Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
(1 Timothy 6:6-19)
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It would have been in 1992 or 1993. Back when I was just a wee lad. Actually, I was a student at the time and I was serving my ministry internship at Central Avenue United Church in Fort Erie. As you can tell, I obviously went into the ministry when I was but a boy. On one particular Sunday I had preached a sermon based on one of the texts of the New Testament that talks about money and seems to offer a warning to rich people. After the service, I was approached by a rather well to do member of the congregation. He said to me, “Steve, it was an interesting sermon, but I want to ask you why the Bible is always so hard on rich people. We can be Christians too, you know.” When a well to do parishioner challenges you on what the Bible says about rich people, it's hard to know exactly how to respond, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember exactly what I said to him in response. But his question was very sincere and from the heart. He was truly hurt by the perception that Jesus didn’t care much for people with money. As I said, I don’t remember exactly what my response was, but I suspect I would have alluded in some way to this Scripture passage which we just read which points out that it isn’t money, but the love of money, that’s the real problem. There are a lot of ways of defining the problem. “The more you have, the more you have to worry about.” “The more you have, the more you want.” Things – whether it’s money or anything else – can easily take over your life.
The real issue that this passage seems to be getting at is contentment. Paul holds that up in one of his letters when he writes that he had learned to be content whatever his circumstances. Contentment, I think, has been largely lost in our society. To some people, I think that being content has come to be seen as a weakness or a failing. We’re not supposed to be content. We’re always supposed to be striving for more, to be better. We can’t be satisfied with the way things are. We have to have the latest of everything, and we’re constantly being bombarded with ads telling us that there’s something new we should want. Some people can remember when it wasn’t this way. Over the years I’ve spoken to people who grew up in the Depression who’ve told me that they never even realized that they were poor, and so they were happy. They only learned later that they hadn’t had very much. I can remember growing up and as a child having access to about seven TV channels and being happy enough with them. Now, we have hundreds to choose from. Do we need them? How could we possibly do without the Food Channel! It just seems that we’re living in a time where unless we’re always getting more, we’re missing out, and so we never have enough. It’s an attitude that’s so foreign to the New Testament, which has the nerve to speak to our twenty-first century mindset and tell us to be content. As our passage today said, “we brought nothing into the world [and] we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” No I-pods; no satellite TV; no computers; no cell phones – just food and clothing. Wow. What are we supposed to do: become monks?
Learning to be content is one of the greatest challenges of life in the society we live in. When this passage was written, perhaps it was easy to speculate that people could be content merely with having food and clothing. You could say, after all, that those are the bare necessities of life – and the truth is that for a lot of people even food and clothing are luxuries of a kind. But most of us gathered here today don't have a lot of concerns about food and clothing. Our challenge is that we want and expect more – and we're being told repeatedly that we should be wanting and expecting more. So this passage confronts us and it confronts our basic outlook on life. How many of those “extras” I mentioned a couple of minutes ago would we be willing to do without? And the related question perhaps is how much of what we have do we really need? That's the challenge for a Christian – and especially for a Christian who has “stuff.” Jesus never said that Christians couldn't be wealthy, or that wealthy people were any less (or more) loved by God than poor people. His teaching and the teaching of the New Testament is that it's easy for our wealth – for all our “stuff” - to get in the way of our relationship with God and with those around us. Some people speak of wealth as being a blessing from God, and sometimes some Christians (those who are adherents to what's become known as the “prosperity gospel”) think that being blessed by wealth is an end in itself; that wealth is the mark of God’s love for us. But if wealth and the things we possess are blessings, then they're blessings only as far as we use them to bless others – because isn't that the ultimate purpose of Christian faith? To be primarily concerned with others rather than with ourselves?
It's too easy for us to become servants of our things or of our money, rather than being servants of God and of one another. To fall into that trap is to fall victim to a form of idolatry. That's what Martin Luther meant when he wrote that “Not only the adoration of images is idolatry, but also trust in one’s own righteousness, works and merits, and putting confidence in riches and power. As the latter is the commonest, so it is also the most noxious.” Putting trust in riches and power is the “most noxious” perhaps, because it's the most uncertain; because these things perhaps more than anything else give us an illusion of security, but they’re also things that can be taken away in the blink of an eye – and yet merely having them causes us to want more. And that, I think, is what this passage is really addressing – the desire to always want more of what we have, rather than being willing to risk what we have for the benefit of others – and the reality, too often, is that when a person has a lot, they often get obsessed with simply not losing all the things that they don't really need. There's no contentment in that mindset; there's no sense of stewardship (stewardship is not saving everything and turning it into more, it's using what we have as wisely as possible in the service of God); there's no willingness to sacrifice. Contentment is actually the key to being a true and faithful servant of Christ – and perhaps here is where we see gospel and society most at odds with each other. It's not whether or not you can say The Lord's Prayer in schools – it's the fact that Christian faith says “you should be content” and society says “you should want more.” It's a clash of values. It's a matter of ethics.
As I said, I don't remember exactly how I responded to the parishioner in Fort Erie who questioned what he perceived to be the Bible's attack on the rich. And I wonder, perhaps, what motivated his perception. Was he demonstrating a discomfort with the idea that at least from God's perspective and the perspective of faith his wealth was for the purpose of serving others rather than simply for his own comfort? I'll never know, I guess. I do know that money and wealth can be a trap – an idol, even, as Martin Luther said. And I do know that we have to always confront the desire for more, more and more, until we learn the secret of being content to have only what we need, and recognize any more that we have as an opportunity to serve God and others.