse those in the church of flattering the rich and humiliating the poor; such Christians then become “lords” themselves, acting like powerful judges with evil thoughts, honoring the rich and showing contempt for the poor (2:4).

James reminds his brothers and sisters about their new (heavenly) Father–in this new family of Jesus’ kingdom–who has chosen some of those who are poor in the world to become his children (2:5). Children of God who share the faith of Jesus will inherit from their Father the new kingdom God has promised to those who love him (2:5). Lowly brothers and sisters (on earth) can look forward to the future exaltation of receiving the “crown of life” God has promised to those who love him (see James 1:9,12).

But James challenges this church that dishonors the poor man. In doing so, they are acting more like the ruling fathers of the world than like their Father in heaven (2:6). The ruling lords of the world refuse to be generous toward the poor; instead, they dominate and exploit, or simply neglect, those under them. They are bosses who demand much from their workers. If workers complain against them, refuse to work, or steal from them, the rich drag them into courts that will rule in their favor (2:6). The leaders of the world make laws that are partial to themselves, give bribes to judges that will favor their cases, and promote judges who show partiality to them.

These words from James also challenge churches today. For many leaders in present churches (both lay leaders and pastors, who are well-paid or want to be well-paid) likewise cater to the rich and neglect the poor. It is common for the richest church members to be given the most important leadership positions in the churches. And those leaders prefer to build the most impressive building (“church”) possible, and to pay the pastor(s) such that they will focus on “spiritual” things and not bite the hand that feeds them. Pastors in “successful” churches (with newer or bigger buildings and bigger budgets and salaries) are reluctant to challenge their richest members (who give in order to make their churches “successful”). If such pastors begin to preach to the richest like Jesus did, most of those members will either stop giving (as much or at all), leave the church, or (most likely) cause the pastor to leave. The result is that churches continue to show partiality to the rich and to manipulate or ignore the poor.

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Pure Religion

In James 1:27 pure religion is defined as visiting orphans and widows, and remaining “unstained” from the world. For the world in general conveniently forgets, neglects, or even denounces the destitute poor. Pure religion, however, focuses on visiting and helping the poor, showing practical love to neighbors with the greatest need.

Rich Christians prefer passages in the Old Testament that refer to God’s covenant with Israel, which promised blessings of prosperity and health for those who obeyed God’s commands. Wealth then becomes a sign that they are blessed by God. And poverty is a sign that the poor are not blessed by God, due to their disregard for God.

Thus Christ’s works of mercy are exchanged for the “Protestant work ethic.” Such Protestants emphasize they are saved by faith not by works, but then think their hard daily work at their vocational “calling” has earned their “blessings” of prosperity.

But the problem of the poor is not generally due to their lack of work, but that most of their better-off employers pay poverty wages. But the rich mostly view poverty as the problem of the poor; actually poverty is the problem of the rich. The impure religion of a stained world remains devoted primarily to its own selfish ambition.

Only the pure word of Jesus (and James, and the rest of the New Testament) is true–and those doing that word remain near the bottom, serving among the most destitute. (Among many New Testament passages, note this pure religion in Acts 6:1-3 in the early Jerusalem church, as well as 1 Timothy 5:3-16 for some of Paul’s churches.)

God’s Grace in the Book of James

The book of James is known especially for its emphasis on good works (faith without works is dead). Martin Luther disliked James because he saw little of God’s grace–an emphasis of the apostle Paul in books like Romans and Galatians.

But James does portray a graceful foundation for his emphasis on good works. In 1:17-18,21 he mixes agricultural and “birth” metaphors to point to God’s gifts (grace) from above. The “word of truth” of 1:18 becomes the “implanted” word in 1:21; and this “plant” produces “first fruits” (God’s new “creatures,” who are “brought forth” or “birthed” by the word of truth).

