Monday, March 3, 2008

I Timothy 6

I Timothy 6:1-2b: These verses continue the line of thought from the previous chapter. This time, the behavior of slaves is discussed. As already noted, the early church took the institution of slavery for granted, though its theology pointed in a direction inimical to slavery. Even within that acceptance of this social institution, many of the passages about the behavior of slaves also addressed the behavior of slave owners. This passage is an exception to that, focusing only on the behavior of slaves. The writer’s primary concern is social peace and the reputation of the church. He does not seem to comprehend some of the larger issues – just like us sometimes!

I Timothy 6:2c-10: The writer now returns to discuss his opponents, picking up from chapter 4, verse 5. Those who teach other than in the Pauline understanding of the faith, and those who teach a way of life other than the one written about here, are spoken of rather harshly. When the writer speaks of the teaching of Jesus Christ, the phrase can also be translated “about Jesus Christ” and that is probably the better translation. The author is not referring to the Gospels or to a collection of Jesus’ saying available in his church. The author’s theology, like Paul’s, does not function by citing stories and sayings from the life of Jesus, but by drawing out the meaning of the Christ event as a whole. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Sometimes people contrast the faith of Jesus and the faith about Jesus. I don’t think making a hard and fast distinction between these is warranted, but the early church spoke in a variety of ways about its faith, some of which were later determined to be outside the bounds of Christian faith. Even within, the language of faith is elastic, and it can be illuminating to think about the differences between the emphases of the Jesus of the Gospels and the emphases in the epistles, and in the different epistles. Doing so can enrich our faith.

The other teachers are viewed in terms used in the sometimes rancorous philosophical debates of the time. “The vice list, crafted with conventional philosophical slurs, shows the negative influences of the conceited (or deluded) false teachers on others in contrast to Timothy’s profitable teachings” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). Perhaps worst of all, they consider spiritual teaching and godliness a potential source of profit. The writer, in an ingenious turn of phrase, notes that godliness is profitable, but not in the way imagined.

This entire section is a wonderful piece of writing, combining a number of proverbial phrases into an argument for living simply. “Godliness” is a term never used by Paul, but for this writer it signifies the Jesus way, the Christian way of life, lived in response to God’s love and grace. To live in this way leads to contentment, and such a life avoids the potential perils of the search for riches. Verse 7 is a proverbial saying, as is verse 8. Verse nine seems self-evident in our own time – that relentless search for wealth can entrap people in harmful ways. Later verses indicate that this is not intended to be a condemnation of wealth, but a warning about its dangers. The first part of verse 10 is also a proverbial saying, to which the writer adds a concern for the effect that the love of money has on the life of faith.

These verses are powerful in our context. We take for granted that the search for material well-being is mostly benign or even positive. Capitalism has a philosophical base in a view that human persons acting in their own self-interest will promote a common good. Often that has been the case. However, the kind of growth needed to keep a capitalist economy healthy has led to the development of products that become needs, which can often be a mixed blessing, and to the increasing need for raw materials from the earth, and we may be stretching the earth’s capacity. An uninterrupted capitalist growth economy may require some tempering if we are to keep our planet healthy. Godliness with contentment may be an appropriate counter-cultural faith for our day and time.

I Timothy 6:11-19: The person of God, the leader, is to turn away from this excessive pursuit of money and from teachings which are just disputations over words and not transformative. The Jesus way of life is a life of: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. The Messsage: Pursue a righteous life – a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. This way of life is to be pursued with the dedication and discipline of an athlete – a familiar image in the Pastoral Epistles. One is to keep on in the faith until the work of God is complete at “the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This will happen at “the right time.” The fervent expectation of a quick end to history has gone away by the time of the Pastoral Letters. In anti-imperial language, God is proclaimed the only Sovereign, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. Though the writer has often been concerned with social peace, he cannot completely escape some of the anti-imperial import of the Christian gospel. In the middle of these verses of instruction, the writer engages in a moment of worship – an interesting metaphor for the Christian life, centered in worship (the subject of this week’s upcoming sermon).

The writer now returns to the subject of wealth. They are not to set too much store in their wealth. Instead, while they enjoy the good things of life, they should also be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. This is “the life that is really life” – what a wonderful phrase. For all his shortcomings, this writer is full of insight and often knows how to turn a memorable phrase.

I Timothy 6:20-21: Timothy as a leader is encouraged to keep the faith and avoid false knowledge – talk which distracts from faith.

Second Timothy

II Timothy is the second in the series of Pastoral Letters. Like I Timothy and Titus, this letter is likely the work of a disciple of Paul’s written well after Paul’s death. Again, it is an attempt to interpret Paul’s understanding of the Christian faith for a later generation. The letter represents Paul writing from prison, presumably in Rome shortly before his death. This letter thus belongs to the category of testamentary literature, in which a religious hero of the past blesses and exhorts his followers, preparing them to continue his work without him. (People’s New Testament Commentary) We know little more about the circumstances in which the letter was written, though we suppose the Pastorals were written about the same time.

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