There are times I wish Paul had been content with giving Timothy sermon tips but, instead, he has tackled some of the major areas of controversy today. A few weeks ago, it was the role of women in church. Today, it is three in a row: slavery and freedom, false teaching, and wealth. I’ll be glad when we are done and we can move on to 2 Timothy and Paul’s final words to his beloved friend.
”All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s
name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them
disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because
their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.”
There is no doubt Paul understood the inequity of his society and the fact that he calls it the “yoke of
slavery” only underscores that. However, Paul’s interest and, in fact, the interest of the early Christians
was not so much their status in this life as it was the anticipation of the return of Christ. While Paul in
Ephesians commands Christian slave owners to not threaten or abuse them and in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 he encourages believers not to focus much on changing their circumstances.
“Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom,
do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly,
the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of
human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation
they were in when God called them.”
Nowhere in his writings is Paul interested in creating upheaval. In fact, he always comes down on the side of order, respect, and upholding the laws of a pagan society. Like others, he was not anxious to see the church persecuted by outsiders and slandered as it was soon to be. Second, there was nothing of a rabble-rouser or community activist in Paul. Every time he created a disturbance in a city it was because of the reactions of the Jews and not the civil authorities. He always presented himself as a law and customs abiding person – so he would not have written Timothy about rising up against the institution of slavery. I think the earliest Christian community was so preoccupied with practicing the few commandments left to them by Christ – love one another – that fixing all the ills of society would have been a distraction. In some ways, we have reversed that. We are so busy shaping society in our version of godliness that we have given up on the commandment to first love each other.
Of course, it is Peter who goes much further in encouraging believers to accept their current status.
“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and
considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain
of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
The Apostles accepted hardship, suffering, inequity, unfairness, and even persecution as part of their
calling. Unlike us, they saw themselves as slaves either to God or to men and there was even a certain
amount of glory in what we would consider shame. Their examples were not successful, happy,
prosperous, and powerful people like ours tend to be. Instead, they held up as models those who, in the
words of Hebrews, were those for whom the world was not worthy. They quoted the words of Jesus when he said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
They did not consider themselves slaves to Christ because of low self-esteem but because they considered it a privilege to be a slave and accept whatever consequences that meant. I think they would have not understood these words that we so highly esteem today:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Yes, while it was many Christians who so vehemently maintained slavery in this country and around the world by misreading and misapplying the words of the Apostles, it was also Christians who did so much to reduce it. Even today, it is Christians in the forefront of the efforts to end trafficking and human bondage. The Church, like everything else, evolves. We have a mixed heritage and the passage for this morning only illustrates the dangers of taking verses out of context or, worse, becoming false teachers.
”These are the things you are to teach and insist on. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to
the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand
nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy,
strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”
There is so much that could be said about each one of these words. We could go deep into the original
meaning and examples of their use in other places. But, we might lose sight of the obvious here. Paul is
not just talking about false teachers as those who stand up at a podium on Sunday morning but he is also talking about false leaders – those to whom the people look for examples and character. If you want to know when a group, a community, a church, a nation is under the spell (or what Paul in 2 Thessalonians calls a delusion sent by God) of false leaders you can look for the evidence. Jesus in John 14 tells us that the Spirit reminds us of the words of Jesus. False teachers and leaders have no knowledge or understanding of the words of Jesus. What is the evidence of people coming under the delusion of false leaders? What is the environment created and even encouraged by such leaders? Where do they thrive?
They have been robbed of the truth. Isn’t that an interesting way of putting it? All the while they think
they are creating this great deception they are actually being robbed themselves of whatever truth they
possessed. Paul also says in Romans that men like these have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. They have given up whatever hold they had on the truth in exchange for something they thought would benefit them and all they received in return was a lie in the exchange. They have been robbed and cheated – cleaned out – and it will not end well for them. Sadly, in the meantime, they take others with them – like wolves among sheep. “They perish because they have not loved the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”
But then Paul goes on to warn all of us about the temptation of discontent. I think back to the “rabble”
that created so much trouble for Moses in the wilderness. They were outsiders who had wormed their way into the congregation with the purpose of stirring them up against their rightful leaders and God.
