James 5:1-11.

The Perils, the Power and the Possibilities of Wealth


“If money talks” said a popular comedian, “all it ever says to me is “good-bye!”

Seriously - I have a confession to make. All week I was not looking forward to having to preach on this passage - no wonder some folk decided to go away for their half term holiday - I even double checked to see if James might be down to preach this morning. Frankly I would much rather be able to tell you that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy. I know I would be much more popular if I could assure you that money and property is a sign of God’s favour and blessing. Many believe that. I used to think only poor people bought into the prosperity gospel. Coming from a working class background, I can understand why. The desire for material security is common to all, but especially the poor.  

When I moved to Virginia Water, however, I discovered even some wealthy people subscribe to the prosperity gospel.

Now I understood why. It justifies my lifestyle. If I am wealthy, it is because I have faith. It is because God is blessing me. If you are poor, maybe you just lack faith.  If you had enough faith you too could drive a car like me. Do you see how easy it would be to manipulate and exploit people with this kind of theology?

But at the same time the Church has always depended on the generosity of a few wealthy people, from its very beginning.

The 1830’s in Virginia Water were troubled years, with agricultural depression, large scale unemployment and rioting in some rural areas.  Even as late as 1846, the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal described Virginia Water as inhabited chiefly by “agricultural labourers, and not a few idle poachers,… in a state of ignorance, ungodliness and spiritual destitution rarely equalled.”
Although Egham church could hold several thousand people, most rented pews, with only 200 free places were allocated for the poor.

Fearing revolution, many looked to the Church of England for moral leadership and in 1837, plans were made to build a church in the poorest part of Egham Parish, here in Virginia Water. On Monday 10th September 1838, a meeting was held down the road at the Wheatsheaf inn for people wishing to contribute to the building of a church for the labouring poor. It would cost £2,000 and this was raised by public subscription. Although £200 was donated by the Queen, the rest came from local people, including two shillings from an unknown child. However, the land itself was donated by Catherine Irvine, the widow of Walter Irvine of Luddington House. Their daughter, Christina, also donated £2,000 to create an endowment fund to pay the clergy salaries.

So more than half of the cost of building and sustaining this church was provided by one family.  I suspect it is still true today - that a sizable proportion of the money raised for the Tsunami appeal, during Christian Aid week, and for our regular church budget comes from a few generous individuals and families.

It would therefore be very tempting to promise that if only you give generously to the church, God will repay you - ten times or a hundred times as much. But if I taught the prosperity gospel, I know I would be unfaithful to God, unfaithful to the scriptures and unfaithful to you. Sure, you can find examples of individuals in scripture like Abraham whom God blessed with material wealth.

But we must be very careful not to base our values on selected examples from the Old Testament but on the abiding principles taught by Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. Which brings us back to James 5. Lets consider these verses under three headings:

1. The Peril of Wealth to Corrupt (James 5:1-3)

2. The Power of Wealth to Exploit (James 5:4-6)

3. The Possibilities of Wealth to Bless (James 5:7-11)


1. The Peril of Wealth to Corrupt (James 5:1-3)

“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.  Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” (James 5:1-3)


“Now listen, you rich people.”  What ever your salary or pension, I think we have to concede that in comparative terms, even with people in other parts of Britain, let alone in the rest of the world, God is speaking to us in these verses. Now don’t get me wrong, James is not saying it is sinful to be wealthy. He is simply warning us of the perils of accumulating wealth. Neither does the Bible discourage the right to private ownership or property, merely the foolish notion that we are not accountable for what God has entrusted to us. What are the perils?

1.1             Wealth can deaden conscience (5:1-2)

“weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” This is strong and uncomfortable medicine. Wealth has the tendency to make us immune to the suffering of others. The word “weep” means to respond to disaster - to weep from the depth’s of one’s being in grief and remorse. “wail” means to howl, especially as a result of sudden and unexpected evil and regret. James uses these provocative words to awaken our conscience which maybe lulled into a false sense of security. If we place our security in wealth we are in for a shock. Wealth can deaden conscience.

1.2             Wealth can erode character (5:3)

“Your gold and silver… will eat your flesh like fire.” (James 5:3)  Money is neutral. However, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10).  Although the tenth command which says “you shall not covet” is last, it is nevertheless the most dangerous, for covetousness unchecked will consume us. It will harden our hearts. It will make us break the other nine. Psalm 62:10 says “though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.”  Wealth can deaden conscience and erode character.

1.3             Wealth can breed complacency (5:3)

“Their corrosion will testify against you… You have horded wealth in the last days.” (James 3:5). What do the tombs of the Pharoah’s testify to? Rotten grain, tarnished precious metals and moth-eaten garments merely bear witness to the selfishness of the heart.
The irony is that although some people hoard their wealth to protect them in the future, it will merely testify against them because they have failed to share it. The perils of wealth to corrupt.


2. The Power of Wealth to Exploit (James 5:4-6)

“The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.” (James 5:4-6)


James here is specifically questioning the means by which these particular Christians had gained their wealth. Wealth is power.

And power invariably leads to exploitation which creates more wealth for the powerful. At the time James was writing, peasants bore the brunt of taxation. There was the temple tax, Roman tribute and taxes for the building programmes of Herod, which Josephus says “Bled the country dry”. Its estimated that the peasants paid 40% of their income in taxes, and the devastating famines of 46-48 AD merely exacerbated these conditions. Josephus describes how the entire population of several towns were sold into slavery because they were late paying their taxes. The contrast between rich and poor in 1st Century Palestine was not that dissimilar to today.

I mentioned that Christ Church was built on a piece of land kindly donated by Walter Irvine’s widow in the 1830’s. This was just a fraction of the land he owned in England and Scotland. In 1805 when he returned to England from abroad, he spent £30,000 on acquiring property and had another £60,000 in investments. And this was when the average wage was less than £50 per year.  Where did Walter make his fortune? Tobago in the West Indies, or more precise on the plantations. What made them so profitable? Slave labour. Slaves captured in Africa, forced against their will to live in inhuman conditions on ships that took them across the Atlantic, sold to the highest bidder and forced to work on plantations such as that of Walter Irvine. Does it trouble you that the land on which our church was built was slave money? And where did their daughter Christina get the £2,000 used to endow the living here? It came from £20 million paid by the British government to slave owners in the Colonies as compensation for their loss of earnings with the abolition of slavery, “for reconciling the rights of property with those of humanity”.

Does that trouble you? But before we cast the first stone, does it also trouble you that the oil and petrol we burn in our cars probably comes from an African or Middle Eastern country where the people are denied the benefits of the wealth derived, denied their basic human rights. Does it trouble you that your shoes may have been made in the sweat shops of Vietnam, your designer clothes by the poor in China, your cashmere by the poor in Afghanistan, your tea by the poor in India and your coffee by the poor of Columbia? James writes, “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.”  Things have not changed much in 2000 years. If the source of funding for this building is a microcosm of the history of this nation, how much more of our wealth was and continues to be derived by exploitation and injustice?  “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”

Buying Fair Trade products and getting involved in Trade Justice are not just political issues, they are deeply moral acts because the poor are close to the heart of God. We can make a difference. And if you employ staff are you paying them a fair wage? If you trade with companies in other countries, are you confident your profits are not derived from injustice and oppression?

The perils of Wealth to Corrupt. The Power of Wealth to Exploit.


3. The Possibilities of Wealth to Bless (James 5:7-11)

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!  Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5: 7-11)


Four times James tells us to be patient. This is not a call to passive resignation in the face of injustice or poverty. True, we are reminded twice that the Lord is coming soon. And he is coming to judge the world. Notice the patience called for here is likened to the work of a farmer who trusts God to provide rain to bless his labour. Notice too, the reference to a “valuable crop”. There is a reward for the farmers honest labour. It is also a sign of God’s blessing. But we must be patient and not grumble or complain about others who seem to be doing better than us.

James also uses the OT prophets as an example of perseverance. What was their message? Micah 6:8. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). Why did the prophets have to persevere? Because their message was deeply unpopular with the powerful and wealthy.  And lastly notice James uses Job as a third example of perseverance. He says, “you have seen what the Lord finally brought about.” What did the Lord finally bring about in Job’s life? Job 42:12 says “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job's life more than the first. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys.” (Job 42:12)

There is a great deal of difference between enjoying with thanks what God has given us and living extravagantly on what we have withheld from others. Paul writes to Timothy similar words to James, “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.” (1 Tim. 6:17)


Despite the dubious origin of the money used to buy the land on which this church was built, I am deeply grateful that Christina Irvine chose to invest some of her inherited wealth for the sake of the gospel here in Virginia Water. Referring to the money received from the British government paid to former slave owners, this is how the Cambridge Chronicle of 11th April 1846 describes her actions: 

Looking at the compensation thus received as in some sort “the price of blood,” she was unwilling to put it into her own “treasury,” and nobly determined to dedicate it to the liberation of the poor captives who in her own land and neighbourhood were “sitting in the shadow of death,” spiritually enthralled by the Prince of Darkness. She applied herself to the erection of a church, which she endowed with a sum of £2,000.; next, to the building a small but commodious and characteristic glebe-house; and to crown the whole (for children are the hope of such a place), to the rearing and establishment of schools for at least a hundred boys and girls. O, that the whole twenty millions had been thus appropriated !”


Indeed, according to Dorothy Davis, the local historian, “Christina’s will suggests she was a generous, fair-minded and caring woman. Ten charities were included, all of them to help disseminate the gospel or to benefit the poor and especially the disabled.” And while her parents are buried in Egham parish churchyard, it was here in Virginia Water that her tomb and headstone testify to her patience and perseverance. A worthy example perhaps?

1. The Peril of Wealth to Corrupt (James 5:1-3)

2. The Power of Wealth to Exploit (James 5:4-6)

3. The Possibilities of Wealth to Bless (James 5:7-11)

Remember James was the brother of Jesus. If you find his message radical, then realise where he got it from. Jesus said,

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But 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 your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)


If you want to have treasure in heaven, you have to send it on ahead. A famous preacher, known for his long sermons, was asked to give the annual charity sermon to raise money for the poor. It was suggested though that if he preached too long, the congregation might not give as much as they should. The preacher chose as his text Proverbs 19:17,

“Those who are kind to the poor lend to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” (Proverbs 19:17). His sermon was indeed brief. It was just ten words. “If you like the terms, then put down your money.” Yes, money talks. But what will it say about you on the day Jesus returns?

Lets pray.




With grateful thanks to Douglas Moo, Alec Motyer, Warren Wersbie and David Nystrom for their commentaries on James, and also research by Nigel Veitch on the Irvine family.


















See cartoons on stewardship