Rich Man, Poor Man
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Rich Man, Poor Man

From Series: Faith That Works, Volume 1

James 1:9-11  (ID: 2560)

It’s natural for man to rank himself by wealth and social status—but that perspective is undone when we view our economic status in light of the Gospel and eternity. God desires for the poor to see the vast riches that are their inheritance in Christ and for the rich to see the hollowness of their temporary possessions. In this message, Alistair Begg offers wisdom from the book of James on managing our treasures and assessing our worth.


Sermon Transcript:

Well, just a prayer, and then James:

Father, help us again as we study the Bible, that we might understand it, and that any application we make of it may be true to it, and that you will help us as we think, as a group of individuals who fall largely on one side of this equation. Help us, Lord, to think rightly and then to act properly. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, we’re in James 1:9. I’ll just read verse 8, 9, 10, and 11, and if you wish to follow along in the church Bible, I think it’s page 845. Page 8-4-5.

“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.”

Now, James has begun this particular letter by urging his readers, as we’ve seen, to recognize that when they face trials of various kinds, it will make a huge difference if they view them from a proper perspective.[1] And the way in which we address ourselves in terms of attitude and viewpoint to a subject will largely determine the behavior that follows the approach that we take. He assures the readers, as we saw this morning, that the wisdom that is so desperately required if we’re going to think properly, particularly about trials—that wisdom is available for the asking. And all we need to do is “ask God,” a God “who gives generously” and “without finding fault.”[2] However, he adds the caveat that we need to ask not only simply but we also need to ask properly, and to ask properly is to ask in sincere faith and without doubting. And not only, then, he says, will wisdom make it possible for us to view trying and difficult circumstances from a proper perspective, but it will also change the way in which we respond to our status in life.

And I’m increasingly convinced that in verses 9, 10, and 11, James is not introducing a new theme. There is a paragraph shift in the NIV, and there is a sense in which that’s accurate insofar as it helps us in the advance of his discussion. But I think we would do wrong by the text if we were to isolate verses 9, 10, and 11 from all that has gone before, particularly in this issue of wisdom and the need for wisdom. Because it would appear that what he’s doing is giving an illustration of the way in which wisdom will change the response that we have to the circumstances of our lives. If we have heavenly wisdom, then we will think about our status in life, our material circumstances in life, in a way that is different from that which is the perspective of those who do not know the wisdom of God.

Now, in James’s day, poverty was an issue. There was no middle class in the time of James. There was nothing such as we know here in the United States. People tended either to be very rich or to be very poor, the circumstances akin to countries that we may visit around the world where you either are in a level of society where you are able to have servants and live very well or you’re in the serving class of society and you’re probably going to live relatively poorly.

The circumstances of wealth and money are obviously important in this very practical letter of James, and he is going to come back to them on a number of occasions. For example, in 2:5, he says, “Listen, my dear brothers: Has[n’t] God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” Interestingly, he says, “Is it not true, when you look around at your ranks, that the vast majority are those who are poor in the eyes of the world and yet rich in faith?” Then he says in verse 6, “But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?” There’s a real issue here with riches and poverty. And by the time he gets to chapter 5, he is issuing a stern and stirring warning to the rich people in the community to whom he writes, who are in danger of trying to make people work for wages that are totally unacceptable and wrong.[3] It has a very contemporary ring to it, but we’re a long way from chapter 5, and we don’t really need to be concerned about that tonight. All I want you to see is that he is, if you like, introducing a subject here in 9, 10, and 11 of chapter 1 to which he is going to come back, and he gives to his readers a vital perspective and principle in addressing their circumstances.

Heavenly wisdom will enable both those who are poor and those who are rich to view their circumstances from a perspective that is both right and radical.

He is pointing out that heavenly wisdom will enable both those who are poor and those who are rich to view their circumstances from a perspective that is both right and radical. In essence, what he’s saying is that both those who are poor and rich need to look at their circumstances in light of God’s big picture. They need to stand back from their status in life, we need to stand back from our status in life, and we need to adopt heavenly wisdom in assessing how things really are.

