James 5:1-6 “Conspire With God”
This morning we are going to talk about the rich and the poor. When I was growing up, I thought I knew what it was to be poor. My mother and father fought at the dinner table about money—how much a certain meal cost to feed a family of six. I do not know how to put this in any other way, we were a family that at mostly hot dogs rather than steak. I still enjoy just hot dogs and beans, and my family today will attest to. I think it brings back memories of my childhood.
I remember then as a boy going down to go camping on the beach in Mexico for the first time. There I saw children younger than me selling tortillas in the streets for a few centavos. My view of poverty changed then. I realized then that we were rich to have meat, even though they were hot dogs.
Then, as we were living in Thailand as missionaries, my view of poverty was shaken once more when one day I saw a man with long unkempt hair in the vacant lot next to our house. He was naked. He did not even have a loincloth or any kind of footwear. He could have been a caveman from the beginning of time. In one hand he held a long pointed stick. He was poking it into the garbage that the Baptist Seminary across the street threw there.
I approached him with a warm greeting. He looked as if he might not even be able to speak Thai. Yet, he did. He did not smile or show any emotion to speak of. I asked him what he was doing.
“Ha nu.” He was looking for rats.
“Ha nu Tammay?” Why are you looking for rats?
“Ha nu kin” He was looking for the rats to eat them. He explained that he wanted meat.
My heart sank in my chest. This was the first time in my life that I had run into abject poverty. Here was another human being who did not even have enough to clothe himself. He was not just digging through garbage for food. He was digging through garbage looking for rats to eat.
I literally ran back to the house, to the kitchen, to the refrigerator, telling Helen about the man in the lot next to the house. I grabbed all I could to eat from our kitchen in my arms and gave it all to him. Again, without any emotion at all, he sat down in the garbage pile and started to eat. He started with the sugary stuff—maybe knowing that his body would assimilate this the fastest. You know, I actually apologized to him that we did not have more meat, that is protein, for him to eat.
“My pen rai” That is all right he responded. He never thanked me for the food, either. He just ate. What would I need to be thanked for anyway? It was my place and a kind of an honor to feed him. And, I know I did not pass the “What would Jesus do?” test—I did not clothe him or invite him into eat with us!
In the Book of Revelation we can read how it is that a feast is being prepared for us up in heaven. I might be seated across from this man who was hunting rats near my home. It struck me later, but by this time he was gone, that I should have given him clothes and shoes, too. I could have done more for this man. I did not. I failed him. I failed Jesus.
Verse 3 of our scripture talks about the “evidence” of our rich and corrupted lives. This language bespeaks the time when we shall all stand before the throne of God. What will the refugees say about us? What will the homeless say about us?
Saint James, the author of this letter had an intended audience. We can read that in the very first line of the letter that is addressed to the “Twelve Tribes of the Diaspora.” This is a reference to the Jews of Israel that had been pushed out into all areas of Europe and the Middle East because of persecutions from Rome. More specifically, these are the people who once had ancestral farms that have now been disenfranchised from the source of their former wealth. Maybe they were able to take some gold and silver with them on their journey, but it would be only what they could carry.
In verse 6 of our scripture we come to the very crux of what James wants to say to these people. “You have condemned and murdered the Righteous One”: You who are now being persecuted and forced to flee are the ones who persecuted and murdered Jesus. You were the Sadducees and the Pharisees who put Jesus on the Cross. But, the Temple in Jerusalem is gone now. The Romans have removed every stone. The political power is gone. The money is gone. All that is left now is the fact that Jesus is Resurrected!
“Jesus does not resist you.” From the Greek in this spot of the text, I would like to do my own translation. “Antitasseta” would be best as “not to keep at arm’s length away.” It is a delicate understanding that Jesus is not out there welcoming those who crucified Him to sign on to the new faith, but Jesus is not keeping them out either. Remember that on the Cross, Jesus forgave those who crucified Him (Luke 23:24). Yes, even the rich oppressors can come to the faith!
Mark 10:25 reports Jesus saying that it is easier for a “camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Of course, just before this line in Mark, we read that all we have to do is give up being rich and follow Jesus. The camel actually can get through the eye of the needle, which is just a smaller door in the city gate, if it leaves all of its baggage behind. It is hard, but it can be done.
In Brazil today there is a theologian named Gustavo Guttierez who is called the father of modern “liberation theology.” This is a movement in the Catholic church that is based on the simple idea, put forth by Guttierez, that God has a “preference for the poor.” This is a very popular movement in Latin America today. The current Pope, Pope Francis, coming out of Argentina, right next to Brazil, actually was considered very much a “liberation theologian,” that is until he became Pope. Perhaps being surrounded by the wealth of the Vatican he realized that God must have made some plan for the salvation of the wealthy, too!
If you have ever noticed the Papal motorcade since Francis became Pope, you will see all of the Vatican staff and security people driving large fancy cars with police motorcycles escorting them. The Pope himself will drive his own little Fiat Bambino in the middle of the motorcade. This really stands out! He is making a point. Jesus never rode in the back of limo.
In Galatians 3:28, Paul himself makes the point that neither “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” all are to receive that same grace from God. Does that not also apply to rich and poor? Should we assume that all rich people are automatically out of reach of God’s grace? No. Jesus does not keep them at “arm’s length.” Rich can decide to follow Jesus.
The story in the gospels tells us that Matthew (one of the gospel writers himself) was a well-off tax collector who became one of the disciples of Jesus. Mary of Magdala was a rich widow who sold cloth to royalty. One could say that she was the Vera Wang of her day. (A famous New York fashion designer, daughter of Chinese immigrants.)
As we were talking about all of this in Tuesday Bible Study, Elsie used the local Hawaiian term “high maka maka.” We all know what “high maka maka” means? This is someone who is perhaps too rich and knows it! Perhaps the person is self-conceited or just shows off the wealth too much for others’ taste.
What I found interesting in this term is that the roots of the term make no sense to its meaning. You see, “maka” is someone who is a righteous and good student. We would say a “good disciple.” All of the twelve disciples were therefore by definition “maka maka.” Because they were the closest to Jesus, they would have to be considered the “high maka maka.”
This means that we should all be working towards becoming the “high maka maka” to Jesus. Indeed, this is what I want you to take home with you today as you get back in your cars, back on your bike, or are walking home, “You are the high maka maka of the faith in Jesus Christ.” And, if anyone asks you why you think you are the high maka maka, you go tell them that you got “high” in church on Sunday. Before you were just a good “maka” of Jesus but now you are for real the “high maka maka.”
That is what James is telling these Jews that had to leave most of their wealth behind when fleeing the oppression of the Romans. They are still the educated leaders of the people. They need to find their new wealth in the faith of Jesus Christ. Jesus will not “resist” them. Jesus will not keep them out of the church. Jesus loves all people. God’s grace is for all people. The spirit on Pentecost came to all people. Just let go of the baggage and push that camel through the little door.
The feast is on the other side. The places are set for all.