When missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrived in Rayalaseema in the Indian state of Andrha Pradesh in the 1850s, one of the most striking features of the culture they found there was the rigid class structure.
The Laws of Manu, an ancient Hindu text established 4 castes or classes of people – the Brahmins or priests, the Kshatriyas or warriors, the Vaishyas or traders and the Shudras or servants. Beyond these 4 castes was another class of people who had no title other than Avarna or untouchable.
The Laws of Manu taught that the origins of the castes came from the God Brahma. The priests were made from his mouth, the warriors from his arms, the traders from his thighs and the servants from his feet.
The Brahmins were considered to be holy and pure. The further down you went the more degraded the caste became. The unnamed castes were completely corrupt and polluted. They were considered untouchable and un-seeable.
The missionaries found that the villages were segregated according to caste. The untouchables were not allowed to live in the villages. Even the wind which touched the Avarnas was considered polluted, so they were forced to live in ghettos apart from the other castes. The untouchables were left to find subsistence as scavengers and sanitation workers.
This social order was rooted in thousands of years of history.
It was quite shocking when the missionaries, considered to be among the highest of the priestly class began to visit the Avarna ghettos. It was even more shocking when the missionaries began to eat meals in the homes of the untouchables. The higher castes in the villages were shocked, the untouchables were shocked and the Europeans working in trade and government were shocked.
But that was just the beginning.
What really changed everything was the moment when the first missionary embraced an untouchable for the first time.
According to the Law of Manu, it was considered a grave sin for an untouchable to touch one of the caste Hindus. Even the shadow of an Avarna was considered to be corrupt and the few times they were allowed in the village were limited to specific times of the day when the reach of a shadow was minimized.
The impurity of an Avarna was so complete, it was a sin to come into contact with their shadow.
When a missionary grabbed the hand of an untouchable, laid his other hand on the mans shoulders and told him, “you are not untouchable”, walls of shame and alienation which lasted for thousands of years began to crumble.
Why would a wealthy European travel across the world to enter the untouchable ghettos of India to embrace the lowliest human beings in all of history?
We take that question with us into the book of James this morning. We are in chapter 1, verses 9-11.
9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
Our passage today is as revolutionary as it is simple.
It begins with an encouragement for the lowly brother. Literally that word lowly means – not rising far from the ground.
The word can mean:
a. as a condition, lowly, of low degree
b. brought low with grief, depressed
c. lowly in spirit, humble
The lowly brother is a person in the church who is poor, or in a low state- “a person who is of little significance in the world’s evaluation.”
The child born into a Dalit family in India, whose very presence is considered to be polluting and who is consigned to a life as a scavenger or sanitation worker is lowly.
The Jewish follower of Christ in the first century who was rejected by their family and forced to leave everything behind to find safety as a refugee was a lowly brother.
What does James have to say to this brother or sister?
Let them boast in their exaltation.
What? How’s that? Exaltation?
James immediately follows this counter-intuitive statement with another.
Let the rich man boast in his humiliation. That’s the same word as the lowly brother in the preceding verse. The poor person should realize that they are exalted and boast in their status. The rich person should realize that they are lowly and boast in their status.
How does that work?
First, we have to remember that there are things more valuable than money and power. And that many who are rich and powerful have sacrificed those things in the pursuit of their wealthy status.
Here are a few things I find mentioned in the Bible that are more valuable than material wealth:
1. Honor and a good reputation
A good name is more desirable than great riches; favor is better than sliver and gold.
My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver.
3. Godly contentment
But godliness with contentment is great gain,
1 Timothy 6:6
Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
Now I think we are getting to James’ point in this passage. Life is short and money can’t buy you an extension. You can’t take money with you beyond the grave.
There are wealthy people who spend a lifetime accumulating material treasures who will someday find that it’s all gone and when the temporary things have passed away, they will have nothing to show for their lives.
The things that are truly valuable are the things that you can carry with you out of the grave. Money isn’t one of them.
“If life is so uncertain, if man is so vulnerable, if the externals of life are so perishable, then calamity and disaster may come at any moment. Since that is so, a man is a fool to put all his trust in things –like wealth–which he may lose at any moment. He is only wise if he puts his trust in things which he cannot lose.”
– William Barclay
The wealthy who have only their wealth will find that in the end, their pursuits have cost them their very soul.