Organizing people around their seeming minor discontent is naturally easier, isn’t it? Rabble organizers
have antennae for people who have come to feel deserving but impotent, and they stir them up – not
necessarily to a boil but enough to make them grumble when they once had rejoiced.
On what did the rabble focus? Not on hunger but dissatisfaction with the variety of food: “At least we
had free fish in Egypt…Is it too much to ask?” They used the tool of relative deprivation to compare what
they had with others – even if those others were still slaves in Egypt. Relative deprivation compares what we have with those similar to us. When we read about the super-rich, it is more of a distraction than a cause for torment. It is entertainment. Instead, we compare ourselves to
people who have a little more than we do or we envision our life and work really being about our
personal fulfillment and convenience. All dissatisfaction begins with comparison – either to someone else or to what we imagine would give us the happiness that is ours by right. It begins in the vague feeling that someone who may have once been generous is now withholding something from you. It begins with “this is unfair,” and “I am being cheated.” The rabble are the sworn enemies of gratitude, and it is gratitude they need to attack right away. Relative depravation is not the same as godly ambition or the desire to make something better of yourself or your circumstances. Neither is it taking advantage of an opportunity. Instead, it is the corrosive dissatisfaction that, instead of creating healthy change, it only destroys the soul. It is what creates entitlement and eventually an enslavement to anger, resentment and envy.
Yes, it may be that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil but I think money is just a symbol for
other kinds of loves – the love of control, of power, of self-sufficiency, of pride, and of making others
seem small. Enough money allows you to do all those things, doesn’t it? But it’s only a few very sick
people who actually love money. It is the love of other things that money provides.
Knowing the source of your contentment and being aware of those who would manipulate your discontent is more important now than any time in my lifetime. Contentment comes with understanding what the basics are for you. It begins and ends with gratitude. For Paul it was food and clothing because he had been many times without either. More than that he did not need. What about us? What are the basics? How much could we live without if we had those few things?
Of course, there is the contentment of little – having the basics and little more – and then the contentment of plenty that Paul has discovered. In some ways, contentment with much is actually more difficult because there is always so much more we could have. Nothing ever completely satisfies. It could always be just a little bit better. However, the contentment of plenty also begins and ends with gratitude. It is not guilt for having much and it is not forgetting the times we had little. God told the Israelites to never forget who they were when he redeemed them. They were never to lose the sense of who they were then nor were they to forget him and who he is when times are good. In other words, just as we were “bondsmen” then we have plenty now by his hand. Again, to paraphrase Paul, “I can do everything God has in mind for this time of my life.” Sometimes that purpose requires the strength of living with plenty.
Alexis DeTocqueville wrote in his classic work “Democracy in America”:
“A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so
hasty in grasping at all within his reach, that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living
long enough to enjoy them. At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many
happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of
worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach it, to grasp it,
and to enjoy it. The recollection of the brevity of life is a constant spur to him. Besides the good things
which he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others which death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in
ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his abode. Men will then be
seen continually to change their track, for fear of missing the shortest cut to happiness.”
We recognize that, don’t we? We call it a bucket list sometimes and that’s not actually a bad thing unless it drives us to being incapable of enjoying the life we have now. We call it a wish list. We call it the fear of missing out. Whatever we call it, we recognize what it means to always be in a hurry and to be incapable of enjoying what is right in front of us because we are already looking at the next acquisition.
This is why I go back time and again to Ecclesiastes: This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart. I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
That is why Paul leaves Timothy with these words. Instead of wealth, power, arrogance, conceit, and a
life that has been robbed of the truth, pursue, chase after, spend your life in the acquisition of:
righteousness (integrity), godliness (character), faith (trust), love (putting away selfishness), endurance
(left standing at the end), and gentleness (kindness). Don’t be caught up in fights that begin in the constant friction of men with corrupt minds but pick a bigger fight – the fight of faith. Take hold of life that is truly life and guard what has been entrusted to your care.