In April 2012 Eike Baptista stood at the top of his wealth and power, as he started work on his super port, Acu, the biggest in the Americas, He was an oil and minerals tycoon. This project meant he was going to have control over production, transportation and use of the oil he found. He was the richest man in Brazil. He was said to be the eighth richest man in the world. He hosted parties for the worlds rich and famous His super yacht The Spirit of Brazil VII’. He had mountain top estates overlooking the plush beaches of Rio. He drove the most exclusive and expensive of cars. He was the epitome of a self-made man. He was not shy on talking himself up. He boasted that by 2015 he would be the richest man in the world. He predicted that by 2020 he would be worth over a trillion dollars.
Well it is 2015 and Bloomberg’s business news are trying to decide if he is the world record holder, not as the world’s richest man, but for being the world’s fastest destroyer of wealth, he had gone from companies with equity of over 34 billion in 2012 to debts of over a billion dollars a mere eighteen months later . He defaulted on loan payments. The police confiscated his fleet of luxury cars and cash. His super yacht was sold for scrap. He was a salesman who talked up the possibilities of his companies and yet in the eighteen months between 2012 and 2015 he was hit by the perfect storm of difficulties. His boasts came to nothing. His life acts as a cautionary tale. It is a great example of what James says in the passage we had read out to us today… that wealth and life are transitory, like vapour and mist, and we should not boast about our own plans and quest for wealth but put our trust in God because we do not know what tomorrow will bring.
We’ve taken a break from our journey through the book of James, for the past two weeks, to journey together through Easter, but today we come back to it. We come back to the first of two passages where James addresses richer elements in the church. In the one we had read to us today it is the merchants, then next week we will look at what James has to say to landowner.
It’s helpful in understanding this passage and to give ourselves a quick refresher of what James has been about to look at this passage first of all in the context of the wider book.
You may remember that in chapter 3 James introduced us tothat most dangerous of animals the Glossa. While we were able to tame all other kinds of wild animals said James no one had been able to tame the Glossa. Glossa by the way is the greek word for the tongue.
Right before the reading we had today he had talked about a specific Glossa… the back bitingGlossa… warning the church about the destructive and unchristian way in which people in the church were talking each other down. Writing each other off and judging them.
Here in this passage James deals with an equally dangerous type of Glossa… The boasting Glossa; which tries and assert dominance over others by talking itself up. It makes them feel small by making itself seem bigger and more important that they are. It can equally destroy community.
Merchants bought good in one place and sold them in another for profit. The merchant class in the roman world wasn’t the ultra-rich group, they were more like the middle class of today. We know that there were many such merchants in the Church and in leadership: Lydia who hosted the first Church in Europe was a merchant in purple cloth, and Paul heard of troubles in the Church in Corinth because Cloe’s people had meet with him in Ephesus, probably on a trade trip. In wider society merchants did not have the status of Imperial officials or the older landed gentry, maybe in the church they found a place where they could talk themselves up and find the status and importance they desired.
Which lead on to a bigger issue that James is addressing in the churches he is writing to. The church like the society round it was made up of a small group of wealthy people and a large group of poor people. A small group who were doing very well and a group struggling to eek out a living. The church was to reflect the Kingdom of God where all were considered equally important and loved by God, But James had seen the thinking of the world very much infiltrate the life of the church. The rich were shown favouritism; Christianity was being seen as simply believing a set of doctrines and saying the right things rather than being expressed in genuine compassion and love for the poor. In that most troubling of passages in James 2 he says that faith without works is dead. People give a warm blessing at the end of their worship times but send people in need away empty. Here the focus of the merchants was on how they were going to make more and more wealth, increase their profit margins and prosperity, they were living and planning without reference to God or God’s will for the Christian community…
Which was a symptom of a larger issue that James was addressing… at the start of his book he had talked of the double minded people, people, people he would later describe as trying to have friendship with the world, rather than God: People whose thought patterns and lives and desires reflected the world around them rather than the teachings of Christ and the values of the Kingdom of God. Here in the attitude and words and plans of the merchants this double mindedness and desire for friendship with the world is being expressed. They had a spiritual part of their lives a part where they worshipped with and lived with the community of faith, but that faith seems to have had very little to do with their business life. That faith seemed to have very little to do with the plans for their lives. That faith seemed to have little to do with what they wanted out of life and how they were going to achieve them.
