Recently I had a conversation with my five-year old son about finger pointing. I told him about how when you point one finger at someone else three of your own fingers are pointing right back at you. Of course his response was to point his entire open hand at me instead of recognizing how in the situation he was implicated as well. While it may be universally true when preaching, 1 Timothy 6:6-19 in particular is one of those potentially, finger-pointing passages that in order to be preached well must be preached by someone who has considered deeply how this passage points to her/him as well.
In fact, the text seems to invite the preacher into this pattern of self-examination followed by public exhortation by turning its discipleship instructions directly to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:11, “But as for you, man of God, shun all this…”). As I will show momentarily, I am not suggesting that the writer is intending to limit his admonitions about wealth in verses 6-10 or his guidance on faithful worship and discipleship in verses 11-16 to Timothy or even to people who are leaders in the church. Of course, it would be much more culturally palatable if statements like “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” were qualified by “for pastors/preachers/ministers.” Rather, this turn to Timothy provides guidance to any who would lead her people in matters of faith and money to test her own heart, mind, and motivations. By beginning with self-examination, a preacher is likely to pair the prophetic challenge of this text with an invitation to Kingdom life that is ultimately good news, even if at first experienced differently, for both poor and rich.
Having considered deeply her/his own temptation, desire, and strivings for material wealth, a preacher would do well to read the 1 Timothy text alongside the vast supply of New Testament teaching on wealth and the many competing visions—both in the church and in the world—of the pursuit of riches. Reading this text with other biblical texts (especially Jesus’ teachings) on wealth, riches, and money limits the temptation to soften the cautions 1 Timothy 6 makes. 1 Timothy gives both warnings about and sound alternatives to setting one’s hopes on riches. These alternatives become a place for imagining a godly way of life both for those who are materially poor and those with material wealth. And the warnings become the means by which a preacher can provide a deep critique of personal and communal financial hopes (e.g., the “American Dream”) and wisdom (e.g., “live like no one else, so later you can live like no one else”). These warnings and their alternatives move from applying to a broad and wealth-diverse audience to addressing a specific audience who is already materially rich. Considered in this way, we can see a potential value in saying what the text says and doing what the text does—that is offering a message that is both broad and specific, a message proclaimed to all the people (i.e., any who might desire to be rich and who love money) and one focused on those who already are wealthy (presumably by no want or desire of their own or before they were following the godly instructions just given).
The warnings about desiring material wealth are dramatic. Desiring riches promises a future of falling to temptation and being trapped and plunged into ruin. Beyond this, the most dramatic warning is that in some people’s eagerness to be rich, they have wandered away from the faith. Apparently, money, riches, and wealth, and specifically the striving for these things, invite an allegiance to and faith in something other than the God who gives life to all things. In addition to the personal interrogation of motives and desires prompted by these warnings, there is ample room for cultural critique of a world hell-bent on capitalistic pursuit of wealth and gain. There is also room for critique of popular financial guidance offered in churches even the kind that claims biblical support. When growing wealth becomes the goal of personal financial management, we will do well to heed the warnings of 1 Timothy.
Before moving to consider the alternatives to trappings of desiring wealth that the text offers, it is worth noting that 1 Timothy makes it clear that basic needs, such as food and shelter, are not what is under consideration in the conversation about desiring riches. The author is not suggesting in some ascetic fashion that “spiritual things” are all that matter, even while he encourages the pursuit of righteousness, godliness, faith, etc. Contentment with what one has, which presumes that needs such as “food and clothing” have been provided, is the context of the entire teaching. Consequently, a preacher must be careful not to feed an improper spiritual vs. physical dichotomy when preaching.
The alternatives provided are both spiritual and material. They are practices of the heart and of the hands. They include right worship—of God instead of wealth—and right practice. And, ultimately, they are Christ centered and dependent on God and God’s grace. The instructions given to Timothy and, as I indicated before, to all who follow Christ stand in tension with the desire for accumulating material riches. For example, the calling to pursue love presumes a surrender and sacrifice of what one has for another. Each of the “spiritual” pursuits offered have material consequences and practices that challenge the practices useful for acquiring material riches, and pursuing these becomes the good fight of faith.
The instructions given to those who are “in the present age rich” press the question, “In what or whom do you place your trust for the future?” Again, this is not merely a spiritual question. It has material implications, like practicing good works, being generous, and sharing. Each of these in their practical application distance a rich person from her wealth and bring her closer to her neighbor in material need and closer to God. Letting go of the false hope of future security that material riches offer allows people to cling to hope in God who richly provides us with everything. This movement is good both for those who are materially rich and those who are materially poor. This movement is good for those at whom prophetic fingers have been pointed because of their love of money and desire to be rich, and it is good for those who’ve realized the fingers on their own prophetic hand point back at themselves. This movement is good for all of us, because it is a movement toward our God, the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.