People who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction. ‘The love of money is the root of all evils’ and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds.
1 Timothy 2: 9-10
Doing a Google search of the famous verse of 1 Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all evils” is telling. Many of the first references that are written with a “religious” perspective are rebuttals or qualifications. This is quite interesting as these come from some of the same pens that are so fundamentalistic in their interpretations of any biblical verses relating to sexual morality, for example. The phenomenon this represents is that of the rationalization and justification that capitalist Christianity finds itself compelled to issue. The scriptures, in what we for a time called their “preferential option for the poor,” is, much to the chagrin of our bourgeois mentality, not only stating an option for the poor to whom we, the affluent, are to be magnanimous. It is rather expressing a preferential option for voluntary poverty and simplicity. The author of 1 Timothy is not equivocating when he or she says that “the love of money” and the greed it implies truly is “the root of all evils” in us.
In a news story this morning concerning the devastation wrought on Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, the reporter who has been on the ground with the people there throughout the storm, repeated several times his amazement that “I haven’t heard anyone complain.” What was missing in each of the person’s with whom he spoke was an anger, resentment, and sense of entitlement. In many cases people have lost all of what they have, yet as they suffered all they were going through they also experienced joy and gratitude at the finding of a loved one or the ability to help and feed each other.
How is it that “the love of money is the root of all evils”? It is at least in part because the love and accumulation of wealth separates us from ourselves, from life itself, and from the truth of our common humanity. We seek wealth as a form of security. Those of us who are old enough remember the continual fear of our parents and their entire generation that they might, once again, fall into the deprivation and poverty they had known during “The Great Depression.” So many, if not most, of the conflicts between my parents were caused by disagreement over the accumulating or spending of money and their fear of the insecurity that continually threatened. That same insecurity is no less felt by young people today who begin their lives, often, with astounding levels of student debt — with their very life choices largely determined and confined by what they owe the country’s financial institutions.
Not only our love but our need for money can control much of our consciousness. Because we experience how impossible life is without money in a consumerist and capitalist system, our very consciousness and awareness of the deeper dimensions of our life become shrunken. Even our religious impulse can thus be seduced by the so-called “prosperity gospel.” Whereas our very experience of well being readily becomes identified with our economic standing, the poor of Puerto Rico and much of the rest of the world measure their well being differently. The poor tend to experience much more strongly and immediately the sufferings of life. Yet, this seems, often mysteriously to us, also to expand their capacity for and experience of joy. This is not to romanticize poverty, as the scriptural mandate to take care of each other is very clear. it does suggest, however, that we readily, as human beings, blur the line between our need for adequate means and security and the “love of money.”
Often in the current world climate of extreme inequality, the question arises of how it is that extremely wealthy people would want to accumulate yet more billions of dollars, that they would want to affect government policy in a way that continues to benefit them, who have so much, at the expense of those who have so little. It well may be that this is not as inscrutable as it seems. We need freedom from economic insecurity. it is an admittedly complex but important question of public policy whether or not a wealthy society should guarantee to all of its citizens such security. Yet, spiritually, we shall always know and experience insecurity that goes far beyond the adequacy of our economic situation. If, however, the spiritual core of the human person is repressed, we then find ourselves living a kind of constricted human experience that mistakenly sees our own wealth as our source of security, identity, and status. To have more money for ourselves then becomes our greatest desire and motivation, and to turn in on ourselves is the very definition of sinfulness.
In Matthew 6: 24 Jesus teaches: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” It is the pure of heart who will see God, Jesus tells us. Purity of heart comes from loving one above all, from living with an undivided heart. It is impossible to serve two masters, and, in competition between potential desires, the immediate will almost always dominate. Currently in our world, there is a lot of talk about a war of cultures, usually meaning that between what is termed the “Christian West” and Islam. As I hear our leaders, however, speak of the threat that “radical Islam” is to our values, I find myself uncertain of what “our values” are. The painful truth is that what we have come to term Christian civilization is one that is more influenced by the love of money than the love of God. As strong a value as personal and communal freedom is, we must always ask ourselves what it is freedom for. If, indeed, the values are Christian values, then they contain an imperative of universality. On the other hand, if they are more the values of unbridled capitalism, then they reflect a mistaken sense of cultural superiority and economic self-interest.
So, what is the challenge for us from this reading: individually, as a church, and as a society? In my own experience, there is no more difficult struggle with the call of the gospel than that between complacence and awareness, between an always expanding sense of need for comfort and a spirit of poverty marked by simplicity. Given all the comforts that surround me personally, I find countless ways to evade and to suppress the realities of life. When feeling the slightest tinge of hunger, I go the refrigerator. When even intimations of loneliness or boredom arise, I turn on the television or surf the internet. When troubled by the suffering of others, I dull my awareness and divert my attention. All of these modes of avoiding reality and evading the experience of human life in its depth and essence are available to me because of the affluence in which I live. The more I evade, however, the more I am deprived of the true life that comes with the “common” experience, the realization of being at one with all in our common sufferings and joys. Thus, it somewhat confined to liminal moments (such as illness, catastrophe, or the death of a loved one) that we experience life as it is, in all of our insecurities and weaknesses, but also in the mysterious life and joy that lie beneath them.
Where in our day does the Church flourish and where is it moribund? It flourishes among the poor, and it is largely irrelevant among the affluent. In order to make peace with capitalist values, the Church, at least in the United States, considers its greatest role and value to be a guardian of quite specific and limited moral values and a consistent assertor of its imaginary victimization. In the “South,” however, the Church is the defender and protector of the humanity and dignity of peoples. It is a leaven in the world of reverence and respect, a prophet of justice as a prerequisite for peace. Pope Francis, as the first Pope from the “South,” is thus a sign of contradiction. For the bourgeois Church, he is a problem, if not a “heretic”, but for the Church as witness to the gospel and hope of humanity and the earth, he is a prophet.
In these days in the United States where there is much consideration about the so-called loss of religious freedom, we hear from the churches a demand to have their place in the public square. Yet, among religious traditions represented in public life, the dominant place is held by Christians, and even more specifically by Catholics. To be fair, there are large numbers of documents from Bishops’ Conferences and other religious leaders pointing to the dangers posed by our “love of money.” Yet, there appears to be most basically an accommodation of the gospel to the primary cultural values. There tends to be a much stronger counter to the culture’s sexual values than to its economic ones. The irony is that those who so demand a place in the political discourse of the public square chose, when they have it, to limit the call and challenge of the gospel to the private sphere of personal morality.
The danger for us is that we have allowed the challenge of the gospel to be more affected by our cultural values than the other way around. Who we are for each other and the world may depend on our honestly asking ourselves about the degree to which we love money. That answer might well then call us to a personal and societal transformation that would ask us to redirect our love to God and others in such a way that the care for each other would dominate our consciousness and our public policy.
The wise walk on, clinging to nothing. They are neither elated by happiness nor cast down by sorrow.
Neither for themselves nor for others will the wise ones crave family or wealth. They will not wish to gain by others’ loss.
Leaving the way of darkness, the wise will follow the way of light. Giving up their security they will enter into solitude, knowing the road to be hard.
Putting away desire and freeing themselves from possessions, the wise will rid themselves of all dark thoughts.
With their minds full of regard for the truth; with energy, concentration and calmness; clinging to nothing and overcoming all dark thoughts, they are awakened and enter Nirvana in this world.
The Dhammapada, 83-84, 87-89