Rich and Poor

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God is not opposed to wealth. As my third heading states from v.18 of Deuteronomy 8:

Remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.

It is not money but 'the love of money' which is 'a root of all kinds of evil', writes Paul in his first letter to Timothy 6:10. Here in Newcastle there is a need for Christians who have been given the ability to produce wealth to produce it for God's work and for the benefit of the area in terms of jobs. John Wesley used to say: "Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can."

Those who have wealth are to be generous and share it. Proverbs 22:9:

A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.

(cf. 2 Cor. 9:6-11) Jesus said in Mt. 25:

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

Proverbs 10:22 reminds us that,

The Lord's blessing is our greatest wealth; all our work adds nothing to it.

That is referred to in one of the biggest selling books in America at the moment, 'The Prayer of Jabez'. The actual prayer of Jabez is in 1 Chronicles 4:

Jabez, an honourable man, cried out to the God of Israel, 'Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.' And God granted his request.

It's not a prayer wanting the latest sports car but a prayer wanting what God wants for us, to become immersed in what he's doing in us and through us for his glory. God wants to bless us.

But God is opposed to the misappropriation, misuse and abuse of wealth. Wealth should not be produced by stealing, by exploiting, by oppressing or by gambling. Proverbs 22 again, v.16, 22 and 2:

He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich – both come to poverty…Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them…[remember] Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.

Look also at James 2:1-7.

I don't know if you saw 'The New Rulers of the World' programme on ITV the other night. It reminded me of the problem of exploitation by Western clothing companies of poor Indonesian workers. The workers making clothes for GAP are paid 4 pence per item of clothing retailing for £10 and they work 36 hour shifts. Those making shoes for NIKE are paid 40 pence for each pair of trainers, which retail at £100. Tiger Woods, who is playing in the Open golf this weekend, is sponsored by NIKE and receives more in sponsorship each year than almost all the Indonesian workers who make clothes and shoes for NIKE put together. Clothing factories here in the North East that used to make clothes for such high street names as Marks & Spencer have had to close or scale down because of contracts going overseas. Some people and some companies ought to take heed of the first verse of Proverbs 22:

A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.

Maybe that's partly why Marks & Spencer is in trouble? Let's pray for the leaders of the G8 to remember God, for 'it is he who gives the ability to produce wealth'.

James (5:1-6) issues this warning to rich oppressors who at the time were probably non-Christian landlords:

"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you".

First,

"You have hoarded wealth in the last days" (v3)

with the result being that,

"Your wealth has rotted, moths have eaten your clothes and your gold and silver are corroded".

And as James goes on,

"Your corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire".

V.9:

"The Judge is standing at the door!"

Don't hoard wealth, rather save, invest rightly and give generously.

"Be rich in good deeds"

says Paul in 1Timothy 6. For whatever we hoard will deteriorate. And as Psalm 49 reminds us,

"We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it".

Don't put your hope in wealth, which is so uncertain (as investors with Equitable Life have been discovering), but put your hope in God (1 Tim 6:17).

Secondly, don't steal or exploit to appropriate wealth (v4).

"The wages you have failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you".

Thirdly, don't waste wealth (v5).

"You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter".

And fourthly, don't abuse it (v6).

You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.

God is also opposed to a wrong attitude to and resulting from wealth. James warns the rich Christians in 4:13-17 not to boast about what they will do today and tomorrow and be proud and arrogant, forgetting the Lord and his business, taking things for granted. (cf. 1 Tim 6:9) Proverbs 22:4:

"Humility and fear of the Lord bring wealth and honour and life".

Which leads us to Deuteronomy 8 where Moses warns God's people about the perils of prosperity -pride, arrogance, people forgetting the Lord, his generosity and his commands and the following of other gods such as materialism and greed which is idolatry, which is a trap many of us need to be aware of today. (cf. 1 Tim 6:10b).

Often when times are hard and we have to depend on God for our daily needs, we remember him and obey him. But when things are going well we can forget God and his will. This is a problem which Deuteronomy faces squarely. God wants to bless his people with all the good things of his creation; yet when they receive those good things they are very likely to turn away from him, thinking they don't need him (v17). Some believe that their wealth is a direct blessing from God, a sign of his approval and that poverty is a sign of the opposite. The truth is not so simple. Everything we have is from God; yet comfort can blind people to their need of him, while the lack or loss of wealth or health can awaken faith. When we feel God has blessed us we then need to seek him as never before and praise him. Deut 8 tells us to be careful, to remember, to praise and to obey. To value God's discipline, to acknowledge his goodness and blessing, and to obey his commands. So…


First, REMEMBER GOD'S DISCIPLINE IN THE DESERT

Look at v.1:

Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your forefathers.

