When James was a young boy, he wanted to be the most famous and wealthiest maker and seller of cheese in the world, so he started a small business with a little wagon and a pony named Paddy. After making his cheese, he would load his wagon, and he and Paddy would drive into the streets of Chicago. When he was still not making any money after months of long hours and hard labor, James knew something was wrong.
Maybe you’re like James, or maybe you have been once or will be one day. Maybe you’ve labored long and hard and feel you have little to show for it. Maybe the prophet Haggai could have been speaking about you when he wrote, “Consider how things are going for you. You’ve sown much but harvested little. You have food to eat, but you’re never satisfied. You have wine to drink, and you’re still thirsty. You have clothes to wear, but nothing can warm you. And your wages disappear as though you had holes in your pockets. You expected a rich harvest and reaped a poor one, and when you brought it home, it blew away like dust in the wind” (Hag. 1:5-6, 9a NLT alt.).
That young boy James knew something was wrong, but he didn’t look for reasons outside himself, in the market or economy. He looked within. “I’m afraid we have things turned around,” he thought, “and our priorities are not where they ought to be.” So he examined his own values, reevaluated his own priorities in life, and he made a commitment. For the rest of his life, James decided, he would serve God first and then work as God directed.
Years later that young boy James, now grown, would stand as a Sunday school superintendent at Chicago’s North Shore Baptist Church and say to his congregation, “I would rather be a layman in the North Shore Baptist Church than to head the greatest corporation in America. My first job is serving Jesus.”
Jesus told a parable about a landowner who built a nice vineyard, leased it to some tenants, then went away on a long trip. Since the landowner wasn’t around, the tenants began to think of the vineyard as their own, and they started acting as if it were, and they decided to keep the profits for themselves. They got selfish and thought all that wealth and all those resources were for their own personal benefit. They abused or killed anyone who tried to remind them of their responsibility and obligation to the landowner. What do you think the landowner will do to those tenants (Matt. 21:33-41)?
We’re tenants, you and I, of a rich and bountiful creation, here to care for this place as God desires, as God deserves. We need to remember, we owe something to the landowner, we owe something to God. No one is here for personal gain; we’re all here to increase the value of God’s creation for the benefit of others (Gen. 12:1-3). And when our priorities get disordered, when we become self-centered instead of God-centered, things are going to go badly for us as they did for those tenants. And when things go badly, we need to reexamine our values, our priorities in life.
Too many of us and too many of our leaders have forgotten or minimized our responsibility to the landowner, our obligation to God. Too many of us, and too many of our leaders, have learned to look first to our own interests, to our own benefit, and we’ve forgotten our place in the order of life. We know how to serve ourselves first, and we can see how well that’s working for us. It’s working about as well for us as it did for those tenants, as it did for young James. We need to learn how to serve God first.
That young boy James, who reordered his priorities to put Jesus first: You may not know him, but know his work. Every time you take a bite of Philadelphia Cream cheese, sip a cup of Maxwell House coffee, mix a pitcher of Kool-Aid, slice up a DiGiorno pizza, cook a pot of Macaroni & Cheese, spread some Grey Poupon, stir up some Cream of Wheat, slurp down some Jell-O, eat the middle of an Oreo first, or serve some Stove Top stuffing, remember the promise little James Kraft made to serve God first and then to work as God directed. Give to God first what belongs to God.