So through the word of truth implanted from above, the (heavenly) “Father of lights” gives the “perfect gift” that produces new creatures, new children (of the Father), who receive with meekness the implanted word from above (1:17-18). This Father’s gift–that enables the birth of new children and empowers them to become new creatures–is especially what Paul means by “grace.” For both Paul and James, grace is God at work, producing new life in new children (of God).

This divine word of truth is able (powerful) to save (the souls of) God’s new children (1:21). God’s grace here is not primarily mercy (or forgiveness); this grace is God working in us to save us from present selfish desires and sin, and from eternal death. Those receiving this good and perfect gift from the Father of lights will not waver in darkness.

Wisdom for Christians with trials

James 1:2 calls for Christian brothers and sisters to count it all joy when they suffer various trials. James adds that as one suffers, this tests one’s faith, and can lead to remaining patient and faithful servants of God (1:2-3). Such trials can thus be tests–yet could also be temptations.

In 1:12-14 James speaks of both trials and being tempted. The temptations are especially connected with selfish desires (1:14-15). These desires can lead to sin. The preceding context of 1:11 would link evil desires with the pursuits of the rich. The problem is that much religious wisdom of the world thinks God wants to bless them by giving them the desires of their heart, desires such as escaping the trials of poverty and humiliation from the rich.

Presently, poor Christians face humiliation (from the rich); but James says their future will be exaltation from God, the crown of life (if they remain faithful until death) (1:9-11). As for the rich that now thrive on earth, they and their exalted status on earth will pass away like the flowers that bloom and then wilt under the bright sun. They will be brought down and humiliated in the end (by God).

Poor Christians who have this wisdom, can accept their present humble status on earth with joy. If they lack wisdom, they should pray and God will give them wisdom from above (1:5-6). And God will generously give them “without reproaching” (1:5). God’s gift does not include words of humiliation about lazy or undeserving recipients, in contrast to the miserly gifts of the rich.

Asking in faith means asking without doubting (1:6), without being “double-minded” (1:7-8). The pure in heart seek faithfulness to the mind of God. The double-minded are driven by strong “waves” and “winds,” seeking to follow the wisdom of the world as well as the wisdom of God. Even much of the religious wisdom of the world asks God to remove trials, to give them the (greedy) desires of their heart, to help them succeed in the world.

But such ambitions and desires are temptations, and do not come from God (1:13); they come from one’s own greed (1:14). While the old covenant of Moses promised prosperity if Israel would be faithful, Jesus–like the later prophets of Israel–exposed the greed and oppression of Israel’s rich and powerful. A true prophet is a poor prophet who speaks truth to wealth and power, and suffers the consequences.

So James is calling his readers to join him in being a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1). James and his brothers and sisters are a new family, with one Father, God, and with one Lord, Jesus Christ. While the ruling fathers and lords of earth pursue their selfish interests, at the expense of much of the rest of the earth, poor and persecuted Christians can pray for and receive wisdom from their Father and Lord that enables them to overcome temptations to pursue their own selfish interests and to remain joyfully faithful to the one true Lord.

Wolves pretending to be sheep

In Matthew 7:15 Jesus warns his disciples about false prophets: these religious prophets seem to be admirable “sheep,” so righteous and holy; but they are actually hungry, greedy “wolves.” Their admirable public acts–giving alms, praying, and fasting–are done to impress other people (see Mt. 6:1-18). Impressed people can then be manipulated into serving them and their greedy interests–personal status, family wealth, and national power.

These “alpha dogs” should not be honored or revered, despite their elevated positions and power in churches that adore them. Disciples should judge them rightly, according to their fruits (Mt. 7:16-20). These dogs might speak of Jesus as “Lord,” but are they doing the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven? (Mt. 7:21). False prophets will even try to fool the final Lord, claiming they were good disciples (Mt. 7:22). Bowing before the final judge, they will boast: we prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and did many miracles in your name. But the Lord will respond: I never knew you; for they were evildoers; they did not obey his commands (Mt. 7:23).

