My old friend John Hall recently asked an interesting question.
‘You know the verse about the love of money being the root of all evil?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Don’t you think that’s slightly odd? I mean, how can money be the root of all evil? Bit over the top, isn’t it?’
John is much cleverer than me, and I doubt he needed my opinion on the subject, but it was nice of him to ask. Sadly, I had nothing helpful to say at all. After our conversation I found my trusty concordance and looked the verse up.
Speaking of concordances, It was a shocking revelation to me many years ago that preachers did not possess the encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible that I innocently assumed they must. I would have said a concordance was probably some kind of musical instrument if anyone had asked me. I was truly amazed by the way speakers leaped from scripture to scripture like supercharged gazelles, picking out references to their theme. Nowadays, I am of that herd and I can cheat with the best of them - or rather, I could if I wanted to.
Anyway, I finally found the verse in the sixth chapter of the first book of Timothy. Some versions state that ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’, while others use the more familiar form suggesting that it is the basis of all evil. So if, I asked myself, this latter translation is the correct one, what does it mean?
I sat and googled - not the internet, but my own head. There’s a world of interesting things tucked away in the universe of our minds, and we can discover some fascinating connections if we don’t get too organised about it. One thing that occurred to me was something Jesus said about there being three things that weigh a man’s heart down. It’s in Luke 21 : 14. One is dissipation, one is drunkenness and the third is anxieties of life.
Reading this verse again took me down an overgrown side-turning in the tangled forest of my memory.
One afternoon in the mid-eighties Bridget and I found ourselves enjoying cups of tea and some worryingly strange cake in the company of Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge at their home in Sussex. Malcolm was joining us for television recordings the next day, and we had been invited to his home to talk about our broadcasts. By then Muggeridge was very elderly and slightly confused about practical matters (he had forgotten whether it was radio or television), but I was childishly excited about meeting him. John Hall and I had always said that this man would be our first choice as someone to invite to tea. We never did, but here I was more or less fulfilling our dream. Such a pleasure!
The subject of alcohol arose. Malcolm, by now converted to Christianity, of course, and heavily into public repentance, declared that he had spent most of his life wondering around European cities in an alcoholic haze. Keen to sound interesting and knowledgeable, I said, ‘Ah yes, striking, isn’t it, that drunkenness is one of the specific things mentioned by Jesus that can weigh a man’s heart down.’
Malcolm fixed me with his gleaming, challenging eye, and said in his customary wide-mouthed growling voice, ‘I think you’ll find that ‘Jesus never specifically mentioned drunkenness.’
So in awe was I of my literary hero that I nearly expunged that verse from my memory and agreed with him. However, sanity prevailed and I found him the reference. Afterwards I said to Bridget, ‘I corrected Malcolm Muggeridge. Did you notice?’
Leaving that aside, I guess that this reference to drunkenness can be taken to include any addictions or single-issue fanaticisms that people typically embrace. And many of these obsessions can convincingly suggest quite laudable concerns with spiritual matters. End-times, healing, miracles, praise and worship, tradition, language, styles of churchmanship, funny voices, human optimism, all of these and many more can be substitutes for scary encounters with the God who functions as a genuine, unaffected, relaxed presence in environments where the fake uniforms and brassy bling of churchy rubbish haven’t a chance.
Why is love of money the root of all evil? Because it implies an obsession with the means of obtaining good things instead of actually using those means to collect the good things themselves. Why is the love of that list of things I’ve just mentioned the root of all evil? Because they are not intended to be the objects of our love. They are supposed to be the means by which we find our way into the presence of this God who might actually exist (!) and be waiting for followers of Jesus to bottom out into being who they are, and truly, honestly, fearfully follow him into bus shelters and palaces and shopping malls and slums and wine-bars and laundrettes and our own kitchens and sitting rooms, with no false armour, and in such a naked state that we
shall need him desperately. .
How exciting it might be, though, to live now, colliding with things and people, enjoying and laughing and weeping and getting angry as Jesus did. What a treat to keep our fascinated and newly refreshed eyes open to see what he might do through us when we give up our peripheral obsessions and follow him.