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In the end, we're all the same
Today’s lectionary reading is from the New Testament book of 1 Timothy, a kind of advice letter to leaders in early Christian communities. This section focuses on money — and its discontents — with a simple, stark, and often ignored message.
1 Timothy 6:6-19
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. 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.
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. . .
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.
Much has been said and written about the Queen’s funeral last week, from glowing praise to critiques of colonialism and calls for reparations and the end of monarchy. It was a lot — emotionally, historically, and politically.
Amidst all the words and the seemingly non-stop coverage, one moment stood out to me as no other. At the final service — the committal — the graveside service when the body is buried, “committed” to the ground. Or, in the case of Queen Elizabeth, lowered to the crypt under the chapel.
Before that, however, the coffin was stripped. For ten days, we’d seen her casket adorned with the crown jewels of Scotland and England. But, at the last, her scepter, orb, and crown were removed — leaving a coffin draped with a flag and decked with flowers. And there, in a box, under that more simple array, was the body of an old woman, now dead.
Just like every human being, just as every soul who was born and lived.
And it was a stark image of these words from today’s reading:
“For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.”
With the reminder of our shared human fate, the author of the letter makes clear that the pursuit of money leads many astray and that the quest for a virtuous life is a different and better wealth. Do good, be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share — “the life that really is life.”
Yet, as much as we all know this — “you can’t take it with you” — our cash-crazed world still acts as if money will save us from despair, doubt, and death. Money is power, money is privilege, money is passion. Money, money, money. Salvation by stuff. The life that really is falsehood.
And the lie is killing us. Money in politics, more money to line the pockets of the few. As obvious as it is that every body faces eternity without scepter, orb, and crown, the nightly news also makes it perfectly clear that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Name the evil; follow the money. We’ve got more evidence for this than can be imagined. It isn’t just a maxim; it is the truth.
When I was small, my mother taught me that one should never talk about sex, politics, religion, or money in polite company. All these old strictures are gone — public conversation is full of sex, politics, and religion — except for one. The prohibition around money remains.
Because, I suspect, it was always the most important, the most deeply private, the most closely guarded of those conversational sins.
The Queen was one of the richest women in the world. And now? Her body lies in the earth, decomposing as all bodies do. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. We came with nothing; we leave with nothing. And yet, between that beginning and end, so much striving and suffering goes into the accumulation of stuff.
I’m not trying to nag or scold here. I’m as guilty as most others. But I would like to do better in pursuit of those old-fashioned virtues: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Always remembering that the opposites of greed are generosity, gratitude, and charity.
Elizabeth’s committal inspired me to recommit to what is truly important — the real treasure of a good life.
How gray and hard the brown feet of the wretched of the earth.
How confidently the crippled from birth
push themselves through the streets, deep in their lives.
How seamed with lines of fate the hands
of women who sit at streetcorners
offering seeds and flowers.
How lively their conversation together.
How much of death they know.
I am tired of ‘the fine art of unhappiness.’
— Denise Levertov
Where there is greed, what love can there be?
— Adi Granth (Sikh scriptures)
Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God's power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.
God's great goodness aye endureth,
deep his wisdom, passing thought:
splendour, light, and life attend him,
beauty springeth out of naught.
from his store
new-born worlds rise and adore.
— Joachim Neander, from “All My Hope on God is Founded,” hymn sung at the Committal service
The insatiable appetite for wealth narrows a person’s field of vision; when one gazes fixedly at wealth, one cannot look around at neighbors who demonstrate that riches are not necessary for abundant life. Wealth’s blinkers conceal from us the people whose need for bare sustenance far surpasses our desire for newer, better, more intense satisfactions. These verses highlight the desperate suffering the lottery economy engenders; as fewer people accumulate more of the world’s resources, the occupants feel dissatisfied with what they have because it is less than the hyperbolic wealth of celebrity mega-millionaires. All the while, around the world people starve in order unwillingly to fund gamblers’, investors’, dealers’, reality-TV show stars’, bankers’, gangsters’, and ordinary middle-class civilians’ intoxicated dream of becoming the one lucky person whose wealth surpasses counting.
— A.K.M. Adam
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