So, for example, viewing time and the passage of time in the light of eternity. We’re only here for a brief moment. He’s going to come back to that as well. In fact, that was our little entrée into James when on the first Sunday of the year we began to look at what he says concerning the brevity of life and the frailty of life and so on, and the absolute stupidity of pomposity which says, “We’re going to do this next year, and we’ll achieve this, and we’ll achieve that.”[4] The reason that’s a silly perspective, he says, is because you’re not viewing time in light of eternity.

In the same way, to view success, however we may assess it, in terms of human frailty. No matter how successful we might be, eventually, all of our successes will crumble and disintegrate, and somebody will transcend whatever else we have done.

And thirdly, to view poverty in light of the eternal riches that are made available in the gospel. Or we might put it this way: instead of his readers thinking about their circumstances economically or socially, he is urging us to think about our circumstances theologically or, if you like, biblically. And it’s going to take the wisdom of heaven in order to do that, not least of all because the prevailing cultural ethos of both James’s day and our own day is vastly, if not totally, different from what he writes. The paradoxical nature of his statements here challenges most of our Western worldview in relationship to success, financial security, the future, and everything besides.

In fact, as I read this—and I wonder, did you find it when I was reading it in public here?—I find myself hearing an echo of James’s brother’s words in Matthew chapter 6. How amazing it must have been, after James was converted, to go back through, in his mind, many of the things that his brother Jesus had said, which he thought was really a bunch of bunk. Because he didn’t believe in his brother. He didn’t really believe in him at all. But now he sounds so much like his brother, doesn’t he? Now he’s starting to sound a terrific amount like Jesus. It’s hard to imagine that he didn’t have Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:19 and following in his mind: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” What? I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do! I thought that’s what the whole of life was about!

Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations—he was Scottish—sent it to America. America said, “This is good stuff.” America embraced it, became arguably the finest example of financial and economic prosperity that the world has really ever witnessed, and introduced the population to the idea that human existence is about what Jesus says it’s not about. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” Well, what should be do? “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there [will] your heart … be also.” It’s hard for me to go back, then, to verse 9 and not hear the echo of Jesus’ words when James says, “The brother in humble circumstances,” or the poor brother, “ought to take pride in his high position.”

A Word to the Poor

Well, let’s just look at it as it calls for us to do. First of all, in the word that he brings to the poor brother—the “brother in humble circumstances,” or your translation may say “in low circumstances,” because the word for “humble” here actually means to be placed low. “Humble yourselves … under God’s mighty hand.”[5] “Get down low.” That’s the word that is used. So there’s a wonderful sort of juxtaposition of verbiage here where he says, “The fellow who’s low should rejoice that he’s high; the fellow who’s high should rejoice that he’s really low.” You have to stay awake for this kind of stuff, don’t you?

In other words, he says, verse 9, the man, or the woman, for that matter—he’s using “brother” here in a generic way—the individual who is on the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder should take pride and be glad in their high position.

What? What high position? Well, if you view it simply from the perspective of time and economics and status, everybody says, “I don’t have a high position.” But when you view it in light of the glorious riches that Jesus provides, then the person on the lowest rung of the ladder has a very high position—actually, has a more significant position than the unconverted wealthy. For all they have is kept in a bag with a hole in it, and it is draining through the hole as they continue their journey through life. The high position is found in the fact that this individual is the object of God’s care, that God looks out for him.

I heard a little bit of our program last week. It was the end of the story of Ruth, one of my favorite stories in the Bible. I don’t know if any of you heard the series again. I hope it sounded better than it did the first time. But anyway, it made me think again about that story. And when I looked at this in verse 9—“The brother in humble circumstances should take pride in his high position”—it made me think of Ruth.

And the reason it made me think of Ruth was because you’ll remember in chapter 2 of Ruth, when she says to Naomi after they’ve moved back into the community, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain.”[6] In other words, “I’m going to go out today, and I’m going to see if I can find old soda cans that have a five-cent return deal on them, and I’m going to try and get a big bag of them, and then I’ll take them somewhere to one of those things where you put them in through the hole and somebody gives you money.” That’s the equivalent of what she’s doing. She says, “I’m going to go out and see if I can get some grain somewhere, leftover grain.” She’s not going out and saying, “I think I’ll go to the mall.” She’s not saying, “You know, I was wondering if we might just meet for lunch somewhere.” No, she says, “I think I’ll go out and see if I can gather up some scraps and bits and pieces.” She is abjectly poor. She is in the bottom rung of the ladder. She and her companion, her mother-in-law, Naomi, don’t have two dimes to rub together. That’s their circumstances.

