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Timothy: The Root of All Kinds of Evil

September 29, 2013

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2013

 

1 Timothy 6: 6-19

I want to begin by saying that I have appreciated all the notes and comments I received this week after my first sermon in what is going to be a series on the pastoral epistles of First and Second Timothy and Titus. I said last week that there are many reasons not to like the author who signed Paul’s name to these three anonymous letters, chief among them his manifest fear of women, his effort to keep slaves in their place, and his blessing of the social status quo. Much blood has been spilled, and much justice denied, because these writings are in our Bible.

Several people have asked me how one redeems such compromised texts for preaching a liberating gospel, and I confess I am struggling with that. These letters contain many beloved and inspirational passages, like the baptismal charge to ‘fight the good fight and lay hold of life eternal,” which we will sing in a few moments. Such phrases can inspire, however only by ignoring their context. But since the author himself says, “all scripture is useful for teaching, correcting and rebuking” (2 Timothy 3: 16), I will seek to use these texts to rebuke this text and see if in that rebuke, we can’t find a new way forward together.

*

I’m calling my sermon this morning, “The Root of All Kinds of Evil,” but I do not mean what the author means by this phrase.

When the anonymous author wrote, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” he understood the problem to be one “misplaced desire.” For example, he says that if people have at least food and clothing, they should be content with what they have. Since we came into this life with nothing, and we can take nothing out of it, any eagerness to be rich indicates a desire to trust that which will ultimately perish, a trust which leads to our own destruction.

On the other hand, to those who are rich, he says that pride of ownership may indicate an uncertain hope based upon wealth; rather, writes the author, the rich should place their trust in the God who has already richly provided them with everything for their enjoyment.

Do you see the problem here?

Trusting in God, the poor are told to be content, while the rich get to enjoy their riches – with detachment. By separating the “love of money” from its “possession,” the author has created an effective tool to criticize every desire on the part of lower status person to change their place in life or to claim the community’s resources, while at the same time permitting the rich to enjoy the wealth which, apparently, God gave them to enjoy. Though he encourages the wealthy “not to be haughty” and to be “ready to share,” he never questions their wealth. Instead, he blesses current division in the community:  “the way things are is the way they are supposed to be.”

Egads! Can you imagine any of the prophets – any of the prophets: Micah, Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah – can you imagine them saying such a thing?” Can you picture Jesus, who said to a rich young man “Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor, and then come and follow me,” can you picture him proclaiming, “Blessed are the poor, if they are content”? Does anyone think that the apostle Paul, the real apostle Paul, the one who saw the division of rich and poor in Corinth as such an affront to the body of Christ that he said “the rich ate their own judgment during the Lord’s Supper,” does anyone think Paul would be anything but outraged that his name was tacked on the bottom of this letter?

As the editors of the Jewish Annotated New Testament point out, identifying the love of money as the root of many evils is not for this author a call to social justice, but an exhortation to protect one’s own spiritual well-being from temptation and danger.

*

In 1988, the then unknown artist Tracy Chapman broke onto the folk music scene when she performed her song “Fast Car” at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration. By the end of the month the song had reached the top ten charts, launching a resurgence of socially and politically conscious music on college campuses across the country. “You got a fast car, I want ticket to anywhere” laments the young woman in the song, who dropped out of school to care for her alcoholic father when her mother left because “she wanted more out of life.” Now stuck in the same trap her mother was, the singer makes a desperate attempt to flee with the first guy who has a fast car. And we sing along and sympathize because we hope it will work out, though we suspect it won’t. Chapman’s songs are immensely powerful because they speak so honestly about the hopes and dreams of people who whose daily choices are limited by the realities of poverty, racism and violence.

tracy_chapman_2007[1]

On the same album, Tracy has a song about riches and the desire for them called “Mountain O Things,” which sits on my mental shelf right next to Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the Rich Man.

The life I’ve always wanted

I guess I’ll never have

I’ll be working for somebody else

Until I’m in my grave

I’ll be dreaming of a life of ease

And mountains Oh mountains o’ things

 .

To have a big expensive car

Drag my furs on the ground

And have a maid that I can tell

To bring me anything

Everyone will look at me with envy and with greed

I’ll revel in their attention

And mountains Oh mountains o’ things

.

Sweet lazy life

Champagne and caviar

I hope you’ll come and find me

Cause you know who we are

Those who deserve the best in life

And know what money’s worth

And those whose sole misfortune

Was having mountains o’ nothing at birth

.

Of course, the person in the song realizes this dream that will never be realized: “she’ll be working for somebody else until she’s in her grave.” But should she make it, she’ll know what money is worth, because she once had none.

Is this the corrupting dream of those eager to be rich? Or is the desire to be recognized as a person of worth? I think it indulges a dream of the world turned upside down. I once heard a young boy say, “I wish, just for one day, that all poor people could be rich, and all rich people could be poor, so they could experience what it is like. And then we could all go back to equal.” Now that is a Biblical dream! – the chance to walk in another’s shoes so as to have compassion with understanding, and then working for a world of true equality.

Yet the chorus in “Mountains o Things” tell us that singer has heard a chorus of preachers and moralizers, like the author of First Timothy, telling her to stop dreaming and just ‘be content.”

Oh they tell me

There’s still time to save my soul

They tell me

Renounce all

Renounce all those material things you gain[ed] by

Exploiting other human beings

You see, this is what happens when ‘the love of riches’ is separated from ‘the possession of riches’: the desire of the poor to get what they do not have is considered sin and striving, while the rich get to enjoy “God given wealth.” This is what happens when our talk about wealth in the community is separated from an honest conversation not only about the gap between the rich and the poor, but about what’s causing that gap. That is the root of all kinds of evil.

r-INCOME-INEQUALITY-large570

Dom Helder Camera is most famous for having said “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” During his time as Archbishop of Brazil from 1964-1985 he wrote

“I used to think when I was a child that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the danger of wealth. Today I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one’s eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people’s hands, eyes, lips, and hearts.”

I’m fond of this passage for two reasons. First, he locates the problem of riches where Jesus did, with their possession. Second, he notes how money ‘puts scales on our eyes’ and shapes what we see.

*

The U.S. Census Bureau released its annual report of what has come to be known as “poverty data” earlier this month. It will be no surprise to you that while Gross National Product went up, “median household income declined … by 1.5 percent, and poverty in the U.S. remained at a still unacceptable high of 15 percent. Child poverty also remains unchanged, but to our shame, more than one in five children under the age of 18 continue to live in poverty.”[1]

Says J. Herbert Nelson, director of our Office of Public Witness in Washington, “We are living in a highly privileged United States of America where an overwhelming percentage of our population ironically has no access to that sense of privilege. As our nation grows in GDP, the gap between the rich and poor also continues to inflate.”

You see, even while incomes are falling, the gap between the rich and poor, already the greatest since 1927, continues to grow in our country, with the top 5% taking an even larger share of the income growth last year, while the share going to the broad middle shrank.

In response to the Census data, J. Herbert wrote,

Poverty is a pernicious disease that infects the very fabric of our nation. We must attack it at its root, transforming the system that traps people in cycles of generational poverty, and ensure that every person has access to the opportunities of health and wholeness that God wishes for us all.

At the heart of attacking poverty at its root, however, is the need for us to recognize the dignity of all people and to work together.  The illustrious British poet, William Blake, once wrote

Pity would be no more if we did not make another poor

And charity no more could be if all were as fortunate as we.[2]

All of us must say together, clearly, that people who have been made poor are neither objects to be exploited by corporations, disregarded by government, OR even objects of our charity (as important as meeting emergency survival needs is).  We, rich and poor and almost poor and kinda middle class-ish are all part of the same human family, sisters and brothers together, our well-being and our rights are intertwined with one another.  What we do or don’t do individually, effects each other.  And what we do together has the capacity to reorder the practices and policies and forces that make some of us wealthy at the expense of our neighbors.

If there is one message that Jesus Christ brings into our world, it is this:  that God loves every person and that God’s love defies and corrects the greed and hatred and violence of our world.  God’s love rights those inequalities and bridges those chasms that separate us from one another and also from God.

So let us begin this week by asking what it would mean for us to believe, to really believe, first, that whether rich are poor we are equals, people of dignity and worth.  And second, to imagine ourselves and our families and our well-being as intertwined with the well-being of our neighbors.  And finally to inquire, what policies, practices, or habits keep us from recognizing our common dignity and our common good; that keep us locked in the mindset of First Timothy – what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours and we both should be content, because the way it is, is the way it should be.

For one thing I am sure of, the gospel’s message is not about making us better slaves and better masters.

Amen.


[1] J. Herbert Nelson “Evidence of Continuing Income Inequality: A Response to the Census Bureau’s Poverty Data.” Presbyterian News Service, September 13, 2013.

[2] The Human Abstract, from Songs of Innocence and Experience.

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