my stuff is mine, right?: reflections on hebrews and james

“let it go / let it leave / let it happen / nothing in this world was promised or belonged to you anyway” – Rupi Kaur

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to live with open hands: holding onto nothing too tightly except the promises of God, because only they will not pass away. In reading through Hebrews and James recently, this theme has been made abundantly – and uncomfortably – clear to me.

The people of God are a diasporic people. In the way that we are called to live, we reflect the life of Jesus: God leaving his heavenly home to serve and die for us. We are, after all, asked to “go… and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). James’ letter, in fact, is written to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1) – to Israelites who had left their nation, for whatever reason. Even further, we are asked to forsake riches, possessions, and earthly comforts just as Jesus gave up his heavenly throne.

So what does this look like? The writer of Hebrews paints a picture of it in chapter 11. A common thread among those mentioned in this Old Testament roll call of faithfulness is that these people jettisoned the things of this world in favour of “looking to the reward” (11:26), knowing that they were “strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13). They did not seek comfort or an earthly home, because they knew that God was preparing for them a home in heaven: they desired “a better country” (11:16) than the ones they had been born into. But they didn’t just give up their homes; they also gave up continued wealth. Moses, for example, considered the treasures of Egypt less valuable than “the reproach of Christ” (11:26), choosing to obey where God asked him to suffer rather than to build up possessions.

James cites some of the same people as examples of those who lived out a true and genuine faith, performing actions that confirmed their inner reality of being wholly devoted to God. For Abraham, such a life was “counted to him as righteousness” and made him “a friend of God” (James 2:23). This is what James means when he writes about being “justified by works” – not that our works give us salvation, but instead, our works justify or prove the presence of Christ in us.

But, of course, we cannot serve two masters, as Jesus said in Matthew 6:24: a true and genuine faith means giving up a love of money. James, along with the writer of Hebrews, is well aware of the danger of riches. Chapter 5 of his letter contains a warning against those who have settled into the comforts of wealth:

“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten… Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which have kept you back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” (James 5:1-2, 4 ESV).

This passage is probably meant to make me tremble at the glorious justice and righteousness of God. Instead, it makes me feel kind of gleeful to imagine that those who wield their wealth to cause injustice are going to get their comeuppance. And so my unrighteousness is exposed, because this is me, in both a physical and a spiritual sense. How much have I squandered God’s blessings to hurt the people around me? I have stored up my treasures in the things I own, rather than in eternity (Matthew 6:19-21). I have found my identity in relationships with people rather than a relationship with Christ. I have valued my earthly presence and comforts more than I have valued the call of God. So when James calls upon the rich to lament their misplaced values, he’s calling me: someone who has been richly blessed and yet who continues to be dissatisfied with what I have. After all, to whom much is given, much will be required; to whom much is entrusted, much more will be demanded (Luke 12:48). Our things aren’t meant for us. They are meant for those around us, meant to be handed over in surrender to the One who owns all things.

Which brings us back to the original theme of holding things with open hands. The demands of these passages are clear and difficult, but I’m comforted by them: they tell me that I can let go joyfully of the things and the people that I cling to for dear life, because all I have is Christ. Everything will pass away. So I can embrace uncertainty, knowing that God – in Jesus – has already filled my emptiness with his promises.

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