Godliness and Contentment: An Alternative to Human Greed – Br. David Vryhof
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I Timothy 6:16-19
Money is not the problem. Money is neutral in itself; it’s simply a means to facilitate commerce and trade in our daily lives. Having money is also not the problem: there are many examples, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures, of people who considered their wealth a gift from God, and used their wealth to help and benefit others. It’s not money itself, but the love of money that poses a dangerous threat.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul is criticizing a group of what he calls “false teachers” whose “love of money” taints and motivates their behavior and teaching. They are supposedly teaching the Christian faith, but they are doing so for their own personal gain. They are more interested in profits than in people.
Lest his hearers fall into a similar trap, Paul outlines some of the dangers of an excessive love of money. First, he says, we should recall that “we brought nothing into the world… and we can take nothing out of it.” Our lives do not revolve around money or possessions or the status that they may bring us.
Second, “those who want to be rich,” warns Paul, “fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires…” The love of money, the desire to be wealthy, is a temptation that can trap people into ways of relating and living that are senseless and harmful.
Imagine a person whose primary goal in life is to become wealthy. The desire for wealth, and the social prestige that comes with it, shapes their identity, how they think about themselves. The love of money and the desire for wealth will determine with whom they choose to associate, where they are willing to live, what kind of occupation or career they are willing to consider, what organizations they will join, how they will vote, and much more. Their choices will be governed by whatever will bring them greater wealth.
The love of money will shape how they relate to others: they will honor and treat with dignity and respect the people they believe can help them achieve their goal, and ignore or even oppress those who can’t. Their desire for wealth will make a difference also in how they treat the earth and its inhabitants. If their primary goal is to become wealthy (or wealthier), it is likely that they will be tempted to use the earth’s resources for their own pleasure and gain, rather than doing what is best to preserve and protect them.
This can have dramatic effects, as we know. The Climate Emergency we are facing today is a human problem, the result of our plundering the earth for its treasures at the cost of life’s delicate balance. Much of it is the result of human greed. Our greed is destroying the planet, polluting our air and our waterways and oceans, eliminating whole species of animals from the earth, and threatening our very existence. If we continue in this way, we will, before long, render the planet uninhabitable. The Climate Emergency has been caused by human beings, and only human beings have the power to reverse it.
It isn’t easy for those who have built their lives around the acquisition of wealth to change. You may recall a young, wealthy man who came to Jesus and asked what he should do to please God. Jesus, the gospel tells us, “looked at him with love” and recognizing his unhealthy attachment to wealth, encouraged him to sell all that he had and follow him. The man was earnest in his intentions, but in the end, he “went away sad.” The prospect of forfeiting his wealth and all the status that it bought him was too great. That is what an inordinate attachment to wealth looks like, and why it is so hard for those who lust after wealth to change course.
Third, Paul cautions us that the love of money can “plunge people into ruin and destruction.” It has the power to destroy their lives – and the lives of others. They may possess millions or even billions of dollars, but that wealth will not help them become good people. It can instead cause them to become selfish and self-centered, hard and indifferent, or proud and boastful. They may be blind to the realization that, in order for them to “win,” others will have to lose. They are more likely to trample on people and on the earth to get what they want, never counting the cost, and certainly not taking any responsibility for the tragic outcomes of their actions.
We have, in our gospel lesson today, an example of the callousness and indifference that can mark the very wealthy. The rich man in Jesus’ story doesn’t care at all about the beggar at his gate; he doesn’t even notice him. There can be a hardness and a cruelty in those who have made the accumulation of money and possessions their reason for living. “[The] rich man was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day…,” Jesus says, “[while] at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, [who was] covered with sores, and who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” Lovers of money are likely to become indifferent to people, to plant and animal life, and to the physical world; they will use and abuse them for their own gain.
