Rich and Poor

Flowers of a field

James has advice for two special classes of believers: for the poor, such as many in the church at Jerusalem (Rom. 15:26), and for the rich. He exhorts both classes to rejoice, the first because God has raised them to a high estate, the second because they will soon perish like flowers in a field (vv. 9-10).

The phrase "of low degree" (v. 9) might refer to anyone with low status in society, but because James contrasts the brother of low degree with the rich man, it is clear that he is speaking specifically of the lowly who are poor.

Whether the rich man in these verses is a Christian has been the center of quite a debate. Is James instructing a wealthy believer on what attitude he should assume, or is he pronouncing judgment on the wealthy unbeliever? The better reading sees "brother" in verse 9 as applying to both the poor and the rich. The other reading puts James in the position of advising a lost man to rejoice in his damnation. Such words would not only be devoid of ordinary compassion, but absurd. If God Himself takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11), surely the wicked themselves cannot be expected to take pleasure in the terrible destiny awaiting them.

James says that the rich man will fade away like "the flower of the grass" (v. 10). "Grass" here takes in all the green vegetation that covers a field after winter passes and life is renewed. In Palestine, the fields of springtime erupted in colorful blossom. An eye scanning the landscape saw carpets of flowers. But these did not last long, because the weather soon evolved into a hot, dry season that extinguished them. The rising sun of the summer morning brought from the Arabian desert a hot east wind called the sirocco. Under the heat of the sun and the heat of the wind, the flowers withered, shedding their petals to litter the ground (v. 11).

James uses language suggesting that the passing of a little flower is a sad event. "The grace of the fashion of it" (v. 11) can be translated, "the beauty of the face of it." "Beauty" is another of his unusual words, found nowhere else in the New Testament. He means that the face of each little flower is a thing of beauty. No doubt he learned his appreciation for the inconspicuous delights of God’s creation from Jesus Himself, who said that the flowers are more beautiful than Solomon in all his splendor (Matt. 6:28-30).

James concludes by saying that just as the flowers perish, so "the rich man will fade away in his ways" (v. 11). "Ways" means "goings," a term picturing his moving about in pursuit of worldly gain. But although one day he is a man to be reckoned with, the next day he is gone.

The joy of a poor man

A poor man who knows Christ ceases to be a man of low degree. In worldly possessions he is poor, but in the possessions of real value because they last for eternity, he is wealthy beyond his present comprehension (Eph. 1:18), for he is joint heir with Christ of all the riches that Christ will receive from the Father (Rom. 8:17). Thus, in the protocols of God’s kingdom, he ranks as a son of God (Phil. 2:15). What higher position could a man want, or even imagine? Yet, supreme exaltation is available to the humblest, poorest, most deprived human being on earth. Anyone can become a prince of heaven just by believing in Christ. Here is the joy of a poor man, who must throughout his days on earth suffer being despised by the privileged.

The joy of a rich man

The joy of the rich man is that God has brought him low. His debasement takes the form of being denied the privilege of holding on to his earthly wealth forever. He will soon die and lose the things of this world. Why should he rejoice in his inevitable loss? For many reasons.

  1. That future loss will really be a rescue. Earthly wealth is a snare that easily traps the unwary in foolish schemes to gain more wealth and to multiply pleasure (1 Tim. 6:6-10). The safest way to handle wealth is to give it away (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
  2. The fact that he will soon lose his wealth helps a rich man keep his priorities straight. It reminds him day after day that he needs to be compiling a good record for eternity rather than building an empire here.
  3. The same fact helps him view his poor brothers with proper love and respect. It protects him from feeling superior. After all, his present position in society is only temporary. Although now he can treat a poor brother with condescension and exact his obedience, the time will come when they will stand before God as equals, and the rich man will give account for his treatment of the poor man. Then God will right any injustice.

Rich or poor?

Which of these men are you? Few among us would admit to being rich. Because we know people who have bigger houses and cars than we have, most of us feel that we are just average folk. But comparing ourselves with wealthier acquaintances is like the Empire State Building in New York comparing itself with the Willis Tower in Chicago. From street level, they both look gigantic. Likewise, in comparison with past generations and with people in third-world countries today, the middle class in Western nations is fabulously wealthy. Think of it. What are you lacking that you could reasonably want? There is a restaurant nearby to satisfy any craving your belly might conceive. You have more clothing in your closet than many of your ancestors possessed in a whole lifetime. Your houses and gardens would, in past generations, have set you just below the highest nobility. Kings of old would have gone to war to acquire your cell phone, your air conditioner, your car, your television. If we recognize that we are rich, we can learn from James’s advice. His advice is that we should rejoice in how transitory our wealth is.


