Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It is often noted that this passage from 1 Timothy contains one of the most misquoted lines in all of scripture, which is almost as often noted as it is misquoted.

Amos 6:4
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall. Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 29, 2019

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Timothy 6:6-19

It is often noted that this passage from 1 Timothy contains one of the most misquoted lines in all of scripture, which is almost as often noted as it is misquoted.

The line we may often hear goes like this, “The love of money is the root of all evil,” which is sometimes reduced further to, “Money is the root of all evil.” Neither of which is, it seems, quite what Paul had in mind when he wrote to Timothy. This line comes in the midst of a broader exhortation Paul is making.

What Paul is urging Timothy to is contentment, and growth godliness, in contrast to the things which may stand in the ways of both—be it a love of controversy, “disputes about words,” and wrangling, all of which come just before our reading begins in verse 6. The point here isn’t that money in itself is only and always evil, or that the having of wealth produces only sin. Rather, Paul is urging contentment with what is God-given, and cautioning that if one loves wealth and gain, one can find oneself in danger.

The NRSV translation (among others) gets at this by emphasizing two “indefinites” in what Paul actually says. The NRSV of 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil … ” Those little words “a” and “kinds” are important, because they shift what is expressed away from absolutes. The difference between “the” root and “a” root is wider than a country mile; there are other roots for evil out there, make no mistake. And, more, that money is a root of all “kinds” of evil makes it clear that evil isn’t to be taken as capital “E” evil; there are evils that abound from loving money. One of the dangers, it seems to me, of absolutes is that they blind us to so many nuances and subtleties—which then limit our application and proclamation of the text. That is why it is important to make note of the common misquotation or misapplication of this line.

In terms of the overall biblical tradition there is an added difficulty here, and one that may still speak very powerfully in many of our contexts. Quite frequently the Bible understands—or urges an understanding of—wealth as a blessing from God. That blessing is then meant to be used by us for the benefit not only of ourselves and our loved ones (or the institutions we value) but of others as well. If our wealth is a blessing from God, a good gift to us, it may also be or become a temptation to us. This could take any number of forms, from simple greed, to the joy of effecting change through controlled or conditional generosity, or even coercion and control of decision-making processes by controlling the bottom line. People not only vote with their wallets but may, when tempted, exert undue or unsavory influence through them. If we have courage, and the need arises, that will certainly preach.

There is another part of this passage that is striking as well, and that is the twining of the phrase “the good confession,” as made first by Jesus Christ, and then by Timothy. “Confession,” homologeo, has to do with two things: first, it may be a confession of faith, like the description “I believe in … ”. Second, this confession is an exhortation to faith, like the prescriptive, “Believe this … ” or “Do not doubt but believe” (to coin a phrase). Homologeo occurs just a few times in the New Testament. Here, of course, and tacitly in the description here in 1 Timothy in the story of Jesus before Pilate, and again in Hebrews 3:1, where Jesus is called, “the high priest of our confession.” Here in Timothy, that good confessions is, as I have said, first made by Jesus and then echoed by Timothy. In Hebrews, the good confession is both the confession of Jesus the high priest—he is the one who makes it for us—and at the same time the confession we, in turn, make about Jesus our high priest. There is both a subjective and an objective sense to our good confession. Most striking is the use of homologeo in 2 Corinthians 9:13, as it parallels 1 Timothy’s pairing of the good confession, and the warning about the love of money.

2 Corinthians 9:13 says this, “Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the Gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing.”

The pairing of confession with generosity is the culmination of two chapters of reflection on generosity in giving and sharing. It is useful to quote from 2 Corinthians 9 at greater length to illustrate this:

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,

“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
    his righteousness endures forever.”

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us (2 Corinthians 9:6-11).

The connections here are clear:

  • God provides every blessing, in order that we might share from them.
  • Seed for sowing and bread for food, arises multitudinously, from the one who scatters broadly.
  • To be enriched in generosity is to be able to generously enrich.

And all of this is “gain in godliness” and “contentment” Paul describes.

In a sense what all of the “good confession” language does is point to the generous, giving life that is the result of Gospel—the result of what God in Christ Jesus has done for us, and the resulting action which the Gospel engenders. And this good confession becomes the rallying cry for the “good fight” of the faith, to which Timothy, and all of God’s people, are called.