The callousness and indifference of those who love money destroys the lives of the poor. It has been proven again and again that people of color and people who are poor suffer far more than the wealthy and powerful from climate-related disasters. It is their neighborhoods that are being polluted with toxic waste; it is their villages and their livelihoods that are threatened by rising sea levels; it is they who will suffer the most from rising temperatures and the resulting lack of food. The wealthy can usually afford to insulate themselves from these effects, but the poor cannot. We refer to this as ‘environmental racism’ because it so often effects the poor and vulnerable, many of whom are people of color. The love of money, says Paul, can “plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
These are the some of the dangers of an excessive attachment to wealth. Few of us are likely to see ourselves as excessively wealthy or as “lovers of money.” We all know others who are wealthier than we are, and we do not see ourselves as callous or indifferent. But we must take these warnings seriously, because we live in one of the richest countries in the world, in the wealthiest period of human history. All of us are vulnerable to these temptations Paul has described.
So what does Paul suggest that we do? How does he advise us to live?
“There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment,” says Paul. Godliness and contentment are not easy to come by. We live in a society and an economy that is based on consumption and continual growth. As a result, we are bombarded day after day with advertisements that tell us to want more, rather than to be content with who we are and what we have. Advertising encourages us to be dissatisfied with our looks, and with our possessions, and with our income. It discourages gratitude. Advertisers want us to buy their products and they promise us that, when we do, we will look better and feel happier. They suggest that their products will make us popular and successful.
Paul’s summons to live lives that are characterized by “godliness” and “contentment” is at odds with the dominant culture in which we live.
How can we grow in godliness and contentment?
First, we can resist the temptation to put our trust in wealth. There is a Roman proverb that says that wealth is like sea water. Instead of quenching a person’s thirst, in only intensifies it. The more we get, the more we want. Paul calls it a “trap” and it can certainly be that. Drinking too much sea water kills us; the love of money can be just as deadly.
Instead, Paul says, be “rich in good deeds.” Pattern your life after the generous God who is the source of all life, and who graciously provides all that we need. Devote yourselves, not to the acquisition of greater wealth, by to the advancement of God’s kingdom. If you have money, imitate God in generosity. Money has the power to destroy, but it also has the power to bless and liberate those in need. In the scriptures, we see again and again God’s concern and compassion for the poor. They must be our concern as well. Lazarus was comforted in heaven, held in the bosom of Abraham, but he should have been comforted on earth as well. The rich man had the resources to do so, but lacked a generous heart.
We can cultivate gratitude. We can recall that all that we have and all that we are is the gift of God. We are stewards of this gift, and of the gift of this planet. It is good to give thanks for these gifts daily — and to pause to be mindful of how we are using them.
We can practice being content with what we have. This may seem easy to do when life is good, in moments when we seem to have all that we want and need. But how do we practice contentment when times are bad? Being content in times of suffering, loss, discouragement or failure, requires an acknowledgement that no one escapes suffering in life, and a belief that this suffering is not only unavoidable, but necessary. Contentment comes when we find ways to appreciate the challenges we face and understand the benefits those struggles can bring. Times of trial produce in us the gifts of patience, long-suffering, and forbearance. They offer us inner strength and a deeper wisdom. To be content in suffering we need to look for the graces this suffering can yield.
Live simply. Most of us have far more than we need. Rather than desiring more, we can be content with what we have, and let go of what we do not need. Possessions burden us with the responsibility of caring for them. The more we have, the more time and energy it will require to maintain them. Having many assets can make us anxious about losing them. We shall have to invest in security systems or live in gated communities. All this can distract us from what is truly important. Simplicity of life brings us true joy. Be content to have less.
Value and care for the earth. We can learn to tread upon it lightly and respectfully. We can learn to appreciate its beauty and wonder. We can decide to spend more time in nature and less time shopping on-line.
God wants to give us an abundant life, full of joy, beauty and pleasure. This abundant life does not consist of an abundance of material goods and possessions. The richness comes when we learn to enjoy God’s world, and live with contentment.
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Spot on. Spot on. Thank you.
Thank you Brother David. One of my dearest friends repeated the words “Live simply so others can simply live” to me decades ago. While hard to do, I frequently look to her as an example when I get stuck in today’s world. I work in an inner city pediatric clinic – in fact, my dear friend and I worked together decades ago. My current clinic never has enough money to carry out our mission, and instead of trusting in the steady work of God, I tend to fret. Sometimes I feel the world in the inner city is too hard to fix. This world, however, is also part of my world and while I sometimes I feel like running away, my job is to stay and just keep trying. Thank you for your guidelines. A rudderless boat is useless. I have been in need of a rudder!