6. Your soul
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?
The final good more valuable than money is probably the heart of James’ perspective on material status.
7. Friendship with God
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.
How is the lowly exalted? Because the exalted King of Heaven who lives in a high and holy place also dwells among the lowly.
And how is the rich person lowly? Because the King of Heaven knows them from afar.
For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.
The lowly person is well situated to look up and see the grace and glory of God. The wealthy person develops the habit of looking down from their ‘high’ status, oblivious to the God who gave them life.
You can think of a cup. The poor person carries and empty cup, when God comes they are ready and eager to receive everything God has to pour out for them. The wealthy whose cup is full has no room for anything but their own pursuits.
The test of the value of our life is in the day that everything that is temporary perishes and only the eternal stands.
James belabors this point. In verse 10 he tells us that the wealthy, though adorned with riches, is only like a flower in the grass. It blooms in glory for a moment, but soon wilts away.
In verse 11, he elaborates. The flower blooms, then the sun rises and winds blow – leaving the grass withered and the flowers fallen.
This is what the wealthy person is like.
So what should we do in light of this?
It’s not easy to nail down application when it comes to money in the Bible.
Do you remember the rich young ruler who asked Jesus about eternal life? Jesus told him to sell everything he has and give to the poor and he will enter the kingdom of God. The man, unwilling to part with his wealth, goes away sad.
So it seems that we should sell everything we have and give to the poor.
Then Jesus meets Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector whose whom he visits for a meal. Zacchaeus in his joy, promises to sell half of his possessions and give to the poor. Jesus announces that salvation has come to this man’s house.
To one man, Jesus says, give away everything. To another, he accepts the offer of giving away half. To others, Jesus says nothing about money.
Why is that? Because to Jesus, money is not a matter of dollars or percentages, but of the heart.
In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the business tycoon Francisco D’Anconia shrewdly observes this distinction:
“But money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver. It will give you the means for the satisfaction of your desires, but it will not provide you with desires.”
The heart of the issue with money is the human heart, the driver with its desires. James gives us application directed toward the heart.
1. The application for the lowly is this – never let the world or things in this world define your identity or your worth. Only God can do that.
If you feel lowly, you need to hear this. You don’t need to achieve or accumulate or change anything to become great. You just need to rest and receive the honor God gives to the lowly.
You don’t need another beauty product, you don’t need a fancier car, you don’t need the latest iPhone, you don’t need to lose another pound – you have everything you need right now to have tremendous value.
The exalted King of Heaven himself values the lowly enough to dwell among them. What more do you need?
2. The application for the wealthy is this – never look to the world or things in this world to find your identity or give your life worth. Only God can do that.
Your possessions, your accounts, your body – all of these things carry a short life expectancy and will soon wither away into nothing. Are you prepared for that day? Will you have anything left when the material things of this world are gone?
The point of the passage is, then, that Christians must always evaluate themselves by spiritual and not material standards. Maintaining such a perspective in a world that so insistently confronts us with a very different standard of measurement is not easy. But if the church is to be the kind of “countercultural” society that Jesus intended it to be, establishing and propagating such a perspective is essential.
3. An application for everyone in this passage is to be willing to associate with people of low position.
James will be more explicit about this later in the letter. If God love to dwell among the lowly, shouldn’t we?
My oldest son is a great example of this. He has a soft spot for the lowly, the undervalued in the eyes of the world. In the last few years he has gathered a group of friends who have been overlooked by the crowds, but received by Gabe as friends.
I think he learned that from his Savior.
4. Another application we can infer from this passage is that we should be willing to occupy places of low position.
Do you remember when Jesus gathered his disciples for a meal and no servant was around to wash the filth from the feet of the diners? No one was willing to occupy that space, but Jesus, the King of Kings, grabbed a towel and took a knee to become the servant.
Do you want to be great? Do you want to be important? Jesus is clear in his teaching and his example – whoever wants to be great must become the servant.
Are you the servant in your home? Are you willing to take the lowly tasks at work?
5. The final application is to boast in the glory of Christ who left his heavenly riches to become poor in order that we poor souls could become rich.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9
“To be a Christian is to believe that God became man and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it—the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe—that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilization to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”
-Tom Holland, Dominion
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown