In a few days, women and men will stand on the starting blocks, lined up to compete for the title of Fastest Woman and Fastest Man Alive. The Olympic athletes competing to win the 100m race will take their places in their lanes. Every one of them: from various countries, various backgrounds, various stories.
But there is one thing that every single one of them will have to do before they can win. One thing before they can harness that energy. One thing before they can cross the finish line first. One thing that they learned in middle school track like the rest of us:
They have to stay inside the lines.
They run the risk of disqualification if they step outside of their lane. It seems silly, but even at that elite level, Olympians will sometimes be disqualified from their lifelong dream because they step outside their lanes. That’s why it was drilled into our heads in 8th grade track: stay inside the lines.
Today’s text from 1 Timothy uses this metaphor of a race, or an athletic contest, for good reason. It is a helpful metaphor for the life of faith, and the author uses this idea of running the race in a way that does not disqualify the athlete – or in our context – stay inside the lines.
Specifically, the author uses the metaphor of an athletic contest to talk about the way that Christ-followers use money. Now, I say “the author” because scholars don’t actually know who wrote 1 Timothy. Many believe that this letter was not written by Paul, as it asserts, but probably someone who wrote many years after Paul wrote, even after his death, who had great respect for Paul. So this puts the writing several decades after the life of Christ, and it seems clear that Timothy and his church were falling into the dangerous patterns when it comes to their relationship with money. Jesus had taught his disciples not to worship wealth, and Acts tells us that early converts had sold everything and lived without possession. But that didn’t last for long. I Corinthians talked about a stratified church – more wealth led to more power. And James blasted the worship practices of the church that told rich people that they deserved places of honor while the poor were told to sit on the floor in the back. And here the author of reminds Timothy, an early church leader, to warn the believers in his congregation about the danger of money. Listen to these verses:
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
Money has the potential to be incredibly damaging. Those who seek wealth and riches are “plung(ed)…into ruin and destruction.” Just like an athlete who steps over the line, who is disqualified and whose dreams come to ruin, the Christ-follower can also find themselves coming to ruin when they allow money to control them.
Quaker author Richard Foster talks about this potentiality of money in his book, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life. He writes a whole chapter on “The Dark Side of Money.” He reminds us that money is not a neutral force, but has potential to be incredibly dangerous to the life of faith. He calls it an “active agent” and it has the potential to win our hearts and become our primary motivation and goal. Foster points to the number of times that Scripture tells us to beware of the dark potential of money. The wisdom teachers of the Old Testament spoke of it. Jesus talked about it again and again…reminding us that we cannot serve both God and wealth. And now in I Timothy, as you just heard, the author warns of the dangers of pursuing wealth.
Foster says this in his commentary on the passage: “there is no kind of evil the person who loves money will not do to get it and hold onto it. All restraint is removed; the lover of money will do anything for it. And that is precisely its seductive character; for the person who loves money, no half measures will do. The person is hooked. Money becomes a consuming, life-dominating problem. It is a god demanding an all-inclusive allegiance.”
And that seductive power takes hold on our lives when we covet that new phone, that new car, that big house. When we open up the ads and cry that we do not have enough, that we are not enough, because we don’t have what we see. According to 1 Timothy, that is stepping over the lines and it causes us to worship the god of wealth.
Perhaps you have seen or heard of the movie The Wolf of Wall Street? A Best Picture nominee a few years ago, it is basically a three hour epic devoted to the depravity of money worship. It tells the story of Jordan Belfort, a stock broker who used unscrupulous practices in the 80’s and 90’s to bilk people out of millions of dollars that ended up in his pocket. The movie follows the violence he caused to just about everyone in his life because he worshipped this idol of wealth. And perhaps you also heard the news coming out of the Department of Justice a few weeks ago. It appears that in an investigation, they found that the primary investors in the film had been using illegal and immoral tactics to make their income. In other words, the movie that meant to point out how our world is caught up in the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth was financed by those who were caught up in the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth! An ironic twist that once again reveals that we live in a world that is devoted to the worship of money.
Yet, there is more to the text than this warning about wealth worship. I stopped short of reading verse 10, but that verse is where we get one of the most often quoted verses in Scripture: “Money is the root of all evil.” However, that is not what the verse says. Verse 10, in fact says this:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
Notice the difference. The misquotation, “money is the root of all evil” is very different than what it actually says: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” According to the passage:
Money is not the problem. The love of money is.
Money is not unchristian. Worship of wealth is.
Money is not evil. Pursuit of money is.
We cannot blame the money itself – it is only an amplifier for what is in our hearts.
And so, I would make the argument that if we face a danger of stepping outside of the line on one side – and falling prey to the danger of worship of wealth – we must be careful not to step outside of the line on the other side either – and fall prey to the danger of demonization of money. Stepping outside of either line will get you disqualified!
But how many of us step out on this side, instead? Some of us struggle with the adrenaline rush of spending too much money. But perhaps as many of us struggle with the incredible guilt of spending any money! I come from a family of savers, and so it is difficult for me to spend a lot of money. Anytime I make a big expenditure, I feel physically ill. Even when I go grocery shopping or pay the bills, I hate letting that money go. Deep down, I want to believe that misquotation, that money alone is indeed the root of all evil. That spending or even having it is akin to demonic possession. But of course, at the end of the day, following that path only leads to guilt. Whenever we spend. Whenever we own. Whenever we use money in any way.
But that is not what the text says. It doesn’t demonize money.
Now, an ineffective track coach would spend all of his or her time warning their athletes about the dangers of stepping outside of the lines. And we could likewise be overly anxious about either danger. But the goal of the race is not simply to avoid disqualification. The goal is to win! The goal is to finish the race and cross the finish line. And like a star track coach, 1 Timothy gives what amount to a training plan for how to do just that. How to win. What to pursue instead of this twin dangers:
But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
The author here gives precise instructions for how to win the race, without being disqualified to either extreme. To do that, you have to keep your eyes on the finish line. What’s the second thing we learn in 8th grade track? Keep your head up – don’t watch your feet! The finish line is your goal and your focus. And so what does 1 Timothy say is our goal? “Righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” That is our goal. That is the finish line. That is our focus.
And how do those of us who have money keep this as our focus? And let me first state the obvious here: all of us have money. We can all look to those who have more than we do, but living in this country in this time, we have opportunities that so many in the world will never have. We don’t get to ignore this message, claiming that it is written for “those rich people” out there. This is a message for me and for you.
And so, how do those of us with money keep our sights on the right focus? I Timothy is clear. When we are a Christian and have more money than the person next to us, the neighbor next to us, the nation next to us, we are given an unflinching responsibility: give it away. Verse 18 makes it clear: “be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” You have money for a reason. Use it to pursue the greater good. Use it to care for the least of these. Keep your head up – keep your eyes on the finish line.
Again, it is Foster who reminds us of this important fact. After his chapter on “The Dark Side of Money,” he writes a second chapter, titled “The Light Side of Money.” There is a light side of money, as well. Money is necessary today in order to do missionary work, support ministry staff, create centers of worship and ministry like this church. Money is used to stop injustice and relieve the pain of the suffering in our world. And for Foster, money is a blessing to the giver as well as the receiver. He names giving as an avenue for worship. There are many blessings that can be accomplished by this “light side” of money. The author of 1 Timothy knew how important money could be to ministry, and that’s why he didn’t call it evil. But gave us a training plan for how to use it wisely: give it away.
And that is our good news today. Like Foster says, celebrate the light side of money. A quote from his chapter on the Light Side of Money: “when we have a spirit of thanksgiving we can hold all things lightly. We receive; we do not grab. And when it is time to let go, we do so freely. We are not owners, only stewards. Our lives do not consist of the things that we have for we live and move and breathe in God, not things.”
This is the ultimate good news. Give away the gifts that you have been given, because as you give, you receive what you really need:
You receive the ability to trust God to care for your needs.
You receive the wisdom of knowing that money is not the finish line.
You receive the contentment of knowing that your money or your things do not and cannot own you.
And you receive a life of simplicity to focus on the things of this world that are truly righteous.
Let us celebrate the life of thanksgiving and joy as we run the race together!