Rich and Poor (part 1)

“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.”

James 1:9-10 (ESV)

James has a lot to say about the relationship between the rich and poor, and **SPOILER ALERT**, he’s not too fond of the former. When reading James, like any book of the bible we can read it and take away a good understanding of what God is wanting us to know for our lives. However, a deeper study of the language can also sometimes prove helpful as we strive to better understand the fullest meaning of the text.

I wanted to tackle this particular section in this way because we have a tendency to read our situation into the bible, especially when it comes to something that affects our lives the way that money does. I have heard and read people who abuse passages such as James 1:9-10 and use it as a weapon to bludgeon the rich “upper class”, and likewise people have tried to explain it away in order to excuse greed and a fear of loss. Our job as faithful Christians is to understand and accept the Word of God for what it is and to apply it to our lives as it stands. With that said, let’s get started!

Regarding the Poor

“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation…”

James 1:9

In this verse there are three words to focus on: lowly, boast, and exaltation. The word used here for lowly is tapeinos which means low in position, lowly in spirit, or humble. It is used in other passages such as Matthew 11:29, Luke 1:52, Romans 12:16, James 4:6, and 1 Peter 5:5.

The word for boast in this verse is kauchasthō; to boast, to exult, or to glory in. Other passages where this word is used include Romans 5:2, 1 Corinthians 1:31, and 2 Corinthians 5:12.

Finally, the word exaltation comes from hypsei meaning height, eminence, and dignity.  Hypsei and its grammatical variants are also used in passages such as Luke 1:78 and Ephesians 4:8 when referring to God being “on high”, which is a common phrase used to describe his preeminence.

The brother referenced here is described as someone who lacks the material possessions that would make him “rich”. Instead, his faith is strengthened because of his lack of worldly wealth and he is exalted by God in the midst of his humble circumstances. Now in English, the word “boast” may not be the best phrasing to use because it has essentially become synonymous with arrogant bragging or even narcissism which God is very much opposed to (as we will see later on in James). Boasting in this modern sense is in line with the biblical concept of sinful pride and “haughtiness” which views oneself as superior to others for one reason or another. It may seem counterintuitive to see someone who is “poor” as arrogant or haughty, but it makes sense when we understand that the arrogance is rooted in the sinfulness of the heart and not in the balance sheet.

Instead, James gives us an image of a brother who is poor by worldly standards but whom has grace, delegated authority, prestige , and prominence in his humble circumstance as a sinner who is saved by the grace of God. We boast not in our own position, but in the God who placed us in that position while maintaining a humble understanding that every good and perfect gift we have has come from the One who set us free.

Regarding the Rich

“…and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass, he will pass away.”

James 1:10

Two words in verse 10 that jump out at us are “rich” and “humiliation”. The word for rich used in this verse is plousios which means abounding in wealth… so literally rich in terms of money. I bring this point up because I don’t want there to be any mistake as to who this verse is referring to. We sometimes use rich to talk about quality of life or vibrancy in relationship, and while those don’t make sense here I have heard seen people do some serious mental gymnastics to try to make this passage mean something it doesn’t.

To drive the point home plousios can also be found in verses like Matthew 19:23 as Jesus is speaking to the rich young ruler, and 2 Corinthians 8:9 speaking of Jesus’ abundance in heaven being given up for our sake to become poor on the earth. The word is also used in places like Ephesians 2:4 referring to being rich in mercy, however because James 1:10 does not apply a subject (i.e. mercy) as that verse does, the assumption is that of material wealth.

Finally consider the word humiliation which comes from the Greek word tapeinōsei which means to behave in a way that belittles or degrades oneself and ones spirit, or low condition in circumstances. This word is similar to and shares the root of tapeinos which we looked at a little earlier, but in this form it carries a much more negative connotation with it. Other passages where we see this word include Luke 1:48 when Zechariah belittles his own position in the presence of the angel in the Temple, and Philippians 3:21 referring to the inferiority of our bodies as compared to the glory to come when Jesus returns.

The point of this post is not to dump all over rich people because, like so many things in life and the bible, it’s complicated. In the coming weeks as this series continues there will be more discussions of the rich and poor as well as the treatment of each and we will tackle each of those as we get to them. We will also attempt to put them into context with the rest of James as well as the rest of the bible as a whole to try and build a biblical view of the relational dynamics between rich and poor in the kingdom of God.

With that said, the takeaway of this section is threefold. To those of us who live in poverty, our lack of worldly wealth is a blessing to our souls. When we don’t have financial security to the level we would like we are forced to depend on God for even the most basic of needs.

For those of us who have been blessed with an abundance of wealth and financial stability, let this be a warning. The money you have is not your own; it belongs to God and the expectation is that you will manage it well for the glory of God and the good of others. Place your dependence and security on God, not on your wealth because “like the flower of the grass, it will pass away.”

And for those like me, who have lived in poverty for years and who are moving into a more middle class economic bracket let this be an encouragement to avoid the pitfalls of wealth and power, and to live in a way where our newfound wealth can be used to serve God’s kingdom in new ways that we previously couldn’t afford to.


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