All that Glitters: A Brief Reflection on Wealth in 1 Tim. 6:17

Τοῖς πλουσίοις ἐν τῷ νῦν αἰῶνι παράγγελλε μὴ ὑψηλοφρονεῖν μηδὲ ἠλπικέναι ἐπὶ πλούτου ἀδηλότητι, ἀλλ᾽ ἐπὶ θεῷ τῷ παρέχοντι ἡμῖν πάντα πλουσίως εἰς ἀπόλαυσιν

“To the rich ones in the present age, command them to not be prideful nor to hope upon the uncertainty of riches, but upon God who is presenting to us all things richly for enjoyment.” 1 Tim. 6:17.

I’ve been attempting to write a future Ph.D dissertation proposal, and came across this text in 1 Timothy and it stuck with me. My wife and I are having some financial turbulence and living paycheck to paycheck is always a rough ride. However, in thinking about this text within the pericope in chapter 6, it seems that a disparity between rich and poor is percolating behind the scenes.

See for example:

·      (V.9) “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

·      (V.10) “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Paul’s concern for the poor has been well documented, especially in recent works by David Downs and Bruce Longenecker. As the articular dative adjective πλουσίοις suggests, the author is directly addressing members of the congregation, this being the wealthy ones. While the poor could indeed own slaves, the context seems to suggest that these rich ones are slave owners (c.f. 6:1-2). Leaving aside the thorny issue of slavery in Paul, the direct address, followed by the imperative παράγγελλε, suggests a possible counter to the brief commentary on slaves in vv.1-2.

The interplay between the adjective and the nouns for “riches” is curious, as the materiality of wealthy is devalued by the author—serving as a “temporal” reality (ἀδηλότητι). Material possession, it is suggested, is limited to this world.

For those of us in turbulent times (as I suspect most of us are), this text bothers me. Not in a negative way per se, but it got under my skin pretty good. What about those who do not have wealth or sustainment?

Well, the answer seemingly lies in v.18, where the rich are enjoined to be “generous” (εὐμεταδότους) with the poor. The futurism mentality of the author shines through here, as this is a rhetorical maneuver to make it ‘appropriate’ for the wealthy to be generous. They give now, so that their futures are bound to eternal life. The poor are thus dependent upon the mandated generosity of the wealthy, which may have interesting implications. Something to chew on, perhaps.

The church, early on, was marked by generosity and the sharing of possessions; here, it seems, it took a little longer for them to get the hang of it. This brings me great comfort that many women and men in the early church were not unlike many of us today (just read the news, hint hint). The statement "into ruin and destruction" (v.9) is surprising. The use of εἰς ὄλεθρον καὶ ἀπώλειαν suggests both a present actuality (poverty resulting in material destruction and even death) and also perhaps eschatological destruction (due to disregard of the body or exploitation therein). In the times I've wondered what it would be like to be rich and have millions of dollars, this text now makes me reconsider those fantasies.

Plus my chances of winning the lotto are like 1 in 2,048,086,421 or something.

While that may not put a comma in my bank account, it does remind me that the poor will always be among us, and that even in our current state, generosity is the name of the game.

There is much more that could be said, but I will leave it there. Just some brief thoughts, nothing more.