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"Defining Our Wealth"
1 Timothy 6:6-19

There are numerous ways of reading and interpreting the teachings of Jesus. And frequently, I suspect that we may tend to begin with what we already believe and then back into the scripture in an effort to get it to say what we want it to say.

Or, we figure out what we believe and then we go looking for something in the good book that will support us in our thinking and believing.

I am as much tempted--if not moreso--by all the goodies of the material world as anyone else. But I suspect that there is an unmistakeable message in Jesus’ teachings that the acquisition of stuff in this world is NOT what holiness is all about.

Nor, for that matter, is the acquiring of prestige, fame, or any form of personal prominence. Jesus teachings and parables abound in rejection of wealth and fame.

But we tend to get stuck with a nagging little voice in the backs of our minds that keeps asking, “What’s in it for me?”

And Paul tells us, in the sixth verse of the sixth chapter of his first letter to Timothy, “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”

Now we might wonder why he is putting these two together, godliness with contentment. And I suspect that it is to transcend self-conscious godliness. We may think that we are being pious and godly and hating every minute of it.

And with such an attitude, where can there be any gain?

But if we can be CONTENT in our piety, content with a life centered upon spiritual concerns rather than material gain, then we can find a great gain in our lives.

And Paul tries to put this into perspective for us:

“...we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.”

Now, this reading is from the New Revised Standard Version; and in it I hear Paul establishing causality. God’s purpose behind our bringing nothing into the world was “so that” we could take nothing out of it.

However, the New International Version is much different. We read, “we brought nothing into the world, AND we can take nothing out of it.”

Personally, I like the causality argument. And I think many people need to remind themselves that whatever they have accumulated, whatever fortunes they have amassed, however many millions or billions they are supposedly worth, they cannot take it with them.

Indeed, if we do take anything out of this world, it will not be the material wealth that we have accumulated.

And in counterpoint to the thought of taking nothing out of this world, Paul adds, “but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”

Actually, what he is probably thinking is, “we SHOULD be content,” but he is probably presupposing the acceptance of his arguments by his readers.

So, is he asking too much? Or, what exactly does he mean by “food and clothing”? Obviously, times have changed a bit since Paul. Paul did not know about machines, at least as we know them. Paul did not know about electricity. Indeed, we do not need to go back very far in history to our ancestors who had no automobiles or electricity or indoor plumbing, things which we take for granted.

So, COULD we be content with food and clothing? I’d have a real tough time of it, and I imagine that most of you would too. But Paul goes on to draw a contrast that is helpful.

“...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.”

Now, notice that he does not say “those who ARE rich.” But he says “those who WANT TO BE rich.” And the problem is not with the HAVING, but with the WANTING.

But again, I would argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting. Indeed, wanting makes the world go round. There was much that Jesus wanted in his earthly ministry; and if he had not wanted certain goals, we would not be his followers today.

No, the difficulties arise in WHAT we want, and the degree to which we want. And personally, I think that this verse and the verse that follows have greed written all over them.

Paul tells us, “...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.”

And when Paul talks about the love of money and the eagerness to be rich, he’s talking about misdirected energies. Obviously, there is much potential goodness in love and eagerness, but not when it is only aimed at accumulating material wealth.

And speaking of eagerness and energy, we occasionally go through periods of patriotic fervor; and I think that is a good thing insofar as it builds community both within our nation and in the international community.

But at those times, when I see all the “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA” signs, I ask myself, “If we can be so enthusiastic about God now, why can’t we be this enthusiastic all the time?

For example, why must we wait until disaster strikes to recognize God in our presence? Or maybe God doesn’t much matter to us unless and until things go wrong.

But getting back to Paul. He has words of advice: “...as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”

And what do all these characteristics have in common? Well, they are abstractions. They are not material goods. You cannot put a price on them. These qualities will not register in the financial markets. They were never intended to. But think of a person whom you would describe in this way: righteous, godly, faithful, loving, enduring, gentle. Maybe a parent. Maybe a spouse. Maybe a best friend. And you DO know that person’s intangible value.

And Paul exclaims, “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.”

Maybe “fight” is a bit much here, but it was probably appropriate to the times. More accurately Paul was thinking--as he often did--in terms of an athletic contest, a game perhaps.

And a contest that necessitated the discipline and energetic strength of the good athlete.

But how is one “called” to eternal life; and how does one “take hold” of it; and what does all this mean? I believe that there are implications of Paul’s theology here.

I think he’s telling us that eternal life is a gift that God readily offers to us, if we but listen to God’s presence in our lives. But we cannot be passive in this regard. We must actively sieze what God has offered, take hold of it, grasp it.

And thus, we work out our salvation WITH God.

And when Paul speaks specifically to Timothy regarding the good confession and the presence of witnesses, he is reminding Timothy of his commitment in his baptism.

And then Paul proclaims,

“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.”

And Paul ascribes to God the ultimate honor--the author of life, the creator, “maker of heaven and earth,” the source of all that is, “in the beginning, God created.”

When Paul speaks of the good confession of Jesus before Pilate, he isn’t really referring to specific words, but rather to what we know of the Apostles’ Creed, “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

Paul is speaking of Jesus remaining faithful to his calling, faithful to following God’s will rather than his own, as he prayed in the garden, “not my will, but yours.”

But what is the “commandment” we and Timothy are charged to keep, without spot or blame? It is our commission as disciples. It is our calling to follow Jesus. It is the keeping of all that he taught us.

And we are charged to keep the faith until the manifestation of Jesus--at the right time.

What we have here is an extended pep talk from Paul, and he does a really good job on these.

He has indicted those who have fallen victim to the temptations of the material world, and has told us that if we are to be children of God we are to reject such materialism and pursue a spiritual reality.

But then, again, I could be wrong. Maybe I’m all wet in my interpretation of Paul and the teachings of Jesus. I read a few years ago about a preacher in Dallas who has a congregation with 26,000 members. He’s supposed to be the greatest thing since Billy Graham, for those of you who think Billy Graham is great.

He lives in a 1.7 million dollar house. He flies charter or first class. He wears a large diamond ring. He dresses like a multimillionare, and he is one. He claims Jesus must have been rich to support his disciples.

Like I said, I could be wrong. But back to Paul, who, in a benediction proclaims of God, “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.”

Remember what Paul was saying in the early part of this passage: “we brought nothing into the world; we can take nothing out of it.” And the message should be clear: our earthly existence is finite. Here today and gone tomorrow. But, in contrast, God alone has immortality.

We live in an earthly, secular culture in which values are measured by what we can see, touch, sense, measured by the tangible. But God, on the other hand, no one has ever seen or can see.

If we truly believe in God, we need to be continually testing ourselves: What is the relationship between the immortal, invisible God in which we believe and the limited, visible, material culture of which we are a part?

Paul instructs Timothy, “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.”

Setting our hopes on uncertainty. We take so much for granted. We believe in certainty where there is none.

When we are young, we think ourselves indestructible. Indeed, we too often behave that way. But we also believe that our creations carry permanence, that nothing can go wrong. Until something does.

But those who are rich; how are they to behave?

Paul tells us,

“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.”

But let’s forget about so-called rich people, unless some of us can put ourselves into that category, because I think that this can apply to all of us.

WE are to do good, to be rich in good works, and generous. It doesn’t matter how much or how little anyone has, we can all follow this instruction.

WE can store up for ourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future.

WE can take hold of the life that really is life, an existence in which the most important value is loving our neighbor.

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