First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 19

William Loader

Pentecost 19:  25 September  1 Timothy 6:6-19

This passage is countercultural - much more so for us than for its first hearers. Contentment rests in connectedness, above all, with God, because it connects us to others, to our world and to ourselves. The passage confronts our mortality. But it does so assuming we might worry about life beyond this one. Many people have long since given up such worries. For people for whom the afterlife once posed a threat, but no longer poses a threat, the motivation has gone to which 6:7 appeals. Without it however we still face the issue of what godliness is and what contentment is.

6:8 invites us to a lifestyle which makes do with enough. There is no need to busy oneself with more. Accumulation of wealth is the task of a lifetime and leaves little room for others and in a paradoxical sense for oneself (and frequently those around us usually when they need us most). So our passage is addressing the practicalities of living and identifying the deception which we forge when we spend our lives accumulating more and more - far more than we need. The author appears concerned primarily with self destructive forces which bring ruin (6:9). Greed for money also plunges others into poverty and ruin

The godliness which the godly person is to pursue might be a harmless kind of morality marked by good behaviour and avoidance of what is sinful in a rather private way. Later New Testament writings, like this one, sometimes appear heading in that direction. Such godliness was a popular value of the time and made Christianity marketable. But concepts like righteousness (goodness), faith, and love, can carry much more with them. Ultimately they pose for us an alternative. We are invited to choose the dominant values of our day (even more than theirs) of self-indulgence (including religious self-indulgence) or to choose the way of Christ.

6:12 uses the language of conflict. To decide for Christ is to decide against the prevailing cultural norms. That is a fight, a struggle, especially when that culture has learned to harness religion for its self justification. The eternal life grasped in the event of turning to Christ and confessing a new lord is God's life. So the author is bringing the hearers back to the fundamentals of their faith which must not be compromised by the drive to accumulate wealth. It appears that beside baptism a confession, "Jesus is Lord", formed an essential part of the celebration of coming to faith. It was not a ceremonial normality, but an act of subversion which refused to give credence to competing claims, such as those of the emperors and the economic and religious systems of the day. You could pay with your life!

6:13 reminds the hearers that this is exactly what happened to Christ. He refused to retreat from his confession of God's way when hauled before Pilate. There is a command or demand here (6:14). We are dealing with "hard" language: "command", "fight". This is not because the author has retreated into a prescriptive spirituality, but because it really is a struggle to resist the wealthy way of life which promises us contentment and damns others to destitution. The odds are overwhelming. Nations pride themselves in protecting such contentment. Nationalism lauds our "way of life". Faith means turning the bow up stream against the prevailing current.

Grounds for such faith and persistence lie in the being of God, whom we defiantly acclaim as emperor of emperors and lord of lords (6:15). This is more than piety distracted from life's realities, a kind of retreat into fantasy of what might be. It is an assertion about ultimate reality and what ultimately matters, portrayed on a dazzling screen of light (6:16). Reality also grounds the author's advice about those who do possess wealth (6:17). It is not a call to become a problem by naively choosing poverty and dependency. The poor have enough without patronising condescension by adding to their number.

The author does not envisage preaching which rebukes the rich and then leaves them with unreal choices which their intelligence knows are wrong and from which they then switch off, innoculated against future challenges. Rather 6:17-19 speaks about using one's wealth effectively. Freed from the need to accumulate as the means of finding meaning in life, they can turn their attention beyond themselves to others and learn to love effectively with the means they have. The challenge is usually to know the cut off point of what is enough. Usually that inflates to levels of wealth which make the leftovers a symbol of excess rather than generous self giving. The problem is written across the face of the world. Its accepted violence evokes the abhorrent acts of terror which are then turned to justify our protecting our way of life. Christ offers a different way.

Gospel: Pentecost 19: 25 September Luke 16:19-31

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