Preached at the Lighthouse Mission (3/19/10) and Bellingham Covenant Church (3/21/10)
Introduction: Today I’m going to speak to you on a famous passage. It is also a famously misquoted passage. Many of us have heard someone say, “Money is the root of all evil!” But that is not what the passage says. This text is not saying that money is bad. This text is all about the love of money. An interesting thing about verses 17 to 19 is that Paul doesn’t command rich people to give everything away because money is evil. He commands them to be generous, but that’s not the same thing.
We might object and say, “Well look at Jesus and the rich young ruler. Didn’t Jesus command him to give away everything to the poor?” He did. Because Jesus always knew the right thing to say to people. But Jesus also accepted the financial support of several rich women, Luke 8 tells us.
So this text is about the love of money, but you could also say that it is about more than that. It is about the intense and selfish desire for more of anything, which we call greed.
Why am I talking to you about greed? Sermons on greed are for everyone, whether rich or poor. This passage is one that everyone needs to hear, because wealthy people are not the only ones who are susceptible to greed. Paul talks both about “those who want to become rich” and “those who are rich in this present world.” Greed can get into us whether we have a lot of stuff or not. Whether we’re rich or poor, the selfish desire for more can get into us and ruin us.
Before we get into the text, I want to give you some background. 1 Timothy is a letter that Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy. Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus and asked him to take care of the church there. Paul’s advice in this letter primarily has to do with how Timothy should deal with false teachers. One thing that characterized these false teachers was that they thought they could get rich from their teaching. They were first-century versions of televangelists; they were people who said, “If you give me your money, the Lord will bless you with whatever you want!” This kind of teaching was appealing to people then, just like it is appealing to people now, because it is a half-truth. Sometimes God does reward us financially. But he never promises to do that all the time, because that is never the point. The point is we should be more interested in the Giver than in the gifts he gives.
Paul here wants to fight against these false teachers by telling Timothy what the right attitude toward possessions is. He tells Timothy two things that I’ll draw out in this sermon: He tells him that greed is a trap, and he tells him how to keep from falling into that trap.
First, greed is a trap. It’s a trap in at least four ways.
It’s a trap because it warps our desires. The text calls them “foolish and harmful” desires. Here is how it works: When we get a little money, we are able to buy things we couldn’t before. That feels good. Soon we can’t live without the things we used to live without quite well. Before long, luxuries become necessities.
John Ortberg reproduces a chart in his book, When the Game is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box. In it, he shows how in 1970, not many Americans thought things like a second car or a second TV were necessities. 11% of people thought air conditioning in their car was a necessity in 1970.
In 2000, it was 65%. He says that “in a Gallup poll, the respondents, on average, said that 21 percent of Americans are rich.” (194) But do you know how many people said they were rich?
Then Ortberg sums it up: “Everybody thinks he needs one thing to make himself rich: more.”
In our culture, advertising promotes this warping of desires. Ads used to talk about the product: how useful it was, how superior it was to other products of its kind. You don’t see that much anymore. Today’s ads take good things: love, friendship, belonging – and tell you that you can have them if you buy their product.
Have you ever noticed that you don’t actually see people sitting around drinking beer in a beer commercial? Instead, they show people having fun. The point is to make us think that a particular product will make us happy. But it won’t. We end up moving from one product to another, thinking that each new one will bring us happiness. It’s a trap.
The second reason It’s a trap is because it blinds us to the truth about ourselves. I mentioned that only .5% of Americans think they are rich, and this is clearly not true. This blindness to our own situation happens without us noticing, because there’s no objective way to measure greed.
Tim Keller, who is pastor of a church in New York, said that once he was speaking at a series of men’s breakfasts on the Seven Deadly Sins. His wife asked him one day if they advertised which ones were coming up next. He said yes. She said, “You wait. When you do the one on greed, you’ll get the lowest attendance out of all of them.”
And she was right. Why?
Because everyone thinks greed is a problem, but no one thinks they are greedy. We always compare ourselves favorably to others when it comes to greed.
Jesus says in Luke 12:15, “Watch out! Be on your guard against greed!” He doesn’t say, “Watch out for adultery,” because people know when they are committing adultery.
How do people know if they are being greedy? Nobody says, “If you make a 4 percent profit, that’s not greedy. But 5 percent, well, that’s greed!” Nobody says, “Saving up this much is not greedy, but five dollars more than that – that’s greedy.” Jesus tells us to watch out for greed because there’s no way to measure greed. And that makes it so much easier to deceive ourselves.
We may not feel greedy, but the more we have the more we’ll start to feel self-sufficient. And when we feel self-sufficient, we feel like we’re in control, like we can handle anything that comes along. And when we feel like we are in control of our lives, we become overconfident and we lose humility and teachability.
