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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

I Timothy 6:6-10
July 28, 2013 - Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

         What would you need to be content. The preliminary poverty threshold for the United States in 2012 is $11,722 a year for a single person. It jumps to $14,960 for a two-person household. My guess is most of us would find it hard to have the kind of contentment Paul praises in verse 6 with less than $1,000 per month person. But would we be any more content with ten or a hundred thousand dollars a month?

         I tried to think of a single person I know or even heard about who is truly content with what he or she has. No one came to mind, not even St. Francis. He was willing to give up almost anything including his coat when he was sick, but Francis was still a difficult, discontented patient. Near death he asked for a little parsley thinking it might help settle his stomach. He scolded the cook for not going out to look for it right away in the dark.

         You and I probably have bigger visions of what it would take to be content than a little parsley, visions more like my daydreams when I was a poor graduate student. I imagined having a bank account large enough to live off the interest and would sometimes amuse myself by figuring out just how big it would need to be. With interest rates the way they are today i would have to be really big. And even if you won the lottery, had a guaranteed income on which you could live comfortably, would it be enough? Would you be content?

         Discontent with what you have and the corresponding deadly sin of greed afflicts both rich and the poor. We tend to picture greedy people as folks like Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge or our more recent Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff, wealthy folks who are happy to wring every last penny from those around them, even if it means dishonesty. But poor people can be greedy too, loving money and focusing their lives around it even though they don’t have much.

         Contentment is a gracious blessing for anyone, however much wealth you have. Paul connects it with “godliness.” To be content with what you have is the sort of mind and heart God wants, aimed toward God. But we look down on the person with no ambition to earn more, with no desire to have additional money. Such people won’t gain much in this world. But Paul told Timothy “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”

         We have a wonderful way of life here in the United States. I thank God for all the blessings He has poured out on this country and we who live here. Our economy has all sorts of advantages over nations where everything is absolutely controlled and regulated by totalitarian authority which may or may not have the public good in mind.

         Yet there is grave spiritual danger in a system which fosters, which even profits by fostering, discontent with what we have in favor of more and newer items to purchase. It’s really, really, really hard to live in godly contentment when we are continually urged to let go of that old-fashioned flip phone and get the newest smart phone. It’s hard to be content and keep on repairing the old car when a new one would be so much more comfortable and smell so nice. It’s hard to put on last year’s shoes and get more wear out of them when this year’s styles are so cute.

         It’s even worse because our economy actually seems to do better when we give into our discontent and try to earn more money and then buy more stuff. Everyone seems to be a bit better off when we’re all discontented and trying to increase our income and purchasing power. Sales rise, Wall Street perks up, and everybody gains when we abandon contentment and go for getting more.

         The Bible invites us see it all from God’s point of view, from the perspective of eternity. The gain Paul is talking about is not the short-term profit of additional wealth and possessions. It’s the eternal profit of life in God’s kingdom.

         Verse 7 tells us something obvious, but we keep managing to forget it, “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.” Many old copies of the letter to Timothy emphasize the second part of that by adding the word “certainly” or “truly.” Whoever slipped those words in understood that it is absolutely and completely true that we can’t take it with us, as we might put it today.

         It’s ancient wisdom. After he had lost everything, Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return…” Marlon could tell you how that same thought is echoed in Ecclesiastes 5:15, “As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands.”

         Peter Kreeft tells us that the first skeleton excavated from the remains of Pompeii was a figure carrying coins in its hand while fleeing the fire and ash of Vesuvius. Others like it appeared. They tried but couldn’t take it with them. Alexander the Great, coached by Aristotle, was a little wiser. When he was dying, not long after he had conquered the whole known world, he ordered himself buried with his bare hand hanging out of his coffin to show everyone that he could take nothing from all his conquests into the next life.[1]

         Jesus told us not to store up treasures on earth, but to store up the sort of treasure which remains with God in heaven. It should be clear. It should be totally obvious. But it’s so easy to forget. I like the story of two cemetery workers hired to dig an exceptionally large grave for a Texas oil millionaire. He wanted to be buried in his Cadillac. They stood leaning on their shovels watching. A crane lowered a long black vehicle into the hole with its occupant dressed in a white silk suit laid back on the soft ivory leather seat. After it finally hit bottom, one gravedigger turned to the other and said, “Now that’s really living!”

