1 Timothy 6:6-19
6 Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have. 7 We didn’t bring anything into the world and so we can’t take anything out of it: 8 we’ll be happy with food and clothing. 9 But people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.
11 But as for you, man of God, run away from all these things. Instead, pursue righteousness, holy living, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. 12 Compete in the good fight of faith. Grab hold of eternal life—you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I command you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and Christ Jesus, who made the good confession when testifying before Pontius Pilate. 14 Obey this order without fault or failure until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 The timing of this appearance is revealed by God alone, who is the blessed and only master, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 He alone has immortality and lives in light that no one can come near. No human being has ever seen or is able to see him. Honor and eternal power belong to him. Amen.
17 Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. 19 When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life. (CEB)
The Good Fight
On this Sunday, which is Proper 21 or the 26th Week of Ordinary Time, we’re just over two-thirds of the way through the Season after Pentecost, which is also known as Ordinary Time. Easter was twenty-three Sundays ago. Advent begins nine Sundays from now, which means that Christmas is only 13 weeks away. (I think I just heard the child in each of us squeal with delight while the adult in us gasped in panic).
The season of Ordinary Time gets its name, not because it’s ordinary and mundane, but because it’s counted using ordinal numbers. Yet, there is something mundane about this longest-of-seasons in the Christian Year. It’s a long lull of regular-old-Sundays that is bracketed between the high feasts of Easter and Pentecost and the Advent-Christmas celebrations just around the corner. Even the sanctuary is ordinary. It seems like the paraments and vestments have been green forever. Attendance hasn’t exactly been stellar. Giving over the summer has largely bottomed out. Coming to worship in this extended season can feel mundane or common and, at times, even rote or lackluster.
In this way, I think the church’s liturgical calendar mirrors life. Life is not all celebration. Sometimes life is just… ordinary. In fact, most of life is ordinary. So, it’s appropriate that, in the ordinary time of the church, we negotiate these mundane matters of the stuff-of-life. After all, we’re each still learning how to live in response to our baptism, and we’re each still learning how we might fully participate with God in the ordinary things of life.
Because God is in the ordinary stuff of life. That’s why our sacrament of holy communion uses elements as simple as bread and juice, and baptism uses something as common as water. It’s just ordinary stuff—stuff we can eat, drink, and wash in—but it’s stuff that we need to live. Ordinary, yet necessary.
Some Biblical scholars speculate that this text is reminding Timothy of the confession he made at his baptism when it states, “Grab hold of eternal life—you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12 CEB). Baptism is the sign and seal that declares we have given our life to following the ways of God, and that we have grabbed hold of the eternal life to which God calls every person.
So, to what kind of life does God call the baptized to live? What does it mean to live our baptism?
We often think of eternal life as some future thing that we receive after we die. It’s something for which we hope. We hope to make the cut and gain entrance through the pearly gates. But we’re told to grab hold of eternal life. Maybe, eternal life can—to some degree—be taken hold of now. Jesus declared that the kingdom of God has come near (c.f. Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15). In Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God’s life-giving presence has been established in the world, now. God’s presence shapes our perspective on life and on the stuff of life. Things are passing. Things are fleeting. But God is not and, because of God’s presence with us, neither are we.
One of the matters the author of the letter addresses with Timothy is false teaching. Verse 5 says that certain teachers thought that godliness was a way to earn a profit. Maybe these people were the Joel Osteens, Benny Hinns, and Robert Tiltons of their day who preach a prosperity gospel and think that the practice of their faith is a way to financial success. Whatever their false teachings were, the author of 1 Timothy takes them to task. Godliness—which is faithful living—is profitable, but not in the way the false teachers think.
Faithful living is not about gaining wealth. I cringed when I recently heard a pastor say, “I found a way to monetize everything I do.” If money is the the goal, then it’s an impoverished life.
I’ve heard people misquote the statement in 1 Timothy 6:10 more times than I’ve heard it quoted correctly. Oftentimes, it comes out of people’s mouth as Money is the root of all evil. But money is not the root of all evil. Money is an inanimate object that, in and of itself, is incapable of evil. The text says, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10a CEB). Not the root of all evil, but a lot of different kinds of evil. Not money, itself, but where and how we hold money in our heart and mind—it’s if we have money rooted within us that it becomes the root of all kinds of evil. Money, itself, is neither good nor bad. It’s the love of money that results in many and various kinds of evil.
