Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 25, 2022
1 Timothy 6:6-19 Commentary
Few virtues are, arguably, rarer in the twenty-first century than “contentment.” Relatively few people seem deeply satisfied with their situation in life. A variety of things fuels this dissatisfaction. Many citizens of what we sometimes call the “first world” live in a conspicuously consumptive society and time.
What’s more, the media that has such a pervasive influence on our lives encourages dissatisfaction. Advertisers don’t want consumers to be content with their looks, possessions, or income. They want us to be dissatisfied with them so that we’ll buy the products that they claim will make us feel, look and smell better.
That’s a reason why the contentment that Paul calls Timothy to treasure and cultivate in this verse 6 of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is radically counter-cultural. At first glance, however, it may seem as though he has simply strung together some miscellaneous advice about contentment.
1 Timothy 6’s preachers who look more closely at it, however, sense that a theme does seem to tie together its apparently disparate strands. The apostle appears to be contrasting the ideal Christian leader with his Ephesian opponents. In the first part of 1 Timothy 6, he implies that what he calls “the love of money” (10) plagues and motivates those false teachers’ behavior and teaching.
Paul first calls God’s beloved people to cultivate not a love of money, but a combination of “godliness” (eusebia) and “contentment” (autarkeias). In fact, in verse 6 he refers to that ideal combination as “great gain” (porismos megas). When the apostle writes about “godliness,” he’s talking about a distinctively Christian life.
Earlier in this letter, he describes godliness as courageously doing God’s will in imitation of Jesus Christ’s teaching and example. A godly follower of Jesus Christ is also, as Paul notes in verse 6, “content.” Content people don’t pin our hopes on our circumstances. After all, even if our situation is so good that it makes us think we’re satisfied, it may change in heartbeat. So those who are content celebrate the countless good gifts God has showered on us while knowing that many of them could disappear at any moment.
Paul calls such godliness with contentment “great gain.” He fleshes out this lesson by linking two proverbs. First, he reminds Timothy and other readers, “We brought nothing into the world, and can take nothing out of it” (7). You and I brought into the world none of the things we so persistently chase and won’t bring any more of them out with us than we brought in.
Second, the apostle points out, “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (8). After all, those are the things that, along with shelter, are most basic to our survival. People survive without virtually everything else we so vigorously pursue.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s reminders grow out of what Paul calls “the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ” in verse 3. Jesus talked much about devoting our lives to advancing God’s kingdom rather than fattening our wallets and bank accounts. He also talked much about God’s love for the poor that God wants God’s adopted sons and daughters to imitate.
The money and possessions people pursue can’t buy lasting happiness and joy. I once read a Roman proverb that says that wealth is like seawater. Instead of quenching a person’s thirst, it only intensifies it. The more seawater and wealth a person gets, the more she wants. In fact, Paul insists, that kind of insatiable desire for wealth lures people into temptation and a trap.
The love of money, after all, as Paul writes in verse 10, “is a root of all kinds of evil.” Those evils include potentially living a life that’s not consistent with thanks to God for God’s amazing grace. The love of money may also produce unnamed “griefs,” including eventual deep-seated disillusionment and regret.
1 Timothy’s preachers, however, want to remind our hearers that Paul doesn’t say that money itself produces all of these problems. After all, a person may use her wealth to serve her own desires or to bless her needy neighbor. God’s dearly beloved people may use our wealth to either facilitate our own disobedience or to make it easier for a person who is materially poor to live his life as God intended.
Yet while money itself isn’t evil, Paul insists that the love of it is destructive. After all, our love of money tempts most of us to be selfish. God’s dearly beloved people who are dedicated to building our wealth don’t worry if someone else has to lose so that we can gain. Christians’ greed may lead us to think only of ourselves in such a way that others become either just a means or obstacle to our enrichment.
The love of money also lures people toward the trap of anxiety. The more we have to keep, after all, the more we have to lose. The fear of the loss of such money may, in fact, haunt those who have it. On the other hand, those who aren’t worried about that wealth can devote our time and energy to other, lasting values.
His awareness of such dangers of the love of money produces in Paul a warning to wealthy people in verses 17-19. Don’t be arrogant, he warns people, including most of us, or put your hope in wealth. Wealth is, after all, “uncertain.” No one can really predict whether we’ll have it even tomorrow.
Paul calls Timothy and his other siblings in Christ not to pursue wealth in material blessings, but to be “rich in good deeds.” It’s not an easy teaching to interpret. But we might say at least this about it: Christians who want to be wealthy are generous with our Christ-like words and behavior toward our neighbors, particularly those who are in some way needy.
When Christians do that, Paul says, we don’t just lay up material treasure; we don’t even necessarily accumulate resources that may, in fact, disappear yet tonight. When, however, Christ Jesus’ friends are rich in good deeds, we do lay up the treasure that is honoring God and the blessing of people. Such wealth is the only wealth that helps produce lasting contentment.
Yet most of us find these words to be at least a bit troubling. Of course, we can always compare ourselves to people who have more. Most of us, in fact, know people who are wealthier than we are. So it’s quite tempting to exclude ourselves from that group of people the apostle refers to as “the rich in this present world.”
Yet even most of the preachers who read this as well as those to whom we preach live in some of the wealthiest countries on earth in one of the wealthiest eras in history. Western Christians have, by and large, more than most people in our world. We are the “rich in this present world.”
1 Timothy 6’s preachers whose hearers still question that might ask them about the temptations that plague us. Don’t many of them leech themselves onto and grow out of the material blessings we enjoy? How many of us don’t struggle with the relationship between the needs of our world and the things we desire?
Of course, to be faithful to Paul’s first letter to Timothy, preachers need to remember that he seems to be focusing on Timothy and other church leaders. Perhaps the apostle is suggesting that those leaders especially are tempted to lead with a false gospel and, as a result, undermine Christian faith and practices.
Paul may be reminding church leaders that the root of lasting contentment, of deep-seated, and lasting satisfaction is “godliness.” However, he also seems to be calling all of God’s dearly beloved people to honestly appraise the cost of pursuing swollen checkbooks and bank accounts. The apostle is completely convinced that such pursuit ultimately destroys a person’s life.
Out of this concern for the contentment that comes from godliness comes a description of the godly life in verses 11-19. While we’re not sure to which “command” Paul refers in verse 14, scholars suspect that it refers to the godly qualities that the apostle has described to Timothy throughout this letter.
Paul challenges Timothy to be the kind of person whose lifestyle and attitudes mirror the God he serves. In fact, the apostle calls him to pattern his life after a generous God who alone gives life to everything. Our God richly provides everything we need, even on into life everlasting. As a result, God’s dearly beloved children can use our wealth to help fund “good works” and invest in his kingdom whose future rewards will be measureless.
Jesus’ friends can join Paul in being confident in the future God has graciously planned for God’s people. As a result, we can invest our wealth in projects of compassion and mercy that build spiritual revenues for eternity. Not because God will somehow materially or in some other way reward us. But because when we’re generous towards the needy, we point them to God, who alone gives eternal joy.
In her chapter on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Robert Wilson’s Character Above All: Ten presidents from FDR to George Bush, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about the United States’ thirty-second president. She describes his job as the biggest and toughest in the world.
Yet it didn’t make President Roosevelt toss and turn at night. He “would go to bed,” writes Goodwin, “lay his head on the pillow, briefly review the big things that had come before him that day, and then say to himself, ‘Well, I have done the best I could,’ and then turn over and go to sleep. He had ‘an inner well of serenity.’” President Roosevelt was, in one sense, content.
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