LEAD! B.6 From Greed to Generosity

Standard

In Which We Gain Power Over Money By Giving It Away

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” — Matthew 5:7

Even if we escape the pride of trusting completely in our own “name”, we still must guard against trusting in things instead of God. The purest form of this is greed or avarice, which can be defined as treating money as an “end” — i.e., an extension of the self. This is in contrast to generosity, which considers money primarily a “means” of showing mercy to others.   

Assigned Reading
  1. Peter Kreeft: Back to Virtue

    • 8. Giving Mercy vs. Getting Things (Avarice)
  2. Dick Hockett: Foundations of Wisdom
    • 3.3 (Righteous) Example: Proverbs about the Tongue

Admonition

Read Malachi 3. How does God feel about those who abuse money, versus those who steward it wisely?

Bible

1 Timothy 6

Ironically, Paul begins our study of money by advising people who don’t have any:

6:1Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed.

Pause and let that sink in. Selah.

Most of us don’t consider ourselves at all greedy, yet we would be furious and resentful if someone expected us to work without pay — essentially, to be slaves [C.1]

Paul is clearly preaching a higher standard, one of committing ourselves to service out of respect for — here it comes again! — the name of God. This is as good a definition of mercy as any: showing honor to others because nature of God’s character, not theirs (or ours).

In other words, we should not treat others as we think they deserve, or as they have treated us. Rather, we should treat them the way that God has treated us. In fact, the way we honor others reveals a great deal about how we perceive God! [C.2]

If our minds are fixed on honoring God’s name, we don’t waste time worrying about how others behave — even those we think “owe” us:   

2And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefited are believers and beloved.

This strikes at the heart of our modern idolatry of money as a tool for self-fulfillment. Biblically, our first priority is always to do good to God and others; being rewarded for that good is a legitimate desire (cf. 1 Timothy 5:18), but is explicitly of secondary importance.

The original preachers of capitalism — i.e., Adam Smith and Max Weber — understood that money was intended to be a side effect of the pursuit of mercy and generosity — just a happiness is a side effect of the purpose-driven life. Unfortunately, modern economic thinkers have inverted that order, treating the pursuit of money as the primary goal, with the cultivation of virtue as (at best) an incidental benefit.

Sadly, the church hasn’t always done much better. We have too often either been uncritical cheerleaders of one or another of the world’s systems, or else simply ignored economic activity as if it were unworthy of God’s notice. [C.3]

Paul, on the other hand, saw it as the business of the church to teach people the true motivation for work — which is to say, godliness:

Teach and exhort these things. 3If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, [even] the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness,

Otherwise, we end up being taught by mockers:

4he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, 5useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a [means of] gain. From such withdraw yourself.

Verse 5 is often interpreted in a purely religious context, yet it accurately describes the Western attitude of valuing “virtue” as simply an efficient way to make money (or, equivalently, to fulfill our own personal goals).

Paul considers such teaching worse than useless, for it is the perversion of a profound truth:

6Now godliness with contentment is great gain.

True gain is putting on the “name” of God, by reflecting His character. That is the only sure route to the peace, security, and fulfillment we falsely seek through money. [C.4]

7For we brought nothing into [this] world, [and] [it is] certain we can carry nothing out. 8And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.

For to idolize wealth is to open oneself up to great folly:

9But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and [into] many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.

This is why greed is considered one of the deadly sins: not so much for its direct impact on the soul, but the way it inspires all sorts of other evil [C.5]:

10For the love of money is a root of all [kinds of] evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

To be clear, this verse is often misquoted as claiming that “money is the root of all evil”, which is neither true nor biblical. Money itself is not evil, but it is dangerous — just like fire, sex, and even religion!

The solution is not so much to avoid money, but to set our hearts on higher things, so that money is relegated to its proper place:

11But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness.

In particular, to live our life for eternity instead of the passing pleasures of this world:

12Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

Here Paul alludes to the importance of public confession and the support of a worshipping community. Accountability is particularly essential when it comes to handling money, given its power to tempt.

Though it isn’t only people who are watching:

13I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and [before] Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate, 14that you keep [this] commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing,

And more importantly, He is the one we need to be watching for:

15which He will manifest in His own time, [He who is] the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom [be] honor and everlasting power. Amen.

Lest we think this is merely a theological principle, Paul gets immensely practical:

17Command those who are rich in this present age…

This word is for all of us, who (if we are able to read this) are already far richer than most of the world, even if we don’t feel like it.

…not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy.

This is the first rule for defanging greed: to trust God instead of money.

18[Let them] do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share,

The second rule is to be generous, i.e. merciful: giving money away desecrates the altar of materialism, freeing us from its curse.

19storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.

The final rule is to devote ourselves to storing up treasures in heaven, instead of on earth (cf. Matthew 6:20). [C.6]

Do this, and we will live (cf Luke 10:28):

20O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane [and] idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge– 21by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. Grace [be] with you. Amen.

Breaking the power of greed is essential to maintaining the integrity of our walk with Christ, as far too many pastors have learned the hard way. It is only by letting go of our need to acquire and surrendering ourselves to God’s grace that we have any hope of staying on the right path.

For it is only in practicing mercy that we can receive the mercy we so desperately need.

Conversation
  1. Have you ever been shortchanged by someone you worked for? How did you react?
  2. What does the way you treat those who wrong you imply about your experience of God’s mercy?
  3. How would you describe your economic philosophy? From where does it come?
  4. When have you experienced divine contentment in difficult circumstances?
  5. Has the pursuit of money ever led you to do something you regret?
  6. Which of the three rules described above do you find the hardest to follow?
Decision
  • Repentance: How much of your time and energy is spent worldly gain, as opposed to godliness?
  • Action: To whom can you be generous this week? At what cost?
  • Worship: Re-read verses 15 and 16. How ought we to worship a God we cannot approach directly?
For Next Week

For next week, read 1 Peter 2-3. Why does Peter insist we submit? To whom?

References
  1. Blue Letter Bible.1 Timothy 6 – New King James Version.” Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2009. 14 Jan 2009. < http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?t=NKJV&b=1Ti&c=6 >
  2. New King James Version (NKJV) Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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