All these concerns of James focus here on a very real and practical issue within the lives of the community of faith. An issue which I think actually challenges us today in our western church as much if not more than it did to James first hearers.
Firstly, can I say that James is not speaking against having wealth, nor doing well in business nor planning for the future. These things are good. Wealth creates jobs and helps provide for other people. In 1 Timothy 5:8 Paul says that it is foolish is someone is not able to provide for their families and households. It needs to be something that we do. It is right and proper to have and plan for financial security; however James here is pointing to the fact that the merchants whole goal is to increase their wealth, there whole planning is around having more and more, without reference to God. Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool who keeps building a bigger and bigger barn. Then after he spent his whole life amassing wealth he decides to retire and relax and enjoy it, and on that very night he dies. He and the merchants here were not focusing on the important things of life. They were not focusing on the God things of life. James warns them that in reality life is like human breath on a cold day… It’s there and visible for a brief moment then it gone.
It is easy for us to simply think of life and our goals and our future in the way in which the world and society around us thinks of them. To have our plans our energies, the time and resources we have invested in a dream sculpted by media and consumerism rather than by Christ and the kingdom of God.
How the word Boasting is used in the New Testament helps us to understand what James means. To boast about something is to put one confidence in it, to trust in it. Paul in Philippians talks of his things he could boast of, his Jewish heritage, his top class education, his political position, he could even boast of all the things he had suffered and done as a Christian leader, but in the end he says they are just a pile of rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of Knowing Jesus Christ. In Corinthians he says he could boast in wisdom and understanding but rather choses to boast in the cross of Jesus Christ, not what he knows but what Christ has done for him. To boast in what we have and what we plan to get is futile because in the end we don’t know what tomorrow will bring it cannot be trusted in. Rather we are called says James to live and plan in an attitude of trusting in the providence of God. All good things come from above says James. He exhorts his readers to speak and to plan with the attitude ‘God willing”, or “if God wills it” realising that our times are in God’s hands. That in God we live and move and have our being, wealth and prosperity maybe fleeting but the steadfast love of the lord never ceases.
When I did a lot of church based youth work, God’s will was something that often came up, what does God what me to do with my life? What job does God want me to do? Does God really have someone all lined up for me? It’s easy to simply think of God’s will and God willing in terms of fate and future possibilities and plans. But James does not let us do that. He finishes this brief section with a proverb… “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” We call these sins of omission, that we have left undone the good God calls us to do.
When we think of God’s will we need to realise that God has in actual fact revealed his will to us. His moral will, the ethical way in which he wants us to live. So when James says that we should say God willing it is more than trusting in the providence of God it is also acknowledging the righteousness of God. When we plan and look to the future, we need to have at our foremost God’s goodness and the things that please him. We often think of God’s will as being a personal individual thing as well and can forget that it is more God’s will for his people and we are to view our plans in those terms as well… God’s plan is to bless so we can be a blessing, to provide for all his people.
Business plans need to ask questions like these… Buying from a sweet shop in the third world may make business sense but is it right? As we will see next week what we pay workers is something James and God is concerned about. Do we pay them just enough to be legal or pay a just wage? When we plan financially is it all about wealth and comfort, or do well-being and compassion have a say? Do we need more than enough to live well or do we settle for enough so that more can… well live? How do I balance work demands family life and investing in church and mission? Is it about God’s will or what I can leave in my will when it’s all over.
The bible is not anti-wealth, James is not anti-wealth, his concern is the concern we wrestle with all the time in the church in the west, getting caught in two minds, the mind of Christ and the mind-set of our consumer wealth obsessed western world. The bible is not against planning, James is not against planning but rather calls us to boast and have confidence in God’s purposes and plans. Wealth, health and life itself is transitory… here today gone tomorrow… God’s plans for us are for good not for harm… he holds our times in his hands and calls us to trust and follow him.