So it is possible for religious leaders to speak beautifully in Jesus’ name, and to do impressive acts in Jesus’ name. But it’s all a show, a dramatic performance that will lead their admirers to follow them as revered ruling fathers or lords, supporting them generously and loyally. True disciples of Jesus, who revere the one Father, the one in heaven, must be more discerning; for Jesus came not to be served but to humbly serve, associating with and helping those who had little to offer him in return. Jesus’ lowly disciples will not join or support wolf packs.

Prayer: Pursuing God’s Good Gifts

In Mt. 7:7, Jesus tells his disciples to “ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Then, in 7:11, Jesus adds that their Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him.

What might these good things be? Disciples of Jesus need to be able to focus on the things of God rather than the things of men–pursuing the former, not the latter. In Mt. 6, Jesus has referred to things of men: anxiously pursuing what they will eat and drink (the richest food possible) or what they will wear (the most expensive clothes) as well as other treasures on earth, above all “mammon” (wealth). In contrast to those, Jesus has focused on the good things of God: seeking God’s kingdom (“your kingdom come”) and righteousness (“your will be done”), rightly pursuing simple daily bread for all the heavenly Father’s family and kindly forgiving anyone who sins against them.

To pursue God’s kingdom is to ask for the Father’s kingly power to come and empower good actions of Jesus’ righteousness. Disciples of Jesus who are seeking and asking for these good gifts will be given them, will find them. The Father’s kingly power comes above all through the gift of the Holy Spirit–“to those who ask him” (Lk. 11:13). And Jesus righteousness is found in the fruit of the Spirit: love (that joyfully shares bread and peacefully forgives enemies), the love that includes joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

In Mt. 7:13-14 Jesus contrasts two ways or roads: their gates or doors lead to destruction or “life” in the end. Jesus’ little kingdom of righteous disciples has a narrow gate and road compared to the large kingdoms of earth. Most will prefer the wide gate and easy road of their kingdom of earth and its “righteousness.” Only a few in each kingdom of earth will pursue the narrow gate and road of the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness. The few who find the narrow way will be those who seek it; and the few who find the narrow door will be those who knock at it.

Judge not?

Jesus’ statement, “judge not, that you be not judged,” (Mt. 7:1) is one of his most memorable sayings. But it is usually remembered by those who think Jesus was never judgmental. Jesus, however, is here warning disciples again (as in Mt. 5:21-26) about not condemning one’s brother or sister, one’s fellow disciple–in this case, because of a mere “speck.”

If a disciple sees a “speck” (a small sin) in a brother’s or sister’s eye, and condemns that fellow disciple, then the disciple judging has a “log” (a big sin) in his own eye. Such condemnation will result in his own judgment (from God). In 5:22 Jesus said a disciple who calls a brother a “fool” (that is, condemns a brother as someone who is not part of the family of God) is in danger of the judgment of hell.

Jesus calls the judging disciple (with the “log”) a hypocrite, associating him with the hypocrites (scribes and Pharisees) in the synagogues. Later (in Mt. 23:23) Jesus will strongly judge such hypocrites: they make “mountains out of (small) molehills;” they overvalue specks like tithing the smallest garden plants while neglecting weightier matters like justice, mercy, and faith. This is like straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel (see 23:24). These hypocrites (“actors”) perform dramatic scenes of denunciation, based on a speck of evidence.

In the early churches, minor issues like eating certain foods, celebrating certain days, or performing circumcisions led some Christians to condemn others (for example, see Acts 15:1-5, Rom. 14, and Col. 2:16-17). Of course more modern churches have similarly condemned other churches because of minor issues such as details about the best mode of baptism or the proper way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The obsession with such specks also overlooks Jesus’ judgments against the significant injustice/unrighteousness of those like the scribes and Pharisees: for example, they use public gifts to the poor for their own self-glory (see Mt. 6:1-2), and show no mercy to Jesus when he compassionately feeds poor disciples or heals the sick on the sabbath (Mt. 12:1-14).