They arrive in my mailbox. Those slick and shiny catalogs of clothes, or new-fangled, wacky contraptions, or things-everyone-simply-must have. Even when I give notice that I don’t want the extra mail, they still come—usually because I have forgotten to check off the “do not send” box, or I have inadvertently clicked where I should not have. And yet, I confess, I like 21st century window-shopping…despite knowing it is the very last thing that I should be doing.
In our scripture for today, from this pseudo-Pauline letter, we hear a church leader advising another church leader, Timothy, in leadership and discernment. According to the writer of the letter, it appears that some in the church imagined that their godliness as “a means of gain.” Another way to say this: that preaching and teaching and practicing the gospel will lead to prosperity. Our writer tells us that, of course, there is great gain in godliness when combined with contentment” but he sounds a warning regarding the human temptation to have more than we need or use.
Do you regularly have a conversation with yourself about “wants” and “needs”? I have learned to have that conversation multiple times a week because I have learned the hard way that supposed needs exponentially increase ten-fold when I am tired, when I feel deprived, when I am avoiding something else, and when I am hungry or in a bad mood. And that depends on the day and circumstance. So, I’ve learned to ask myself a couple of times – especially if it’s one of those spontaneous purchases, what is my motivation behind obtaining this THING and could it be better met by something I already have, or some action that might soothe the grasping, hungry, cranky, discontented spirit inside of me?
My experience may not be universal, but we all have ways that we try to placate the desire we have to get more, own more, or own better or the “latest and greatest.” American society isn’t the biblical Ephesus, the place where this letter was likely addressed, but temptation is not geographically restricted. Still, we might wonder what someone like Paul, or Timothy, or the writer of this letter might make of our wholly American consumption patterns and how they affect not only us, but our world neighbors.
The opposite of contentment is constant striving – a desire to have and to possess more and more—a kind of greed that is not merely materialistic, but also a greed for experiences or a kind of lifestyle or social status. Where we might well find contentment in procuring basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and the like, instead, our desires grow tenfold with not-so-innocuous seeds planted by our society that “what we have, where we live, and what we are” are somehow, “not enough” for our families or ourselves and not on par with what we think that we deserve. Commercials and corporations water these seeds. Overspending ourselves just roots the ideas more deeply. As our writer would say, “we are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” We are “pierced by many pains” as our eagerness for prosperity or “more than enough” or wealth competes in real time and in real wages with our calling to share, to be rich in good works, or to be grateful with what we have and those resources that we steward.
How do we recognize or foster a contented spirit without diminishing our human creativity or ingenuity? How do we recognize when money or the quest for profit or riches becomes less about energy exchanged for some good, and an idolatrous end in itself? And have we asked ourselves what it would take for us to be content in the world AND the social implications of that contentment on others?
I suppose that we would each answer the contentment question differently, but perhaps a place to start is to wonder if our contentment in the world hinges on another’s discontent. That is a trickier question to answer because how would I know if my taking this extra piece of cake deprives some other from enjoying some benefit elsewhere. And still, it is a worthy question to ask.
Our biblical ancestors realized that an inordinate love of money can lead to all kinds of individual and societal problems. They realized this because they, too, struggled. That is a consolation; that we are not alone in this struggle between contentment and wanting more and more. We have good company. But they both feared and knew that both riches and poverty could lead them away from God, so being content with one’s blessings was a strength. In Proverbs, we hear: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, and deny thee and say, ‘Who is the Lord’? or lest I be poor, and steal and profane the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8-9). To be rich was potentially to forget God and the fact that all we have and are ultimately comes from God. To be poor was potentially to steal or damn God because of lack. Those who acquire tend to believe that their ability to acquire is solely from their hard work or merit alone; often we forget the many who have made our acquiring or benefits possible.
And so, where does that leave us as we consider our own acquisitiveness or our own wealth however it may be? Just before the Parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus tells those gathered, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). One need not be a minimalist to appreciate this quote. There are all kinds of greed, according to Jesus, and we should not only focus on one kind and think we’ve got that one mastered once we have successfully downsized or written our wills. No, we might also consider the kind of greed that feeds our incessant need not to be inconvenienced, or our need to have things the way we like and want, when we want them.
An example—I was at the grocery store and there were only two cashiers with two very long lines. One cashier was trying to resolve an issue and the other cashier—the one whose line I was in– seemed to be very slow. Not just slow, but methodical. His pace in ringing up groceries was completely different. It was as if he were considering each movement, each key stroke, and every package of goods. He was very focused, very controlled, and not at all chatty, but very deliberate with the task at hand. At first, I was annoyed, but then I became curious. I studied him while I waited. There was something that made me realize that he was not inconveniencing me with his slow pace, but that he was somehow teaching me something about the way in which we can approach service people as if they are not part of the equation—meaning, we put our groceries on the conveyor belt, the electronic reader tells us the price, and we – in our hurry—can slip into thinking of the person as an appendage to the machine. I don’t think we do this intentionally, but our agendas and lists and time-crunching gets in the way.
The thought was troubling—but the moment instructive. What patience have we lost in our greed for time and efficiency? What human connection have we lost in the process? And this young man—deliberate and methodical as he was—helped me to see not only his very person better, but also myself. What greed for the moment—as if one could possess an actual moment—got in the way of understanding? Perhaps something similar has happened to you.
Our writer asks Timothy to pursue riches other than things: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. These are learned behaviors. They cannot be purchased, and no amount of wealth can guarantee them or our spiritual mastery. Instead, these qualities are intentionally built upon as they are explored and practiced in community. Our writer urges both Timothy and us, by extension, to recognize that as riches are uncertain, and our hope is better placed in the eternal life which we may experience both now and in the future.
What is that eternal life? In part, it is to discover the treasure that abounds among us when we are generous with our lives—our time, our good works, our joy, and yes, even our sorrows. When we discover, that all we are right now and all we have together is enough…and that we are already rooted profoundly and deeply in God’s love, no matter how much society believes or teaches that we need to buy our way to our soul’s satisfaction.
I leave you with a final thought by the Dali Lama: “The interesting thing about greed is that although the underlying motive is to seek satisfaction, even after obtaining what you want, you’re still not satisfied. It’s this endless, nagging desire for more that leads to trouble. On the other hand, if you’re truly content, it doesn’t matter whether you get what you want or not. Either way, you remain content.”
Sisters and brothers, may you pause long enough in the lines of life to discover your own striving, your own true needs, and your own calling to contentment.