1. Do I think that I have acquired my wealth through my own devices, or do I credit the true source, God, who has, for reasons of His own, seen fit to give it to me?

Before Israel entered the Promised Land, Moses warned the nation, "And it shall be, when the LORD thy God shall have brought thee into the land which he sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildedst not, and houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not, vineyards and olive trees, which thou plantedst not; when thou shalt have eaten and be full; then beware lest thou forget the LORD, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Deut. 6:10–12). God intended to heap material blessings upon Israel, but the danger was that someday they would forget the source and imagine that they had become prosperous through their own cleverness and hard work. Self-satisfied, they would see their wealth as a reason to boast of themselves rather than as an opportunity to thank the Lord.

We who live in the midst of modern plenty face the same danger. We dare not slip into the mentality of the successful entrepreneur who imagines that he is a self-made man. As with life itself, so also with our possessions, "The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21).

2. Seeing how soon my wealth will pass away, do I keep a loose hold on it, not caring greatly whether I have it or lose it?

One test is how much you worry about the state of the economy. You are too fixated on financial security if you are keeping a close eye on unemployment and inflation rates, the stock market index, and other measures of national prosperity. As responsible citizens, we should encourage wise economic policies, but we should view them mainly as a tool to help the poor and needy. For ourselves, we should rest in God's provision as we faithfully fulfill our responsibilities in the home, the church, and the workplace. Trends that might make us a bit richer or a bit poorer should not be our preoccupation.

Nor should we vote primarily on the basis of our economic interests. Gaining a larger piece of the pie is not a godly objective. How a candidate stands on questions related to budgets and taxation is indeed important, but not nearly as important as whether he will resist the tides of corruption sweeping over the world today. He deserves our support if he opposes the chief threats to moral decency:

  • the murder of unborn babies,
  • the sentencing of many children to be reared not in normal families but by homosexual couples,
  • the legalization of recreational drugs that damage the rational thinking and wholesome motivation of young people, and that endanger the lives of everyone on roads traveled by drug users,
  • the removal of all censorship protecting the young and vulnerable from life-shattering sexual addictions, and
  • the proliferating power of the media and other social engines committed to destroying traditional values.

3. Do I thank God for what He has given me?

Thanksgiving should be the theme of your life, as you look around at all the blessings that God has piled upon you (1 Tim. 4:4–5).

4. Do I accept my obligation to give my wealth back to God?

That is, do you make it available for uses He will show you—uses that will bring glory to Him, not to yourself?

5. Do I use my wealth in light of eternity?

Do you readily share your wealth with the needy? Do you come forward without hesitation to help finance Christian work and Christian workers? How much do you give above your tithe in order to support missions?

6. Do I face the dangers in wealth and protect myself from them? Do I guard myself from becoming a covetous person, always seeking more?

One temptation we all face is to collect things, but in this we can easily go overboard. I am speaking to myself as well as to you, because I have a distinct weakness for collecting books. When possessed by a collection mania, we soon find ourselves spending good money to acquire what is really junk, or what is hardly different from what we have already, or what will sit around never to be used and rarely to be looked at. How much better to use the same money to promote the work of God. How much better to be a cheerful giver than an incorrigible pack rat.

7. Do I discipline my use of money, so that I am not living primarily to satisfy carnal appetites?

Overeating is now a serious problem in our society. Portion sizes have increased markedly in the last generation, as has daily per capita food consumption. The result is that obesity has become epidemic.

Study Questions

  1. What is James’s advice to the rich and the poor?
  2. Is the rich man he is addressing a believer or an unbeliever?
  3. Why was the comparison to flowers especially vivid to his readers?
  4. How does James regard the beauty of a flower, and whose example is He following?
  5. What will happen to the rich man?
  6. Why can a poor believer rejoice?
  7. For what three reasons can a rich believer rejoice in the prospect of being brought low?
  8. Are we in America rich or poor?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.