The love of money can plunge people into ruin and destruction. And, it’s important to note that the word people in verse 9 is general and inclusive. The author says that it’s not only to those who are attempting to gain wealth that are being plunged into ruin and destruction, but also other people whose lives are destroyed by a person’s pursuit of money. There is collateral damage to other people. Remember the movie You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks? The big, wealthy Fox Books company—owned by Tom Hanks’ character Joe Fox—was putting small, independent bookstores out of business. When Fox Books built a new store across the street, Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen, was worried and terrified that her bookstore would be next. Of course, the movie makes the destruction of Kathleen’s entire livelihood—and the livelihoods of her employees—okay in the end by having Kathleen and Joe Fox hook up. So goes the imagination of Hollywood.
It’s a story that has played out over and over in the real world. Walmart has put more small business out of business than can be counted. The pursuit of wealth and more wealth by the wealthy destroys livelihoods and plunges people into ruin. All for the sake of the love of money and trying to get rich. When we aren’t careful, when getting rich is our goal, such pursuits do ruin people and destroy community.
The love of money is idolatry. Idolatry is a sneaky kind of sin. It’s grip on us can be subtle, but it’s always choking. Caring too much about money, possessions, wealth, or property is idolatry. Idolatry doesn’t only come in the form of a love of money, it can be a love of any thing that gets in the way of our freedom to live fully as baptized people.
Idolatry can even sneak its way into the church. Every congregation I’ve served has struggled over what kind of ministry to allow in their building. On one hand, the congregation wants to protect and maintain its property. On the other hand, the congregation wants to use their property to do life-changing ministry. One of my previous congregations is arguing over their preschool program, of all things. On one side, some are complaining that it doesn’t make any money for the church while the church is subsidizing the use of space. On the other side of the argument, some congregation members are saying, Are you kidding? You’re worried about how many paper towels they’re using? This is ministry with kids!
Rev. Rudy Rasmus is a co-pastor at Saint John’s Downtown Church in Houston. I like what he once said about his church: “When we get new carpet, the first thing we do is eat on it. It’s hard for that carpet to become an idol when someone spills a plate of biscuits and gravy on it.” It’s important for every congregation to take care of its property. Yet, as Rudy Rasmus noted, if people care so much about the carpet that they don’t want to do ministry because it might get dirty or look used… we need to consider what’s really important in light of our baptism.
Museums are meant to look immaculate. Church buildings are meant to look lived in.
Idolatry can show up in many forms. When does patriotism blind us of our responsibility to love and care for people from other nations? When does the traveling sports team take precedence over our worship of and service to God? When does our worry about having enough money strangle our ability to give generously?
These questions don’t come with easy or simple answers. They require us to think and consider. One of my HazMat professors once said, “The difference between a poison and a remedy is dosage. I could kill you with sugar” (Prof. Dan Murray). It’s a point that runs kind of along the same lines as the difference between idolatry and faithfulness. At what point, in our caring for things, do those things become poisonous to our Christian life? That’s the matter to which we have to give careful and thoughtful evaluation. Different people are going to draw that line in different place. Nothing should come before God. God wants us to love God and love people. Anything that gets in the way of those two things is idolatry.
One misconception that I want to clear up about this text is that this is not condemnation for being rich. Wealth, itself, is not condemned. Rather, it’s an improper attitude toward wealth that’s problematic. Those who have wealth are instructed to make proper use of it. “Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19 CEB).
When those who are wealthy learn to give and give generously, then any love of money gets cut off at the root. Whether we’re wealthy or not, our pursuit as the baptized should be righteousness, holy living, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. All of these things have their root in love for God and love for other people. When we compete in the good fight of faith, when we fight the good fight, by fleeing from a way of life that is destructive to ourselves and to others, that’s when we begin to grab hold of the eternal life to which we were called. It takes dedication and hard work, like an athlete training their body. But eternal life—life that really is life—is what we’re training ourselves to experience in this world and in the world to come.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay