“Nothing incites to money-crimes like great poverty or great wealth”

Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”   I like the way the New American Standard Bible reads here — “a root” instead of “the root,” as it is translated elsewhere.  It is silly to suggest that the love of money is “the” cause of evil in this world.  But it is certainly “a” cause — and one that rears its ugly head in all sorts of circumstances.  The sin may be connected directly — theft, covetousness, jealousy, and the like.  Or it may find its expression in more of a sideways fashion — slander, abandoned responsibilities, or even murder.  But there is no doubt of the havoc the love of money has wreaked on our society, and even on the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The love of money is no respecter of persons.  As Mark Twain pointed out, “Nothing incites to money-crimes like great poverty or great wealth.”  And, although he did not say so (as far as I can tell), the people in the middle are just as vulnerable.  And that is an important point for us to remember, because the vast majority of Americans fall well within the middle of the hump in the Bell curve of economics.  Neither moderate wealth nor moderate poverty is a vaccine for the love of money; in fact, having a small taste of both may make the desire for money burn even brighter.

The problem of poverty

Poverty, we should emphasize first of all, is relative.  By current world standards, hardly any Americans at all are impoverished.  But we tend very strongly to measure our wealth by the wealth of those around us — especially those are nearest to us and the wealthiest ones who are within our vision.

Jealousy rears its head.  I am as worthy as he is!  More so!  Why does he get all the breaks?  What makes him so special?  Self-righteousness soon follows.  I would not waste money like she does.  I would be responsible.  I would be charitable.

We hear of lottery winners who squandered it all and wound up declaring bankruptcy, and we shake our heads in disgust.  What a waste, we think, all the while thinking how wonderful it would be to stumble into an enormous amount of money without having to work for it.  

Of course, this is all part and parcel with measuring our own worth by how we compares with others.  Wealth is not the only measuring stick by any means; talent, family, health and other considerations also factor in.  But wealth is perhaps the easiest to measure, and (depending on the circumstances) may look the most arbitrary. 

The problem of wealth

Having a great fortune can be as much of a temptation as having nothing at all.  The rich farmer in Jesus’ parable could think of nothing to do with his fortune other than simply secure it for himself and his own future enjoyment (Luke 12:18-19).  There are always bigger barns to build to hold bigger blessings from God.

The wealth itself is not the problem; men such as Job, Abraham, Joseph of Arimathea and Philemon found ways to honor God with their abundance.  Paul did not require the wealthy to give away their possessions but rather “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future” (1 Timothy 6:18-19).  Clearly we are capable of storing up treasures in heaven while managing a certain amount of security on earth.  Far too often, though, we wind up using wealth as a way to make distinctions between people (James 2:1-4).  Wealth is used as a club against the defenseless (James 5:1-4).  Even worse, security in this life can cause us to turn a blind eye to spiritual poverty, as was the case with the wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked Laodiceans (Revelation 3:17-18).

The end of the matter

Perhaps we would do well, all things considered, to pray Agur’s prayer, as is recorded in Proverbs 30:8-9 — “give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the LORD?” or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.”  It is profanity and blasphemy to claim to be a servant of God while we are actually serving quite a different lord.  “You cannot serve God and wealth,” Jesus said in Luke 16:13.  It’s as true in 21st Century America as it ever has been.