Now salvation comes by faith in Christ, not by works of the law. But Deuteronomy seeks obedience from the heart and, properly understood, keeping God's commands brings freedom and delight (Ps. 119:45). God longs for his people to enjoy life. But life consists of more than eating and drinking and other physical and material things. The desert pilgrims had learned that in the wilderness. God had given them manna to meet their daily physical needs in the desert but they also needed spiritual food – God's word. Only as they made an obedient response to that word could they truly 'live'. God spoke to them in the desert and it was that that kept them truly alive.

To eat and drink is merely to exist; only as we receive and obey God's truth can we really live as God intended – lives which bring lasting satisfaction and eternal security. In order to make us aware of the priority of spiritual over material values, God sometimes holds back physical necessities to remind us of the supremacy of spiritual ones.

Disobedience had kept a whole generation out of the promised land they might have enjoyed, but God did not leave them. And they must not forget that God had been good to them in the barren desert where they had learnt lessons which prosperity could never have taught them, where God had disciplined them for their own good. V.2-5:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you, in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.

We too experience God's discipline and we are to remember the lessons learned. He sometimes leads us through difficult and bewildering experiences to prove our dependence on him. Such times can be used to strengthen our faith and sort out our priorities. He may use such times to show us how much we've been relying on our own resources, or how we've allowed our lives to be determined by materialistic values etc. Testing times are learning times. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from prison in 1943, said:

Much as I long to be out of here, I don't believe a single day has been wasted…something is bound to come out of it…We shall come out of it much strengthened.

During those testing times we are to do three things, v6, "Observe the commands of the Lord [obey the word], walk in his ways [live in a manner which pleases him] and hold him in reverence".


Secondly, REMEMBER GOD'S UNDESERVED GENEROSITY

V.7 continues:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land – a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig-trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

God's purpose was that they should welcome these blessings and recognise his goodness. V.10:

When you have eaten and are satisfied praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.

The danger was they would do the former without attempting the latter, that instead of remembering they would forget, that widespread prosperity would lead to gross ingratitude. Look again at v.10. The Lord intended them to do three things – enjoy his benefits (when you have eaten and are satisfied), offer their worship (praise the Lord your God) and acknowledge his generosity (for the good land he has given you). But instead they would forget him (v.11&14), disobey his commands (v.11), and become arrogantly self sufficient and proud (v.14). Look at v.11-14:

Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

God's continuing favour is ignored and God's former mercies are forgotten (v.14-16).

…you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something you fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you.

We too can forget the Lord. Perhaps prosperity has robbed us of our earlier dependence on God, when many of us eat and are satisfied so regularly and easily. That's why it's important to give thanks before a meal and to share with those genuinely in need. Many of us have or will have relatively fine houses and possessions. We are not to become proud but give thanks to God and offer hospitality as he commands. When I was in California recently the family I stayed with said, 'God has given us this house so please make yourself at home and use what we have'. Everything we have is from God, and is to be used for his glory.

We can also forget his mercies, his undeserved generosity to us. His indescribable gift – Jesus Christ. And we fail to excel in the grace of giving, just as the Corinthians did.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9).

While the Macedonian churches facing severe trial and extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.

Once we as individuals and as a nation begin to disregard God's kindness it is not long before we disobey his word, which brings us to my final point.


Thirdly, REMEMBER THE LORD YOUR GOD, FOR IT IS HE WHO GIVES YOU THE ABILITY TO PRODUCE WEALTH

Look at v.17-20:

You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me'. But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today. If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God.

Two further dangers are mentioned here – pride and idolatry – both of which would seriously damage their spiritual lives. As someone has put it:

They committed two acts of blatant theft – they stole from God the glory due to his name (it is he who gives, v18), and robbed him of his exclusive right to the worship of their lives. They followed other gods and worshipped them (v19).

Do we ever fall into the trap of thinking that the wealth we have is due to our own efforts? Do we forget that without the breath God gives, the motivation he inspires, the intelligence he provides, the strength he imparts, the perseverance he encourages, none of these things would be possible? Forgetting the Lord and his word is a slippery slope. Once God is not acknowledged as the supremely generous Giver it's an easy step to look elsewhere for the source of life's gifts and blessings. The Canaanites believed that the rich harvests were gifts of Baal and his people did go on to bow down before other gods. Here in these verses God warns them that if they do they will perish.

And today in 21st century society these two perils of pride and idolatry are prominent. Mankind exalts itself and dethrones its God. Such arrogance can only end in judgement. Sometimes, in his mercy, the Lord can bring low a proud man or woman to humble them (v2&3) and teach them that there is more to life than material possessions or social prestige or intellectual attainments or vocational ambition. The greatest thing in life is not to rely on "a land where bread will not be scarce" (v9) but to recognize that "man does not live on bread alone". The only food which lasts is the eternal provision of God's unchanging word, that which comes from the mouth of the Lord (v3). Those who obey that word (v20) will live forever. Faith without works is dead, says James.

Let me conclude with 3 verses from 1 Timothy 6:17-19 which sums this up:

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.

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