“Money” – Sun. Sept 29, 2019
1 Timothy 6:6-19 (Luke 16:19-31)
Sex and money… the once taboo topics of conversation. I once heard a wise church leader respond to an expressed frustration about why the church seems so obsessed with talking about sex with: “Because if we stopped talking about sex, we might have to talk about money.” The unfortunate reality is that Jesus, and much of the Bible, has a lot more to say about money than about sex. Our readings today offer a particularly acute case in point. Both our epistle to Timothy and our Gospel rather pointedly address our relationship with money.
The passage from Paul’s first letter to Timothy discusses the relationship between the pursuit of wealth and other possible pursuits rather directly. It begins by drawing a positive connection between “godliness” and contentment in relationship to our material life, saying, “… if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” It doesn’t go into detail about the quality or quantity of our food and clothing, and so the implication is of having our basic needs met. This instruction from Paul is not about elevating poverty to some kind of higher status, as though those who struggle with basic needs are somehow more holy than the rest of us. It is not a holy badge of honor to be forced to visit a food bank, for instance. It is, rather, about knowing the difference between needs and wants.
The teaching goes on to specifically name the *desire* to be rich as a significant source of temptation that “plunge[s] people into ruin and destruction.” It would be easy to assume that such “ruin and destruction” is visited on the wealthy themselves, perhaps in some of spiritual or eternal sense, as we hear about in the Gospel. But it could also be understood from a broader, communal, and immediate perspective. The desire to be rich can lead to the temptation to ignore the needs of others. If I can only have more if I pay my employees less than a living wage, well… maybe that’s their problem and not mine. If I can only have more if I engage in practices destructive to the natural environment, well… maybe that’s just the way it has to be. If I can only have more if you have less, well, then, maybe you just need to suffer a bit so I can benefit. And so Paul writes, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…”
When I first read this passage early in the week, I noticed a small detail in this familiar saying that was different than I thought. I checked… and then checked again, and the most reputable contemporary translations say: “the love of money is *a* root of all kinds of evil.”… Not “the” root, but “a” root. The difference between a definite and an indefinite article makes a difference. It means that while the desire for wealth is a particularly great temptation, enough to be singled out, it’s not the only so-called “root of evil.” Paying attention to our fiscal desires matters, a lot. Such awareness will get us a long way towards living a faithful life, and it’s not the only thing that matters. It is a helpful detail to keep in mind.
After naming the pursuit of wealth as a key temptation and source of evil, Paul then turns to a positive expression of faithful living. He commands us to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” He reminds us of Christ’s example before returning to specifically instruct those who are rich. Notice that Paul doesn’t condemn those who are rich per se, but rather offers warning and instruction. “Do not be haughty,” he commands, and “don’t set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches.” In contemporary terms, these might be understood to mean things like: “don’t think you work harder than those who are poor.” “Don’t think you’re somehow better than those struggling with poverty.” And more, “Don’t think your wealth will protect you against the ups and downs of life.” “Don’t forget that wealth is a gift, a privilege and a responsibility… and it doesn’t provide certainty about the things that matter most.”
Instead of looking to riches as the source of security, Paul instructs the wealthy instead to keep focus on God and God’s requirements of faith: “… do good… be rich in good works… [be] generous and ready to share…” The old cliche: “to whom much is given, much is expected…” comes to mind. Wealth itself is not sinful or evil. What matters is what we do with our money. This instruction has implications not only for our charitable giving, but more broadly in our participation in the common good of our community. We share our wealth through the taxes we pay as much as through the charity we give. The positive result of handling our wealth in ways that support the fullness of life, Paul concludes, means “storing up… the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that [we] may take hold of the life that really is life.” Such a good foundation for the future includes not only personal comfort but also strong communities that work for everyone. “Life that is really life” can never be just about “me,” or even a narrowly defined “us.” We know this in part because we see it reflected in the Gospel story Jesus tells us today.
The parable of the reversal of states of a rich man and Lazarus is a harsh one. In it, both men die and have very different experiences of the after-life. Lazarus is “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham,” while the rich man is buried and tormented in Hades. The rich man sees Lazarus’ good fortune in death as much as he ignored his need in life. He calls for mercy, first for himself and when he hears the chasm is set, he asks for mercy for his brothers. His request, however, is not granted, for like himself, his brothers already have the information they need to make their choices – for better or for worse. As members of parish council pointed out when we reflected on this Gospel, even in death, the rich man was focused on himself and his immediate family. His desire was still about the comfort of those close to him, rather than the needs of those just outside their gates.
One of the very consistent teachings of God throughout scripture is about how we organize our society for the common good of all, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. In the Old Testament they’re most often called “widows, orphans and strangers.” Later we hear about “the poor, the hungry, the hated or excluded,” like in Luke’s version of the beatitudes. This imperative to look beyond ourselves is why we joined the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good. It’s mission is “to create a broad-based shared organization that is as diverse as Calgary, building relationships among organizations and people from the various community, ethnic, non-profit, labour, and religious groups.” Through these relationships, the mission is further to develop a healthy and effective civic life together by strengthening member organizations and together addressing issues important to all of us. On Thursday, October 17, you have a great opportunity to experience it personally at the Founding Assembly. I have a sign-up sheet here…
What does your chequebook, bank account or investment statement reveal about your priorities? How do you express your faith with your money? Neither poverty nor riches are, in and of themselves, evil or holy. Whatever your financial position, what matters is the direction of your desire. What matters is what you do with what you have. Now is the time to pay attention to the desires of our hearts, and to those around us, and “take hold of the life that really is life.”