Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 25, 2016
1 Timothy 6:6-19 Commentary
Perhaps the single most striking feature of these closing verses of 1 Timothy is the glorious doxology that fairly erupts from Paul right in the middle of his advice related to riches and money and such. It’s as though Paul’s spirit had suddenly soared into the throne room of Almighty God himself and what Paul saw in this vision was so stirring that he just has to express it. Sometimes things just got away from Paul when he wrote his letters and his pen could not keep pace with the places to which his heart is racing. It’s a wonderful glimpse into the heart of the Apostle.
“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.”
He just couldn’t hold it in!
But then in verse 17 it’s as though he shakes his head a bit and says “Now then, where was I? Oh yes, the rich people!” And then he returns to what he had been saying earlier before his rapturous moment of ecstasy.
Mostly, though, these verses warn people away from fleeting, vain pursuits—the gathering up of money and earthly riches—in favor of recommending a godly life in pursuit of righteousness and Christ-likeness. Contentment with what you have is the key—provided you have enough anyway—and that contentment is the antidote to greed. “Get caught up with wanting more and more money,” Paul essentially writes, “and you will soon find yourself tempted to engage in dirty business practices. You’ll start cheating people, swindling people, lying, covering things up and next thing you know, being a disciple of Jesus first and foremost starts to recede in the rearview mirror of life.”
None of that is particularly novel with Paul. Jesus said similar things with some frequency as recorded in the four gospels. Also, most of the Old Testament tradition of the Law was likewise extended calls to a life of fairness and generosity, even if it means living that way at the expense of piling up more treasures for yourself. If all things were equal in ancient Israel, then all people would be pretty equal too. The poor would not stay poor in perpetuity but would have estates and such returned to them in the Year of Jubilee. Charging interest was banned even as farmers and others were told to make special provision for the poor. At any given moment there might be richer folks and poorer folks but society was supposed to be structured so that care was extended to all. The rich weren’t supposed to keep getting richer by taking lands that then never got returned to those who possession it had been in the first place.
And the reason Israel was to do all that was the same reason Paul said what he did in 1 Timothy 6 and both reasons tie in closely with that doxology that seems to come from out of nowhere in this passage (but that actually does come from somewhere). And what is that reason? Because God is dwelling in our midst. If God was to make his earthly home at the Temple in Jerusalem, then the people had to lead distinctive lives as a result. If the people got unholy, God’s own holiness would be threatened and God would have to leave. (Ultimately that happens, too, as we can see in the Book of Ezekiel).
But now God has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ even as now God dwells inside each believer by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that comes upon us at baptism. If God is our all in all, then everything else in life needs to be seen through the divine lens. When that happens—according to the Old Testament Law anyway—then one of the first things to get relativized and put into its proper (and not all that important) place is money.
When serving God and honoring the presence of God in your life has first place, then everything else, starting with money, falls down the rankings of importance accordingly. So actually Paul’s apparently random lapse into doxology here is not so random after all. It was God’s holy presence through the Spirit that animated Paul’s entire life. Seeing the glory of the immortal, invisible God was never far from his mind and all the advice he ever gave in his various letters—including advice on money and riches—was framed up inside that abiding presence of God.
How much might change in our lives—what priorities would we set, what would we find moving us to tears and what might we find boring as all get out—if only that God-perspective were as dominant for us as it was for Paul? Preaching on this passage might include teasing out the implications of all that for believers today.
But we should note one other thing: once Paul finishes his burst of doxological language and gets back to the subject at hand in verse 17, notice that he does NOT say that this would mean there would never be wealthy people among God’s people. However it happens in life, some people will be better off than others and some will be spectacularly better off. Paul does not say here that a rich person cannot be a Christian person. But he does say that WHEN you have rich people in your church—as apparently Timothy in Ephesus did or else why would Paul write this?—then the key is to help them avoid the arrogance that so often accompanies wealth and to remind them again and again that the only riches that matter eternally are being rich in good deeds.
Live as Christ lived. Be rich in grace. Be rich in mercy. Be rich in forgiveness. Be rich in the Fruit of the Spirit. Because when the day comes when $100 bills and Fortune 500 companies are as worthless as a bag of fallen oak leaves, it will be grace and mercy and forgiveness that will pave the road that leads to an eternal kingdom of shalom. And in that kingdom, grace will be better than gold and mercy sweeter than honey.
From Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, pp. 80-81.
“The more you think about [money], the less you understand it. The paper it’s printed on isn’t worth a red cent. There was a time you could take it to the bank and get gold or silver for it, but all you’d get now is a blank stare . . . Money has worth only if there is not enough for everybody. It has worth only because the government declares it has worth and because people trust the government in that one particular although in every other particular they wouldn’t trust it around the corner. The value of money, like stocks and bonds, goes up and down for reasons not even the experts can explain, and at moments nobody can predict, so you can be a millionaire one moment and a pauper the next without lifting a finger. Great fortunes can be made and lost completely on paper. There is more reality in a baby’s throwing its rattle out of the crib.
There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up.
Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Maybe the reason is not that the rich are so wicked they’re kept out of the place but that they’re so out of touch with reality that they can’t see it’s a place worth getting into.”
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