Jesus talked about this in the parable of the rich fool: Luke 12:16-21. We can deceive ourselves about how greedy we are just like the rich man in the parable. It’s a trap.
The third reason It’s a trap is because it promises security but doesn’t give it. Ecclesiastes 5:12 says, “The sleep of laborers is sweet… but the abundance of the rich permits them no sleep.” We think that if we only have enough money, we will be able to relax and enjoy life. But the truth is, when we have a lot of stuff, we worry more because we have more to lose. We think that just a little bit more money will make us secure, so that nothing can happen to us. This is true, within limits. For example, If I can’t afford to pay rent this month, a little more money will keep me from getting kicked out. But we make the mistake of thinking that more money always equals more security.
But if we look for security in our stuff, we will never feel at ease. Even if we had all we wanted, that would not guarantee that nothing bad would ever happen to us. It’s a trap.
The last reason It’s a trap is because more is never enough. Greed is addictive. Ecclesiastes 5:10 says: “Those who love money never have enough / Those who love wealth are never satisfied with their income.”
It’s an itch that can’t be scratched.
It’s a desire that can never be satisfied.
One story that illustrates all of the ways the desire for more is a trap is a story by Leo Tolstoy: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It’s about a Russian peasant farmer who is proud of his simple lifestyle. All he needs is some land. He says at the beginning of the story, “If I only had plenty of land, I wouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” He starts off with no land, but buys a few acres from a local landowner. But he becomes possessive, and has conflicts with his neighbors. So he moves somewhere else where he can have more land. He is successful, but he doesn’t like farming on rented land.
So he moves again and meets some nomads who have no use for farmland. They tell him that for 1000 rubles, he can spend a day walking around a parcel of land. He can mark his path with a spade along the way, and if he can make it back to where he started by sundown, he gets the land he covered.
He starts out, trying to get as much land as possible. But he keeps on going farther and farther because he keeps seeing land ahead that he wants. When it comes time to turn back, he has to run as fast as he can back to his starting point. When he gets there, he falls down exhausted, and the nomads congratulate him. But he doesn’t hear them, because he’s dead.
Greed had killed him. Not quickly, but a little bit at a time.
2. How do we avoid this trap of the desire for more?
First, learn contentment from Jesus – Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, because God has said ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” Note that word “because.”
The reason why we can be content is because God is with us. We can be content because he will take care of us. We don’t have to get while the getting’s good. We don’t have to look out for number one.
Paul says in Philippians 4:11 that he has learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. Here is a man who is writing from prison! But he had learned that godliness with contentment is great gain. The ability to be content no matter what our circumstances is real wealth.
When we look to Jesus for our security, we can begin to use the word “enough.” When we don’t have to always worry about how to get ahead, we can relax and live with simplicity.
The second way we can escape the trap of greed is to Learn generosity from Jesus. Once we find our contentment and security in Jesus, we can be more generous.
We know that God knows what we need, and we can trust God for what we need, and we can give any extra resources to people who need them more than we do. But it’s hard for us to be generous on our own, because we can always find reasons to keep what we have. The way we learn generosity is to receive generosity.
Jesus told us in Matthew 6 not to worry. Why?
Because our Father takes care of the birds and the flowers, so he’s certainly going to take care of us. If we believe that God is in charge of the universe, and we believe that God has abundant resources that he freely gives to us, how can we not be generous? If we believe that Jesus didn’t have to become human, didn’t have to save us, but he did anyway, and gave his own life to do it, how can we not be generous?
The more we understand how generous God is to us, the more we can be freed up to be generous to others.
A final way we can escape the trap of greed is to put our hope where it belongs – in Jesus.
The last part of this text tells us to put our hope in God, who “richly provides us with everything we need for our enjoyment.” God cares about our enjoyment!
Wealth is uncertain.
Stuff is uncertain.
We eventually lose all our stuff, either before we die or after. The last line of Tolstoy’s story says it well: “[The man’s] servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for [him] to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”
He had all this land, this stuff, and people patted him on the back because he’d earned so much. And then he died and lost everything.
Underneath our desire for more there is a good desire: a desire to make our lives better. But if we spend our lives just trying to get more, eventually it will all be taken away.
We need to put our hope where it belongs. Paul says we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it.
There is one thing that can’t be taken away from us, and that is Jesus’ love and forgiveness. That’s our firm foundation. Putting our hope in Jesus is how we take hold of the life that is truly life. We can’t take any of our stuff with us, but that’s the thing – the one thing – that we can take with us.
He is the giver of all good things, including his own life.
Doesn’t it make sense for us to put our hope in that?
Let us pray.