         Paul’s telling us that we know, if we’ll only stop to think about it, that that is not really living. To put our hearts and lives into accumulating wealth and possessions is death, not mere physical death, but spiritual death.

         That’s why verse 8 points us to the most basic human necessities, food and clothing, and affirms that a Christian may be content with these. We heard it this morning as we read together Luke’s version of the prayer that Jesus taught us. For what did Jesus teach us to pray? I’m sorry, but it was no “Prayer of Jabez,” asking God for more territory, more capital, more stuff in this world. Jesus taught us to ask for daily bread, for forgiveness, and for deliverance from evil. The only physical request there is for basic food to survive.

         Of course almost all of us could name a couple dozen other items besides food and clothing which are necessary for us to be content. How about a good bed to sleep in? A car? Health insurance? A microwave oven? A couple weeks of vacation each year? A television? A good Internet connection? Shelves full of books to read? A bag of golf clubs? A fishing rod? A garden in which to plant flowers? What would you add to the list?

         The truth is that in our culture we don’t learn how to be content. We learn how to consume. Those lessons are at odds with each other. Will Willimon once pointed out in a sermon to his congregation that if you bring your child to church for the first time, you will need to teach her how to behave, what’s expected in this place where we worship God. But if you take your child to ToysRUS or to the toy department or candy aisle of Fred Meyer, no instruction is necessary. He knows exactly what to do there, that he is supposed to walk up and down, picking out his favorites, saying “I want this,” or even, “I need this.”[2]

         This second deadly sin, the sin of Greed, the sin of not being content with what we have, with what we need, but always wanting more, is a sin that we constantly nurture and encourage through a daily, hourly barrage of advertising. Yes, the fallen human heart has a natural tendency toward greed like it does toward many other sins, but perhaps no other sin is so cultivated by culture like greed is.

         How many of us have said to a child, “No, we aren’t going to buy that, we can’t afford it.”? Lots of us, I imagine. But how often have any of us tried to run counter-culture to that cultivating of greed around us by telling a child, “No, we aren’t going to buy that. We can afford it, but we don’t need it.”? If you are a parent or a future parent of young children consider saying such a thing every now and then as a way to counter the education in greed that your kids are constantly getting.

         But let all of us consider saying such a thing to ourselves. If you are at all like me, I would guess your usual practice is that if you want something and you can afford it, you buy it. We all know it’s stupid and silly to buy what you cannot afford, although we still make that mistake way too often. But what if you went a step further and refused, at least every now and then, to buy something you can afford? What kind godliness and contentment might we discover in taking that step?

         Paul thinks we would certainly save ourselves a lot of pain. The next verse lays out the perils of greed. You may have heard Romans 3:23, “the wages of sin is death.” It’s one of the reasons we call greed and all the others “deadly sins.” Verse 9 here simply tells us how greed pays out its deadly wages. It leads to temptation and “senseless and harmful desires” which will plunge us into “ruin and destruction.”

         I’m about two-thirds of the way through The Old Curiosity Shop. This is the book where Charles Dickens gave 19th century sentimentalists everything they desired, lots and lots of emotion, plenty to cry about. Yet at the heart of the story is a character who graphically demonstrates that what we desire can be our destruction.

         At the start, Little Nell’s grandfather has a good life. His quaint old shop provides a humble but adequate living for him and his granddaughter. And she adores him. This beautiful child loves her grandfather with a devotion and affection that is all anyone could want in old age. In short, there in the old curiosity shop they have everything they need. But Nell’s grandfather wants more. He wants, just like Paul warns against here, to be rich.