And off she goes into the day. And we can’t do this, ’cause this is not a study in Ruth, but when Boaz shows up and gives her a little bit of preferential treatment, she says, bowing “with her face to the ground,” “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”[7] No explanation. And then, in verse 13, she says, “May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord. … You have given me comfort and have spoken kindly to your servant—though I do not have the standing of one of your servant girls.”

Why go there? Because Boaz points us forward. Boaz is the kinsman-redeemer. Boaz points us forward to whom? Points us forward to Jesus, who comes to the likes of Ruth, on the lowest rung of the ladder, and causes the Ruths and the Joes and the Freds and the Bills and the Grahams and the Toms to ask the selfsame question: “How come you have shown such interest in me?” No explanation, save for the reality of God’s initiative-taking love. And Boaz’s action there in Ruth chapter 2 points to the Son of God, the Redeemer, who sheds his blood, draws to himself men and women in the routine of life, men and women who are undervalued, men and women who are downplayed, men and women who are disregarded.

There is no question that in the history of the church, the church has grown most significantly amongst the poor, not amongst the rich.

There is no question that in the history of the church, the church has grown most significantly amongst the poor, not amongst the rich. Not amongst Chagrin Valley types. No! Not at all. Why? Because it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.[8] Because those of us who are affluent are used to buying our way into every place. There’s not a ticket we can’t get. There’s not a concert we can’t see. There’s not a ride we can’t take. And so we assume: “Well, I’m sure God must operate on the same basis. He must have a frequent flyer program as well.” Uh-uh.

That’s why when you read 1 Corinthians 1, it’s striking, isn’t it? Paul says, “Think about yourselves.” He’s talking about weakness. Says, “Think about yourselves when you were called. Not many of you were mighty. Not many of you were peculiarly influential.”[9] He doesn’t say “not any,” he just says “not many.” And he’s right.

And what is the message that James is conveying here? The poor, he says, those who are “in humble circumstances ought to take pride in” their “high position.” That’s very important! The message is not “If you will apply this wisdom, you will become rich.” Look at the verse; it doesn’t say that. That’s what’s said on television, largely, tonight, all across the airwaves, when people in positions like myself telling people, “If you will do this, then you will get this. You will become rich as a result of doing this. I can guarantee you this if you do this, then this,” and so on. Actually, what James says is not “If you will do this, you will become rich,” but rather, “If you think about life from this perspective, you will realize that you are rich.”

“Oh, but look where I live.”

“Yes, you’re rich.”

“But have you seen my tax return?”

“Yes, but you’re rich.”

“Oh, but do you know that I haven’t had a decent vacation?”

“Yes, but you’re rich.”

That’s what he’s saying.

You know I’m a great fan of Mahalia Jackson, and I always think of that in relationship to the point where Jesus says, you know, “You[’re] worth more than many sparrows.”[10] It’s not exactly a staggering thing to put on your CV, is it? But it’s true. So,

Why should I feel discouraged?
And why should the shadows come?
And why should my heart seem lonely
And long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my captain?
My constant friend is he:
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.[11]

It really is too bad that somehow or another, in the last fifty years in Western Christianity, we have not only wrapped flags around the cross, but we have wrapped dollar bills around the cross. And James cries out from the first century, “No. No. No.”

A Word to the Rich Man

Secondly, he gives a word to the rich brother. To the rich brother. If “the brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position,” what about the one who’s in a high position, the rich one? Well, he should “take pride in his low position.” Okay. What are you saying here, James?

Well, let’s be clear about what he’s not saying. He doesn’t actually say there’s a problem with being poor. You’ve noted that, right? He doesn’t say, “I feel dreadfully sorry for you. We’re gonna try and get you sorted out. We’ll get you out of your predicament.” No, he says, “The person who’s in humble circumstances should rejoice in their high position.” Again, you hear the echo of the words of Jesus: “The poor you will always have with you.”[12] That’s not to say we don’t do anything for the sake of the poor. Jesus did much for the sake of the poor. But it is an acknowledgment of the fact of human existence.

Nor does he then suggest that there is anything wrong in possessing wealth. He doesn’t say, “We got a problem with the poor; therefore, we’re going to make you rich. We got a problem with the rich; therefore, we’re going to make you poor.” It’s not some form of egalitarianism, not some kind of first-century Jerusalem-orientated Marxism. No. He acknowledges the place of the poor and says perspective is the way to deal with your status, and he acknowledges the location and significance of the rich, and he says perspective is the exact same way for you to deal with it. If there’s anything wrong in wealth, it has to do with the misuse of wealth or of our propensity to depend upon wealth, as if somehow or another that’s where our security lies. That’s what Jesus is saying about laying up treasures in heaven: “Make sure,” he says, “that you’re investing in the one bank that guarantees you a significant return.”

Now, you see, this little word to the affluent in verse 10 and 11 is striking in its impact. The affluent, when applying this godly wisdom, will come to see what? Well, they’ll come to see, actually, that riches are fleeting—that “the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant.” It’s probably a picture there of these winds that came down. What are they called? The sirocco winds, akin to what happens in Southern California. And with the vegetation and the right kind of rainfall, there would be little green shoots that would spring up, and people would see them, and they would look out on them in their garden, and they would say, “This is a wonderful thing, and it looks like as though they’re going to be here for a while.” And then one afternoon, just a hot blast, as if somebody had opened an oven door, and that which had been there in the early hours of the day was obliterated by the time they went to bed. And James says that the rich person better remember that. It’s not that the poor shouldn’t remember it, but he gives a particular word to those who are rich, reminding his readers that we are frail as a summer flower; the wind blows, and it’s gone.

You remember the man who got it wrong? Jesus spoke of him in Luke chapter 12. He called him “the rich fool.” He didn’t apply this wisdom. Jesus said,

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. [And] he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’”

Well, I suppose he could have given some of them away, couldn’t he?

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I[’ll] tear down my barns and build bigger ones.’”

That’s all right. He was free to do that.

“‘And there I[’ll] store all my grain and my goods.’”

That’s okay. That’s his prerogative. After all, he was successful enough to have all of this provision.

“‘And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years.”’”

Now it’s getting a little shaky.

“‘“Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’”[13]

What was his problem? It was fool’s wisdom. Fool’s wisdom, not God’s wisdom.

That’s why the song got banned, as I’ve told you a hundred times now, by Ray Stevens in the ’60s—the “Mr. Businessman” song—because of the striking nature of the lyrics:

Spending counterfeit incentive,
Wasting precious time and health,
Placing value on the worthless,
Disregarding priceless wealth.
You can wheel and deal the best of them
And steal it from the rest of them.
You know the score, their ethics are a bore.

[Just] take care of business, Mr. Businessman. …
Before it’s too late.[14]

And the reaction, of course, to that was “Ray Stevens is a bad little man, and probably you need to send Mr. McCarthy to find him and ferret out the nonsense between his ears.” But wealthy believers, says James, are to cultivate a correct attitude to material possessions if they’re going to use them wisely, if we’re going to use them generously, if we’re going to use them for kingdom business.

James is not alone in this. Paul addresses it, doesn’t he? Remember, when he urges upon Timothy the importance of speaking with directness to those under his care, he says to him towards the end of his first letter,

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.[15]

True riches can never be in earthly banks or vaults or portfolios. Real wealth doesn’t consist in the abundance of our possessions.

See, true riches can never be in earthly banks or vaults or portfolios. Real wealth doesn’t consist in the abundance of our possessions. When we grasp this, then the poor man is able to look at his less-than-super circumstances and continue in the journey of faith because his eyes have been opened to all that is awaiting him in heaven. The rich man, by contrast, goes on with God despite all the temptations and all the snares that are directly related to the fact of his affluence, because in his case, God has opened his eyes to the hollowness of earthly stuff. See? So the wisdom of God comes to the poor man to show him the vastness of what he has in Christ, and the wisdom of God comes to the rich man to show him the hollowness of everything that he might be tempted to use as a basis for significance.

This is actually a very daunting area, isn’t it? It’s not easy to address, speak about. It’s actually relatively easy to pontificate on. It’s much harder to live.

There’s no question that James comes down heavily on the side of the issue of the rich man. It’s almost as if the brother of low esteem gets off quite lightly. And we noted one man who got it wrong on the high end, the rich fool, and I want to end with one man who got it wrong on the low end, a chap by the name of Gehazi. Now, I’ll just draw your attention to this, and we’re through.

Where Gehazi comes into the scene is as the servant of Elisha, the man of God. Naaman was a prosperous man, you’ll remember, who had leprosy, and he went to see the servant of God and, as a result of his being cured, offered him a bunch of stuff. And Elisha says, “No, I don’t need a bunch of stuff. I won’t accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused. And Gehazi’s with him. And when this little scenario is concluded and Elisha says, “Go in peace,” and

Naaman had traveled some distance, Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, “My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from him.”

So Gehazi hurried after Naaman. When Naaman saw him running toward[s] him, he got down from the chariot to meet him. “Is everything all right?” he asked.

“[Oh,] everything[’s] all right,” Gehazi answered. “My master…”

Flat-out lie.

“My master sent me to say, ‘Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. [Could you] please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing.’”

“[Well, of course! Why don’t you] take two talents,” said Naaman. [And] he urged Gehazi to accept them.[16]

You can see Gehazi going, “Oh, no, no, no, I think one would be enough.” Inside he’s going, “Give me three. Give me three.” “No, I think I’m going to be fine with it.” And Naaman urged him, “Go ahead, Gehazi, you take two talents of silver, two bags, and two sets of clothings, and give them to your two servants.”[17] And then he passed them on, and the two servants walked ahead of him, and “Gehazi came to the hill,” and “he took the things from the servants,” and he “put them away in [his] house,” and “he sent the men away and they left,” and “then he went in and stood before his master Elisha.”[18]

It’s a great moment, a sort of pregnant moment. You just see him coming in:

“Where have you been Gehazi?” Elisha asked.

“[Oh,] your servant didn’t go anywhere,” Gehazi answered.

But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money, … accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or menservants and maidservants?”

“What’s up Gehazi? Don’t you like your position as a servant? Don’t you believe that God can look after you? Do you really need to go chasing this guy down, squirreling money out of him?”

“Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” [And] Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and he was leprous, as white as snow.[19]

So, paradoxically, not only can the weak say they’re strong, but the poor can say they’re rich in light of God’s wisdom. Without Jesus and without the Bible and without the Holy Spirit, there is no way we can ever get to terms with this—and even when we’ve studied it, we still have to live it.

So let’s just pray that God’ll help us to live it:

Father, I think the big temptation in this is for us to try and apply it to the other person. So, if we find ourselves on the low end of the ladder, we want immediately to tell the people a few rungs up, “This is what you’re supposed to be doing, and all your stuff’s going to burn up,” and so on. But in actual fact, we’re supposed to look at ourselves and our lives in light of the amazing provision you’ve made for us in Jesus.

And for those of us who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility of that which is significant in financial terms, and when we think that probably a billion people in the world are making less than a dollar a day, we ought to be real clear about which side we fall down in this equation. So, God, since you’ve given us so much, help us to not misuse it or to depend upon it but to use it in such a way that will it be invested for the kingdom of God and for lasting treasure, the kind of treasure that none but your children will ever know.

We humbly pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


[1] See James 1:2–4.

[2] James 1:5 (NIV 1984).

[3] See James 5:1–6.

[4] See James 4:13–16.

[5] 1 Peter 5:6 (NIV 1984).

[6] Ruth 2:2 (NIV 1984).

[7] Ruth 2:10 (NIV 1984).

[8] See Matthew 19:24.

[9] 1 Corinthians 1:26 (paraphrased).

[10] Matthew 10:31 (NIV 1984).

[11] Civilla D. Martin, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (1905). Lyrics lightly altered.

[12] Matthew 26:11 (NIV 1984).

[13] Luke 12:15–20 (NIV 1984).

[14] Ray Stevens, “Mr. Businessman” (1968).

[15] 1 Timothy 6:17–19 (NIV 1984).

[16] 2 Kings 5:19–23 (NIV 1984).

[17] 2 Kings 5:23 (paraphrased).

[18] 2 Kings 5:24–25 (NIV 1984).

[19] 2 Kings 5:25–27 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.