One of my former law partners relayed the story of once accepting chickens and cabbages as remuneration for legal services rendered. He was trying to encourage me early in my career about the meager income I was making.
I appreciated the gesture, but remember being much more thankful, in view of the prospect of being paid in poultry given my complete lack of familiarity with fowl, that we no longer live in a barter economy.
Whether we are paid in chickens, or cabbages, or U.S. dollars (I seem to recall “cabbage” being a slang term for money), it all represents wealth.
Money is necessary (and efficient) for exchange, and is not evil in itself (it is the love of money — wealth — that is the root of all kinds of evil), but James identifies four ways that wealth has become filthy lucre:
You might look at this list and conclude that you have nothing to be concerned about. But we should takes James’ warning seriously, and consider how these might apply to us today.
You have laid up for yourselves treasures in the last days. James 5:3b
Stockpiling for Personal Gain. You might think of hoarding as only that sort of extreme behavior that might earn an intervention by your loved ones or an episode on reality television. In the prosperous West, the bar is so high that to qualify as “hoarding” there must be decades-old newspapers stacked floor to ceiling, piles of unopened boxes from late-night mail order programs, and at least one instance of discovering that Sparky, the family’s favorite cat whom everyone thought had been consumed by the neighbor’s Rottweiler, was instead consumed by the effects of hoarding and stuck behind piles and stacks too high even for legendary feline acrobatics to surmount.
Here are some signs that you might be hoarding:
- There are unopened boxes in your garage from the last move, five years ago
- You spend more time washing, polishing, dusting and repairing your toys, tools and collections than you do actually using the items in them
- You maintain shelves lined with more and more beautiful books…none of which you’ve read
Jesus gave the example of a man who built himself bigger barns to accommodate his skillful harvesting. So there is an element in hoarding of refusing to use resources properly. When we store things — whether in moving boxes, attics, safes, IRA accounts, or barns — to gather dust and serve no one, we have crossed from reasonable preparation and entered the realm of sinful hoarding.
Another statement of Scripture is relevant, helpful, and challenging to us here: “If we have food and clothing, with that shall we be content (1 Timothy 6:8).” Sinful hoarding is especially offensive to God when it is done “in the last days,” in the time when Christ has been revealed, and through him, we come face to face with the riches of God made available to those who come through Jesus, but we choose instead to stockpile our own riches.
You kept back the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields. James 5:4a
Defrauding Others for Personal Advantage. Employers can be tempted to devise all manner of schemes to avoid paying their workers the fair wage to which they are entitled. In former days, businesses gave workers “credits” that they could only use in the “company store,” and they were sure to inflate prices and create fees to ensure that the business was enriched at the expense of the worker.
Another example would be an employer or even private individual who delays payment due to an employee or creditor in order to maximize the benefits of holding the money, say, to earn interest or make another investment.
Money has become filthy lucre to you when you are willing to cheat others out of what they are rightfully due, when it is due them, in order to increase the percentage of your profit or the cash in your pocket.
You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. James 5:5a
Pampering Self for Personal Pleasure. In our culture, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that we are indulging ourselves. After all, we hear and feel the constant drumbeat from Madison Avenue pounding into us that we should buy this or that because “we’re worth it,” because we “deserve a break today,” or because “we’ve earned it.”
It isn’t always sinful to have nice things, or to enjoy pleasurable experiences. There’s nothing wrong with a week at the beach or with the occasional Shiatsu massage.
But living in luxury and self-indulgence, pampering ourselves, engaging in conspicuous consumption, buying in to materialism and hedonism when it is a demonstrated fact that we can live on much less than we actually do, is converting ordinary money to filthy lucre.
You have murdered the righteous person. James 5:6
Preventing Others’ Gain for Personal Security. In James’ day, sinful rich likely actually killed people for money. Even today, the most common motives for murder are love and money. Yet we might let ourselves off the hook because we are not professional assassins and have not ended another person’s life in the interest of monetary gain.
Jesus had something to say about that. If are angry with your brother, Jesus said, you have committed murder (Matthew 5:21-22).
Even if we only mention “judicial murder,” we’re in trouble. The rich have a habit of preventing others their ability to earn a living in order to reduce the competition, buying influence in court and in congress to preserve their own riches. Guilds were used to keep certain people from earning a living in a certain way, a goal that might be reflected in today’s unions.
If we try to depress another person’s — or class of persons’ — ability to make a living, it is usually because we want to eliminate competition. We are serving riches, which has become filthy lucre.
Conclusion. Money is a useful tool when we steward wealth, as God’s agent, to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. But filthy lucre, if we enjoy its glittering promises today, will testify against us when God settles accounts in the last day.