         As Nell learns only later, her grandfather has been out nights gambling. He gambled away all their savings, all their income, all the equity in the shop. And so they lose everything and are forced out on the road, homeless. Nell discovers the force of her grandfather’s greed when he is tempted to gamble again. The most horrible face she ever sees, with all sorts of ugly villains around her, is her grandfather’s face as he sneaks into her room to steal a few pennies from her so he can return to his game. His greed is not only his own ruin, but the ruin of the child he loves.

         It doesn’t take a gambling addiction for the love of money to ruin our lives. There was a good, kind-hearted man in the church in which I grew up. He was my Sunday School teacher and a loyal church member. But Ted was always trying some new scheme to get rich. He started an import-export business, he bought a cleaning products franchise, he made investments. None of it worked. Ted and his wife just kept living in their modest apartment all their lives. But with each failed attempt at riches, Ted got more and more unhappy. He just couldn’t be content. He couldn’t see that he already had enough to live on and let all the dreams go. He left this world much less happy than he needed to be.

         Most of us have heard the beginning of verse 10 in its corrupted form, “Money is the root of all evil.” That was the title of a popular song in the 1940s and it’s still the way most people recall this biblical proverb. But you can see it actually says that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” It’s not money that is good or bad. It’s our attitude toward it which takes on a moral character. Money is not supposed to be loved.

         God made us for love, but He made us to love each other, to love husband or wife, to love children and grandchildren, to love our friends, most of all to love Him. But when we give love to things never meant to be loved it goes against our nature. It ruins us. That’s why Jesus told us we cannot serve, we cannot love both God and money. To love money is a natural disaster which keeps us from loving God or really loving anyone else.

         That’s why Paul goes on to here to talk about early Christians who were eager to be rich but who “have wandered away from the faith…” Love of money ultimately prevents us from truly loving and trusting God. That’s part of what’s implied by that strange bit we read from the prophet Hosea this morning. Hosea’s unfaithful wife is like God’s unfaithful people, lusting after things rather than God, including riches, silver and gold.

         Money is not bad by itself. Neither is being rich. There were and are godly and happy rich people. To much of the rest of the world, you and I are rich. But love of money, trust in money, will take us away from happiness, will take us away from God. If we are blessed with some money, we need to be careful not to be seduced by it, not to fall in love with it.

         I suggested one way to escape the seduction of money and possessions is to not buy something you want just because you can afford it. But that still leaves your money there, weaving its web around your heart, wafting its sweet perfume your way, luring you away from your love for more important things, for God, for your family, for your friends. It’s seductive, but in the end it’s a fatal attraction. Paul says those who love money have “pierced themselves with many pangs.”

         Ultimately we need to escape the seductive power of money all together. We need to not need it, to let it go. That’s why part of Christian discipleship has always been the act of giving. It’s a spiritual act, it’s a countercultural act, to sit as the offering bag comes around on Sunday morning, and take some of that sweet, enticing green stuff and drop it in. It’s a way to say “I don’t love this. I don’t need this. My trust, my hope, my love belongs to God.”

         But money is tricky stuff. To give it away we have to handle it. Even for those necessities Paul mentioned in verse 8 we must have some money. And even a bit of money can pierce us, as he says, “with many pangs,” whether we have too much or too little. But the answer then is that there was One who let Himself be pierced instead of us. The answer to this deadly sin of greed is the same as the answer to all our sins. Even our best efforts to avoid greed by giving won’t save us. What saves us is the gift God gives, the grace of His Son Jesus Christ who didn’t hold onto anything, not even His own life, but gave it all up so that we could have riches far beyond what money offers.

          We are all greedy, all tempted to give our love to money and the stuff it buys. Our only hope, our only salvation, is to keep turning our hearts to the Savior who purchased our very selves, not with money, but with His own blood. When we think about the cost He paid, nothing cheaper will be able to keep us in its power. Let’s allow the costly gift of the Cross to set us free from the sin of greed and from all our sins.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Back to Virtue (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), p. 112.

[2] In Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), p. 108.

Last updated July 28, 2013