Reading Time: 8 Minutes
The three verses we are going to study today are short and conveniently easy to overlook. However, they pack a life-transforming “punch,” if we begin to live by their wisdom.
As we read them, let’s remember that the preceding verses in James counsel us to pray for God’s wisdom. Is it very true that some of God’s wisdom for us includes how we approach poverty and wealth?
James 1.9-11 – Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.
One Couple’s Experience
I have had the privilege of meeting many dynamic Christians in my life. However, I think the most spiritual and godly man I have known is Alexii Altschul. He began following Jesus as an adult, when he was a successful insurance agent. Somewhere in his journey with Jesus, he took a vow of poverty and moved to the corner of 31st and Troost in Kansas City. When I first met him, his name was David Altschul. He and his wife, Thelma, purchased a dilapidated four story building in the Troost corridor and began Reconciliation Ministries (now called, Reconciliation Services). They ministered to people at the dividing line of rich and poor in the Kansas City area.
David and Thelma based their lives on counsel of James 1.9-11 and other similar Bible truths. The last time I was in David’s office, his vow of poverty was obvious. The furniture was straight out of a thrift store and his office was in a small, cramped room. Still, the power of God was present in a significant way.
David and Thelma were drawn to the Orthodox Church, because of the inherent spirituality that is part of that denomination. He was ordained into the church as Father Paisius, and the couple started St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church.
Father Paisius is an excellent theologian. He also has a master’s degree in social work and uses it to better serve the neighborhood. At times, I have seen him walking across 31st street from Reconciliation Services to Operation Breakthrough to serve people who needed his expertise.
When Thelma died, Father Paisius’ journey led him to be a monk in the Orthodox Church and receive another name change. He is now Alexii Alschul and operates a monastery in Weatherby Missouri.
The ministry that Thelma and David began in their poverty has grown to encompass a budget of $2.5 million dollars. The ministry, Reconciliation Services, provides the Troost corridor with mental health services, job training, rent and utilities assistance, and vouchers to help pay for prescriptions, medical supplies, vision care and dentistry. Note, the vow of poverty remains with the leaders of Reconciliation Services and St. Mary of Egypt Church. The donations are all used to benefit people in the area of 31st and Troost.
(Google Father Alexii Alschul and Reconciliation Services for a compelling account of genuine ministry.)
The Counter-Cultural Message of James
The romantic part of me admires and enjoys the story of David and Thelma. Another part of me, that is steeped in American materialism and comfort, struggles with the whole idea of James’ message to “let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation” (James 1.9-10).
You may be wondering with me, whether James’ message compels us to take a vow of poverty and move to the urban core. I don’t think that is the case for most of us, but Jesus’ words about wealth and poverty need to be prayerfully considered.
Jesus taught, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12.15). He then told a story to illustrate his point (see Luke 12.13-21).
Jesus told a story about a very successful farmer. His crops outstripped the size of his barns, so he decided to build bigger building to contain the excess. With his new barns full to capacity, he said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
There was just one catch to his retirement plans, he died shortly after building new barns. To quote one of my favorite preachers, “On his way to the cemetery, his hearse wasn’t pulling a U-Haul.”
Compare this man, who laid up treasures for himself, (Luke 12.21) with David and Thelma Alschul, who were rich toward God. How many thousands of lives have been touched by God because these two, who refused to think that their lives consisted in what they owned?
What about the poor person?
Anyone with experience in life knows there is nothing inherently righteous about being poor, just as being wealthy is not necessarily a sure-fire sign of sin. When poverty leads someone to the kingdom of God (Matthew 5.3), there are treasures to be found among them.
Generous Like Our Heavenly Father
James highlights God’s generosity. The more our character is formed through interaction with God, the more we will be generous like him.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had these words to say about generosity. He taught, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6.22-23).
I was studying this passage in the Greek language a few years ago. The word translated, “healthy,” may best be understood as “generous and liberal in giving.” The opposite of the generous eye is one that is “tricky, cunning, or bad.”
When we look at Jesus’ words through the lens of generosity, we discover that a “giving heart” affects the entire person, inside and out. A generous heart reflects a healthy inside condition that is full of God’s light. A stingy heart is dark and causes Jesus to exclaim, “how great is the darkness!“
Jesus’ words about money from the Sermon on the Mount add more to our insight about our inner life.
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6.24). Our generosity or lack of it will reveal whether we are serving God or a god of money.
In the Sermon he gave this promise, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6.33).
Jesus promised to care for us, as we devote ourselves to living life by the principles of his kingdom. I think the story of David and Thelma Alschul presents an excellent example of this truth. Another example is that of Rufus Moseley.
Wisdom from Rufus Moseley
Rufus Moseley lived his life seeking first a relationship with God and his kingdom purposes. I am sure there were those who thought he wasted his talents by choosing to live among the poor people of Georgia. After all, he was brilliant, studied under such men as William James, knew two U.S. presidents, and was offered teaching positions at important universities. Instead, he raised pecan trees and spent hours of his time with the truly forgotten men and women of the South.
As we meditate on the seduction of wealth versus “seeking first the kingdom of God,” let’s prayerfully consider these words from “A Heavenly View” by Wayne McClain (a collection of sayings from Rufus Moseley).
(1) No one can put God first and the things of God first, without quickly getting back to God. No one can put anything else first, even the good things of life, without the things put first separating one from the companionship, fellowship and discipleship of Christ.
(2) We are led by our leading desire, affection or love. Whatever we love most shapes our whole inner life, and in the end, our outer life as well. Seek first the lower things and you lose the highest first of all, and in the end, lose the lower things too. Seek first the highest and we get the highest and also everything else.
(3) God requires us to put and keep him first because it is the only way he can keep us in union with himself and keep us out of evil and tragedy and give us what is best for us.
(4) God will work out everything in relation to yourself, your families, your business, your community and the kingdom of God, as you put him and his kingdom first. He will surprise you all the way with his wisdom as well as with his marvelous love and care.
(5) He that had all, gave all, and became the poorest of the poor that we may become rich. Because he gave and gives his all that we may have the all of God in and with him, we no longer belong to ourselves.
Dear God, thank you for your generosity. Thank you for every gift you have given to us. Please grant us the grace to live wisely with both our wealth and our poverty.