A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy. 6:9-10. b). The covetous poor (continued).
In order to enforce his solemn warning, Paul now quotes what seems to have been a current proverb: *For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil* (10a). It has been found in various forms in both Greek and Jewish literature. But in the contemporary western world it reminds us of the popular lyric by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer, published in the USA in *Pickwick Music* (1946). It was entitled ‘Money is the root of all evil’ and had a thrice-uttered refrain, ‘Take it away.’ But the lyric is mistaken. There are three significant ways in which it differs from Paul’s proverb. First, according to Paul the problem is not ‘money’ but ‘the love of money’ (Cf. 2 Tim.3:2). Secondly, it is not ‘the’ one and only root of evil, but only ‘a’ root. Although grammatically the Greek definite article is not essential to require the translation ‘the’, it would most naturally be expected. Thirdly, money or the love of it is not the root of ‘all evil’ in the singular, as a composite whole, but rather a root of ‘all kinds of evil’ in the plural.
What then are the evils of which the love of money is a major root or cause? A long list could be given. Avarice leads to selfishness, cheating, fraud, perjury and robbery, to envy, quarrelling and hatred, to violence and even murder. Greed lies behind marriages of convenience, perversions of justice, drug-pushing, pornography sales, blackmail, the exploitation of the weak, the neglect of good causes, and the betrayal of friends. But Paul concentrates on only two evils which spring from covetousness. First, *some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith* (10b). It is not possible to pursue truth and money, God and mammon, simultaneously. People either renounce avarice in their commitment to the faith, or they make money their god and depart from the faith.
Secondly, they have *pierced themselves with many griefs* (10c), or ‘have spiked themselves on many a painful thorn’ (REB). What these ‘griefs’ or ‘thorns’ are Paul does not elaborate, but they could include worry and remorse, the pangs of a disregarded conscience, the discovery that materialism can never satisfy the human spirit, and final despair. Jay Gould, the nineteenth-century American financier, who died unlamented worth some $100 million, is said to have exclaimed with his dying breath, ‘I’m the most miserable devil in the world.’
This whole passage (verses 6-10), which is the apostle’s charge to the Christian poor, both the contented poor and the covetous poor, is calculated to make Christianity’s critics explode with anger. ‘This is precisely what Marx meant’, they will say, ‘when he called religion “the opium of the people”. Christianity instils into the proletariat a false contentment with their lot. It encourages the poor to accept their poverty, and to acquiesce in the *status quo* (instead of rebelling against it), on the flimsy ground that they will be compensated in the next world.’ How shall we reply? We have to concede that Marx was partly correct in his analysis. Christianity does teach contentment, and some Christians and churches have misused this Christian emphasis to defend the exploitation of the poor and to keep them in their oppression, while promising them freedom in heaven. But Paul is not guilty of this. Two clarifications of his teaching need to be made.
First, as we have already seen, the poverty he is writing about is not destitution, which is destructive of humanness, but a simplicity of lifestyle which is entirely compatible with human dignity. With the latter we should be content, but not with the former.
Secondly, the contentment Paul is writing about is not acquiescence in social injustice. On the contrary, we are called to combine personal contentment with the quest for justice, especially if it is justice for other people that we are fighting for.
The apostle’s essential emphasis is clear, namely that covetousness is a self-destructive evil, whereas simplicity and contentment are beautiful and Christlike virtues. In a word, he is not for poverty against wealth, but for contentment against covetousness.
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 6:11-16. 3). A charge to a man of God.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.