Life and Wealth

This week’s readings from the revised common lectionary said something important about the relationship between biological life, eternal life, and money.

“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.” (I Timothy 6:17-19)

I found this fascinating because it deals rather explicitly with the relationship between temporal life and spiritual life.  What are we to make of the concept in the last line? The New International and New Revised Standard Versions render it “life that really is life.”  The Authorized (King James) reads “eternal life.”  It would be easy to take this out of context as a simple affirmation that spiritual life is real and physical life is not, but I think another interpretation is more consistent with the overall message of the letter.

One of the main themes of I Timothy is an admonition to reject false asceticism and embrace the current life and social order.  As problematic as this may be concerning the relations between men and women and between slaves and masters, it seems entirely inconsistent with the idea of rejecting physical life.  The message clearly is one of living a Christian life in the world, rather than escaping from the world to Christ.

So, if the message is not one of asceticism, what is it?  The surrounding passages focus wealth, contrasting it with the immortality of Christ.  In this context, I think it makes more sense to see the message as contrasting the promised future happiness of money with the present and eternal happiness of generosity.  The rich are not commanded here to give up all they have.  They are rather exhorted to give generously and in that generosity to store up real treasure for the future. This makes for an interesting parallel with the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-13) where an employee cheats his master financially in order to make friends. 

True wealth lies in relationships.  More to the point, life cannot be hoarded.  It must be lived in the moment as it is given in the moment.  Eternal life is not presented as an alternative to physical life, but as the only true fulfillment of it.  We are not warned against the temptations available to the rich, but against the temptation of wanting to be rich, of focusing on future life and happiness.  Taking hold of life means living it now – with others.

In this way, both I Timothy and the dishonest manager set us up for the tale of Lazarus and the rich man – this week’s gospel reading (Luke 16:19-31).  In that tale, the rich man spent his life attending to his money and not to his neighbor.  While he feasted sumptuously and dressed in purple (expensive fabric), Lazarus suffered hunger and sores (probably from living outdoors in a single dirty robe).  In perhaps the only explicit scene of torment after death in the whole Bible, the rich man asks not simply for water, but for water at the hand of Lazarus.  Being denied that, he asks that Lazarus return to his father’s house and warn his brothers.  Both of these are denied; the possibility of a relationship of aid between him and Lazarus has been forever cut off by a great chasm formed between them.

If money really is saving up power for our future temporal life, it is a poor surety.  Circumstances can take it away.  On the other hand friendships appear to be a good investment.  If we are to look for a meaning of life in the New Testament, at least in this week’s readings, we will see that it has to do with forming relationships with others.  Money can be an important part of that process, but the accumulation of money will always be a distraction.

True life lies in immediate generosity and sharing, the expenditures that bind us to our neighbor, not just for now, but for eternity.

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