Ministers and Money
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on 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. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers 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 the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (James 5:1-6 NIV)
If I even knew that was in the Bible, right there at the beginning of James 5, I had long forgotten it. Buried that passage away from any light, hoping never to run into it again.
But I suspect John Chrysostom knew this passage well. He was a monk turned preacher. Actually he was a lawyer, turned monk, turned preacher. He walked away from a life of guaranteed comfort, and walked into the mountains in solitude, before walking back into the church, and behind its pulpit. But he was really good. Maybe the best preacher Christianity has ever seen.
So, he was called up to Constantinople, the center of Christianity, and was declared bishop. This was the big leagues. In his church sat the emperor’s wife Eudoxia, lavished in jewels and the finest gowns.
And it wasn’t just her. Everybody had money. Gold was on every finger, hung around every neck, and it made him sick. Maybe he had read this text here in James a few times. Because when he started preaching, you could hear this text reverberating through his words. He took to the pulpit and said this:
“The gold bit on your horse, the gold circlet on the wrist of your slave, the gilding on your shoes, mean that you are robbing the orphan and starving the widow. When you have passed away, each passer-by who looks upon your great mansion will say, “How many widows wronged; how many laborers deprived of their honest wages?” Even death itself will not deliver you from your accusers.” 
People in the audience got shifty. Suddenly it seemed really hot in there. “Did he just accuse us of hurting the poor by having money? Ridiculous.” They shifted in their seats. Loosened collars that seemed to be getting tighter, and noticed how their wallets were making them uncomfortable in their chairs. And Eudoxia, the rich emperor’s wife, walked out of church, walked into her husband’s office, and had John exiled.
I don’t think I have to worry about being exiled today, because the truth is I haven’t walked the line that Chrysostom walked in his own life. Truth is my bank account and I are like old friends. Been together since I was 15 years old. I know what makes him cranky—like the inevitable drain of school loans each month. And I know what makes him happy—like cash back on the credit card. Free money, people! And I try not to remind him about that time I overdrew him, when I was paying for a certain engagement ring. He didn’t talk to me for several weeks.
But we’ve always worked it out, he and I. It’s a give and take relationship. I put a little away, and he rewards me. Encourages me. I check on him every day, and he’s always at my side.
Imagine my horror then, when I find myself on trial for greed, selfishness, and of all things murder. And in walks my old friend—bank account—called by the prosecution. He looks particularly plump today. And he should—I put in some hard days at work the last two weeks. And it shows. His waist is swollen, his belly spilling out over his belt.
I’m surprised to see him, but I know he will set the record straight. And then they start questioning him. “Are you Bank Account Number (I’ll leave that part out)?”
“Yes,” he replies.
“Who is your best friend?”
“Eric,” he declares, pointing his finger over the stand at me. I like where this is going.
But then they say, “You are looking awfully…awfully…well fat these days. Why? Don’t you know there are hungry people out there?”
And he says, “Don’t blame me. I tried to tell Eric he needed to give me away, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“You never said that!” I shout, standing in my seat. “Never once.”
“You told me never to talk about it. Said I was too good of a friend. Couldn’t bear to lose me.”
And he’s right. I don’t remember saying it. But the thought of losing my money, piled up in that account, my old friend, absolutely terrifies me.
I slump down and listen, and everything he says confirms that while he was getting fat on my selfishness, others were hurting, even dying. And I am guilty. My own friend has sold me out.
Like you, though, I realize this is ridiculous. Bank accounts don’t talk, don’t testify in court. But James, here in our text, says:
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. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.
Maybe this nightmarish court scene resonates with you. Maybe not.
I suppose I share it with you because I am convinced that churches, and the members in those pews, need to get uncomfortable about their financial well being for the sake of the world.
But to do that, ministers like me need to be willing to get uncomfortable too.
I don’t know what that means exactly. But I know that unless I am willing to wrestle with my own financial security, I won’t be exiled anytime soon.
I wonder what Chrysostom would say about that?
I already know what my bank account will say.
 Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Vol 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 197.
Header image: Reynermedia. The Quest for Change. August 17, 2010. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved.