The Perils, Power and Possibilities of Wealth

This year we are celebrating the 175th Anniversary of Christ Church. Virginia Water has changed a great deal since the early 19th Century. The 1830’s were troubled years in Britain. Agricultural depression, large scale unemployment, poverty and rioting in rural areas.  In 1846, the Cambridge Chronicle 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.” The nearest church was St John’s in Egham and there were few free places allocated to the poor.

Fearing another French Revolution, the government looked to the Church of England for moral leadership. That is why, in 1837, plans were made to build a church in the poorest part of Egham Parish, yes here in Virginia Water. On Monday 10th September 1838, a meeting was held 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 would be raised by public subscription. Although £200 was donated by the Queen, the rest came from local people, including two shillings from an unknown child. The land itself was donated by Catherine Irvine.

She was the widow of Walter Irvine. Their daughter, Christina, also donated £2,000 to create an endowment fund to pay the clergy salary. So more than half of the cost of building and sustaining this church was provided by one family. Today we are thankful that a significant proportion of our church family give sacrificially to sustain the mission of Christ Church, in and beyond Virginia Water. If you have yet to experience the blessing of giving then pick up the stewardship leaflet in the entrance. Which brings us back to James 5 and the three peas of wealth:

1. The Perils 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 5:7-8)

1. The Perils of Wealth to Corrupt

“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 can concede that in comparative terms, 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. The Bible does not discourage the right to private 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 the 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

“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 questioning the means by which these Christians had gained their wealth. Wealth is power. And power invariably leads to exploitation which creates more wealth for the few. 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. Josephus says he “Bled the country dry”. It is estimated that the peasants paid 40% of their income in taxes. The devastating famines of 46-48 AD merely exacerbated these conditions. Josephus describes how the entire population of towns were sold into slavery because they were late paying their taxes. Christ Church was built on a piece of land kindly donated by Catherine Irvine in the 1830’s.

This was just a fraction of the land the family owned in England and Scotland. In 1805 when Walter returned to England, 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 precisely from his plantations. What made them so profitable? Slave labour. Men and women captured in Africa, forced against their will on to ships living in inhuman conditions across the Atlantic, sold to the highest bidder and then forced to work on plantations such as that of Walter Irvine. Does it trouble you that the land on which our church is built was bought with slave money?

And where did Christina get the £2,000 used to endow the living here? It came from £20 million paid by the British government to slave owners as compensation for their loss of earnings with the abolition of slavery, quote “for reconciling the rights of property with those of humanity”.

But before we cast the first stone, does it also trouble you that the oil and petrol we burn in our cars comes from African or Middle Eastern countries where the people are denied the benefits of the wealth derived, beside 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.”

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 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? Do you see how insidious are the perils of wealth to corrupt. The power of wealth to exploit.

3. The Possibilities of Wealth to Bless

“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.” (James 5: 7-8)

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. Patient because the arc of history bends toward justice. For God is a God of justice.

You see, there is a great deal of difference between enjoying with a thankful, generous heart, what the Lord has entrusted to us, and living extravagantly, as if he does not exist, on what we have withheld from others. This is why Paul writes to Timothy similarly,

“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 Timothy 6:17)

Despite the dubious origin of the money used to buy the land on which this church was built, I am grateful to Christina for choosing to invest some of her inherited wealth in the gospel here in Virginia Water. Referring to the money received from the British government to compensate slave owners, the Cambridge Chronicle of 11th April 1846 writes,

“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. 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 faith.
A worthy example perhaps? Well now it is our turn, to invest what the Lord has entrusted to us.

For one day soon, he will expect a return on his investment.

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 5:7-8)

If you find James’ message radical, then realise where he got it from. His brother, the Lord 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 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 brief. Just ten words. “If you like the terms, then put down your money.” Money does indeed talk. But what will yours say about you on the day Jesus returns? Lets pray.

 Pathway to Spiritual Maturity (James): Summer 2013

Some Assembly Required (James 1:1-12)
How to Handle Temptation (James 1:13-18)
Transformed by Truth (James 1:17-27)
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (James 2:14-26)
The Tongue and How to Control it (James 3:1-12)
How to be Wise (James 3:13-18)
To End all Wars (James 4:1-12)
The Folly of Arrogance (James 4:13-17)
The Three Peas of Wealth (James 5:1-8)
Be Patient in Suffering (James 5:7-12)

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.