Mercy Street Church of Christ
Abilene, TX
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Is Money the Root of All Evil?

by Leroy Garrett

You probably got it right without having to look it up. It is not money, but the love of money that is the root of all evil, according to 1 Timothy 6:10, which was probably a contemporary proverb that Paul was quoting. The truth of the proverb might be questioned, for not only is money not in itself evil, but neither is the love of money. Given my understanding of love — caring for, appreciating, valuing — I do not hesitate to say I love money. I love money because it feeds us, clothes us, shelters us, and provides health care, education, transportation, and all the good things of life. Our Lord must have loved money, for he said in Matthew 25:35 “I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in.” It takes money to do these things.

I recall as a little boy crying because my parents did not have money to buy food. My mother sent me to a nearby A&P, where I was acquainted, to see if we could buy a few things on credit. When I brought the groceries back and gave them to mother, I cried, and told her I didn’t want to do that again. Bless her, she cried too, and told me I would not have to do it again. I learned early on to love and respect money. I learned that money puts food on the table, pays the electric bill (They also turned off our electricity), and gives a family some dignity.

But didn’t Jesus say that one can’t serve God and mammon? Yes, but he didn’t say that one can’t serve God with mammon! It cheers one’s heart to see all the good that is done, all around the world, by the millions who share their wealth. Just today I visited a new Chick-fil-A in our neighborhood, and, curious about a notice that read “Closed on Sundays,” I engaged a waiter in conversation, asking about the sign, “I suppose that is for religious reasons?” Yes, she told me, all 1900 of their stores close on Sunday. And I learned about Truett Cathy, their owner and founder, who says “We didn’t invent the chicken. Just the chicken sandwich.” With his wealth Cathy created the WinShape Foundation - “shape winners” — that is involved in building homes for victimized children, college scholarships, and summer camp programs.

There have been multitudes in our nation’s history like Truett Cathy who have loved making money and using it to bless the lives of others. When Alex de Tocqueville, the French visitor to America in the 19th century, wrote back to his countrymen, he said, “America is great because she is good.” He got it right. We may well be the most generous nation in human history. And it is all about money — making it and giving it away. I am still persuaded that the best money we spend is the money we give away.

So what are we to make of that proverb about loving money being a root of evil, which Paul chose to use in his letter to young Timothy? Did the apostle himself not love money when he “labored with his own hands” to support himself and his co-laborers, as we learn from Acts 20:34, and in the same chapter did he not quote Jesus as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”? Doesn’t giving, which brings the greater blessing, include money?

The proverb has to mean — and the apostle has to mean — something like “Greed for money is at the root of much evil.“ It is when we are greedy and grasping about money, and when it becomes the end in itself rather than a means to a greater end, that it becomes a root of evil. It is when money controls us rather than we controlling it that evil lurks. If one’s belly can become one’s god, as Philippians 3:19 charges, then certainly money can. In the verse where Paul quotes this proverb, he indicates that he is talking about greed: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” If the proverb read “the inordinate love of money” or “the excessive love of money,” it would better convey what the apostle intends to say.

This distinction is further evident in the way recent translations have changed the King James Version‘s use of “filthy lucre,” as in the qualification for both elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:3, 8: “not greedy of filthy lucre.” The New King James Version renders it “not greedy for money,” and the New Jerusalem Bible has “not avaricious.” That is, it is greed for money that makes lucre (money) filthy. Money itself is not filthy. The filth is in an avaricious or greedy attitude toward money. This sin made the list of “The Seven Deadly Sins,” using the word avarice.

The transformation of Zacchaeus, whose story is told in Luke 19, is an impressive example of the distinction between a healthful love for money and being greedy for money. Zacchaeus, a Jew who served the Romans as commissioner of taxation in the wealthy city of Jericho, was likely the most hated man in town, as tax collectors, a.k.a. publicans, usually were. Luke bothers to tell the reader, “and he was rich.” But he must have been a lonely and unhappy man, as the wealthy often are, and he was in search of something more, something that money could not buy.

He had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, who was known to accept even prostitutes and publicans, and now he was to pass through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, and Zaccheus just had to see him. As Jesus entered the city Zacchaeus sought out a place in the crowd where he could see, but to no avail, for he was small of stature, and he knew better than to try to worm his way upfront where he might have been shoved and elbowed, being a despised tax man in cahoots with the Romans. One can only admire the little man’s tenacity, and what follows is one of the Bible’s most impressive episodes.

The little fellow runs ahead, where he knows Jesus will be coming, and climbs up a fig-sycamore tree, where he would be well above the crowd and where he could get a lingering look at one whom some were saying was messiah. Even if a fig-sycamore, with its short trunk and low branches, was an easy tree to climb, it must have been a blast to see the tax commissioner scampering up a tree. It would be something like seeing the city mayor up a telephone pole to watch the Super Bowl! But Zacchaeus was willing to cast both dignity and decorum aside so as to see one who healed the sick, raised the dead, and spoke of a coming kingdom. Who knows, something might happen. It is evident that he was walking — or climbing! — by faith.

At this point Luke gives us high drama. The Lord, on his way to Jerusalem to die, stops in his tracks, probably smiling with admiration, and speaks to a man up a tree! That he calls the little man by name does not necessarily imply miraculous knowledge, for he could well have heard outcries along the way, such as, “Look! Zacchaeus is up a tree! Has the S.O.B. lost his mind?” The little fellow must have been dumbstruck when Jesus stopped, looked up and called his name. “Zachaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must abide at your house.” You can count on it, he came down the tree faster that he climbed up it!

The world — the crowd — was of course offended by such grace: “When they saw it, they all complained, saying, ‘He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner‘” (Luke 19:7). It was something like “You don’t have to repeat this, but I heard her invite that lesbian to her house for lunch.” Luke doesn’t tell us much of what happened once Jesus was a guest at Zacchaeus’ house, but he does tell us what the host said about a dramatic change in his life, and it was about money. As Barclay renders it: “Half my goods, Lord, I hereby give to the poor. If I have taken anything from any man by fraud I give it back to him four times over.” At this Jesus replied “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). The Lord did not ask him to do more than he had resolved to do.

We first see a wealthy tax man who was greedy and grasping, one who had been led astray by what Jesus called “the deceitfulness of riches” (Matthew 13:22). Money had not brought him happiness. Life had become empty and meaningless. In is despair he began to look beyond his own selfish life for something more. He was searching, and when he heard of Jesus and what he was doing and teaching, a spark of hope touched his life. Then when Jesus came his way he had to see for himself.

We next see in Zacchaeus the difference Jesus makes in one’s life. There is no substitute for change in one’s values, attitude, and behavior, which is what repentance means. When he led a sordid life he had little concern for the needy around him, but now he gave half his wealth to the poor. Nor did he keep all the other half for himself, for he made fourfold reparation for all those he had defrauded through the years. But Zacchaeus may well have lived out his years a wealthy man, but now it was different in that he now made money — and loved money — not only for himself but for others. While still wealthy he may have now chosen to live a simple life, as many who are rich do, “having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:8).

I can see the diminutive Zacchaeus in his old age with his grandchildren about him, telling them stories out of his life. “Yes, that’s right,” I hear him saying, “the big change came when your grandpa was up in a tree, and the Savior of the world came by and called my name.”

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