The Paradox of Poverty

James 1.9-11

9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation,
10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.
11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

The American Dream has become the accumulation of stuff – cars, houses, and accompanying accoutrements the goes with a lifestyle of luxury. To be rich is to be coveted. This same mentality has crept into the church. Christians horde up for themselves treasures on earth, justifying themselves by saying things like, “God wants me to be happy.” But as Jesus explained while on earth: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10.23) While this problem may seem new, it is far from it. In fact, James echoes what Jesus taught by asking, “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom…?” (James 2.5) James writes quite a bit about the relationship between the rich and poor. In 1.9-11, we find yet a third paradox in the Christianity: the poor are exalted, the rich humiliated.

The Paradox of Poverty (1.9-11)

(Several) Someone(s) has said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better!” Contrary to this conventional wisdom, the New Testament presents several warnings concerning the dangers of riches in connection with the Christian faith. Riches can be a snare and destroy one’s faith (cf. 1 Tim 6.9-10, 17). In short, rich is not always better! Building on the context of trials and asking for wisdom concerning those trials, James presents a trial that was all to familiar for the poor saints of the early church: poverty. And the paradox of poverty is seen in James’ positive presentation of pride in poverty.

The Exaltation of the Poor (v.9). James presents the positive case of poverty. The “lowly brother” is the Christian who is low on the socio-economic ladder. He is a poor Christian, destitute perhaps. James presents the paradox: this poor brother is actually in a lofty position. Indeed, when we consider that God has seated us in the heavenly places with Christ (Eph 2.6) we are very exalted! This brother is to “boast” or “glory” in his exaltation. While boasting and bragging concerning oneself are condemned elsewhere in Scripture (even in James, 4.16), to boast in the Lord is an altogether different thing. This is what James is calling for – we are exalted in Christ because of Christ. While the poor Christian brother may not have money, he is “rich in faith.” “True wealth is measured not in money but in faith” (Holloway 37).

So there is actually a blessing which comes with being poor. One who is impoverished is predisposed to faith in Christ. Indeed, it was Jesus who said in the sermon on the plain, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6.20). And while we may want to spiritualize that or link it immediately to Matthew 5.3 (“poor in spirit”), it is undeniable that in the context of that sermon on the plain and the greater context of the gospel of Luke, Jesus says what He means and means what He says. Couple this with what He says in Luke 6.24 where He pronounces a woe on the rich and the picture is complete.

The Humiliation of the Plutocrat (v.10). Contrast this poor brother with the rich man in the world. While the poor Christian should boast in his lofty position in Christ, the rich of the world glory in their humiliation. Though rich in the world, they are not rich toward God (see Luke 12.21). And like the enemies of the cross who “glory in their shame” (Phil 3.19), so the rich glory in their humiliated station before God. They are destitute of the favor and fellowship of heaven which is a very low place. “He will pass away.” Not might or may, but will. It is inevitable that the rich man will perish even as the flower dies.

Another way of seeing this rich man in light of the context is as a Christian brother. Here is a rich Christian brother and his trial is that he is rich. And what a trial in light all that Scripture teaches about the dangers of riches. The temptation is to allow his wealth to be a cause for boasting. James says that he ought to glory his humiliation. Boast as one who is a spiritual pauper in need of the riches only Christ can supply. “Let him exult in the grace of Christ which has enabled him to pass through ‘the needle’s eye.’”

The Illustration of the Proposition (v.11). Here’s what it’s like: grass that is scorched by the heat of the sun. Think about a patch of grass under a desert sun. It will wither and die. Here’s what it’s like: a beautiful flower whose beauty fades away. Think about a rose in a vase for several days. These are illustrations taken from the Old Testament (Isa 40.8; cf. 1 Peter 2.24) to show what it’s like for a rich person who’s life is tied up in riches and/or the pursuit of riches and not in God and His word. No matter how vigorous his pursuit of riches more may be, it is ultimately frustrated because he is not in pursuit of God. What a miserable end! Truly the humiliation is evident: all that effort was in vain; his pursuits will be snuffed out as a flame.

If you are a child of God, you are wealthy beyond your wildest dreams with the riches that are unlike the flower that fades or the grass which withers. The riches in Christ are eternal riches. This is a lesson lost on American Christians who are self-sufficient in our abundance. We don’t need God to give us our daily bread; we have several days’ worth of bread laid up in store at the house. When compared to the rest of the world, we must realize that just by living in America puts in the upper echelon of the wealthy in the world. Therefore, the warning from James is for us.

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