Date: August 30, 2015
Title: “Money is the Root of…What?”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: 1 Timothy 6:6-12
Several years ago, in another church I served, I was called to the bedside of a dying man who desperately needed to see his pastor. This man was rich – very rich. And while he had been a good supporter of the church, and a generous giver to various charitable causes, he was worried. He was agitated. He was downright terrified.
As soon as I arrived at his home, this man asked me, “Do you think it’s true, what Jesus says?” I asked him what he meant, and he replied, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
I have joked in later years that I really missed a golden opportunity there. I could have told this suffering man – “Brother, I can help you out of your troubles. Where’s your checkbook?” But of course, this was not a laughing matter. This poor rich man was struggling to find peace in a moment of chaos; he was searching for strength in the face of death; he was grasping for hope in a time of fear. All because of money.
Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than he did heaven and hell combined? Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than anything else – except for the Kingdom of God? Eleven out of 39 parables talk about money, and one in every seven verses in the Gospel of Luke talks about money. Jesus also speaks of treasure and wealth several more times throughout the Gospels.
Now some contemporary preachers will point to Jesus’ fascination with the topic as a justification for their “Prosperity Theology”. They tell us, “Just worship Jesus, just call yourself a Christian, just give to Christian causes (like their own ministries)… and God will bless you with riches beyond imagination!”
And yet the proponents of the Prosperity Gospel conveniently bypass or even forget altogether scriptures like the one we read today, or these other New Testament passages. They bypass Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he tells us to “store up for yourselves treasure in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also;” and then goes on to remind us that “no one can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and wealth.” They seem to forget about the story of the rich young man, whose possessions stand in the way of following Jesus, and they discount the example of the hedonistic rich fool who expected his abundant wealth to secure his future. Time and again, though Jesus does not forget. Time and again, Jesus suggests we take a good hard look at MONEY.
Perhaps this is what leads to the confusion surrounding today’s “Scripture That Isn’t”… Money is the root of all evil. If you listened closely as Allison read 1 Timothy this morning, you realize the old adage is simply a mis-quotation of a very familiar snippet of Scripture. The author of 1 Timothy is writing to a first century Christian community struggling to understand what it means to follow the teachings of Jesus, just as we struggle with that today. And the author does not speak out against money or riches or wealth per se. Nowhere does it say that money itself is the root of all evil. Rather, the love of money is where the problem begins and ends. It is not that money is a terrible thing (if you are worried that it is, I’d be happy to take it off your hands). Money is not the problem, unless we make money the central hope or desire, the central focus of our living. It is once again an “inside out” kind of thing, where what matters is not the thing itself but our attitude, our relationship, our use of the thing.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached a lot about money. In his most famous sermon on the topic, Wesley laid out (in good Methodical fashion) three rules related to finances. First, he told Methodists to gain all you can. Then, Wesley said, save all you can. And finally, he told us to give all you can. Now Wesley had a lot more to say, and fleshed out each of these rules with additional instructions. He gave us the terms on which we can gain our wealth, telling us that we could not do anything which would harm us or harm a neighbor in body, in mind, or in spirit. And Wesley’s dictate about saving was not just a bit of prudent advice about financial planning. It was also an attack on a consumer-oriented society and our propensity for confusing our “wants” with our “needs”. In the final analysis, Wesley believed that the whole point of earning and saving – the whole point of money itself is to be able to give it away. Money’s primary purpose, according to Wesley, is to make certain that everyone has the essentials they need for health and safety and survival.
Like Jesus, like the letter to Timothy, John Wesley is clear that money is not the problem. The problem is how we get it, how we guard it, and how we give it away. These are critical questions for us. They are spiritual concerns, and we need to pay attention to how we get our money. Think about it – are you working so many hours that you have no time for family or friends? Are you neglecting your own health as the stress in your life accumulates right along with the money in your bank account? Are you spending your life in work – or living on investments – that exploit individuals, damage the earth, or alienates communities? How are you getting your money?
Likewise, we need to stop and consider how we guard our money. Are you hanging onto it, refusing to use it even for yourself or your family? Are you hoarding it, sucking the life out of it along with the joy it could bring if you were to use it graciously? How are you guarding your money?
And then, we need to be honest about how we are giving our money away. What place does generosity play in your financial life? Do you give fearfully or joyfully, begrudgingly or freely, secretly or openly? How do you give your money?
These are spiritual questions because our relationship with our money – how we get it, how we guard it, how we give it – is a direct reflection of what we believe, who we really follow, and how we really life as spiritual human beings. Somebody once quipped that you will never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer behind it. We all know we cannot take it with us. Do we also recognize that the accountant who prepares our tax return probably knows more about our spirituality – about the things that really matter to us – than anyone else?
Money is not the problem. It’s the love of money which roots and grounds so much evil. It is the love of money which keeps us from “taking hold of the eternal life”, which Timothy invites us to do – that life of fulfillment and peace, contentment and joy, the life of wholeness God desires for each and every one of us. If your hands are full, if you are so tied up with grabbing what you can get and hoarding what you’ve got, there is no way you will be able to accept God’s gift.
I know there are days when threading a camel through a needle’s eye seems easier than following Jesus. There are times when the getting and the guarding so overshadow the giving that we cannot even see, much less receive, the life God offers to us. There are times when freedom seems as far from our grasp as the illusion of our riches. David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Commencement speech at Kenyon College suggested:
Of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.
That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death.
Life before death… I think that is what God wants us to have more than anything else. The kind of life before death which allows us to be fully and completely free, the abundant kind of life before death which God offers and Jesus inspires. So may we each reach out and grab hold of that kind of life today. Thanks be to God! Amen.