When Food and Clothes aren’t Enough…
In 1st Timothy chapter 6, Paul writes:
“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (vv6-8).
In chapter 5 Paul provided Timothy with some do’s and don’ts for ministering to widows and supporting elders worthy of ‘double honor.’ He encouraged Timothy to remind the Ephesian church (see 1:2) of the need to prioritize the weak, the vulnerable and those worthy of respect.
In this section of chapter 6 Paul turns his attention to false teachers who were making ministry in Ephesus quite difficult (see 6:4). These false teachers were conceited; a word that means ‘smoke-blinded.’ Their pride had grown to such an extent that reality was hidden from them, caused in part through their ‘unhealthy craving for controversy.’ This last phrase contains the idea of a morbid sickness fueled by a preoccupation with fresh revelations. Some commentators believe that their desire for fresh revelations was materially motivated. They had a theology of success which led them to charge people for the teaching they gave and others – mainly women – received (see Titus 1:11; 2 Pet. 2:3).
The words of Paul about food and clothes need to be understood in that materialistic context. Paul doesn’t teach for material gain or worldly success. In Corinth he supported himself even though he had every right to support from the Corinthian congregation:
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk… If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more. (1 Corinthians 9:3-7, 11-12)
Whether in Ephesus or Corinth Paul’s desire was for the Lord’s favor to be upon those who responded to the word of truth. To enable others to receive the blessing of God Paul was willing to live with less. He doesn’t need new revelation but prays that the truths of Christ will be made new in his heart.
Being willing to live with less is easier said than done. Yesterday both our dishwasher and washing machine broke and now need to be repaired. This is the second time the washing machine has broken in a few months. With seven people in the house, we need a washing machine! But a dish-washer? Hmmm…
This week God has challenged me to recognize that a lot of what I consider essential is in fact a blessing from God that should not be taken for granted. The fact is, I am unlikely to ever have to live off the bare necessities but the ‘food and clothes’ commitment has to be my goal nonetheless. We will repair our washer, I’m sure, but not at the cost of refusing to create space for God’s grace to work through us to touch others. Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians 9:11-12 speak of a command he did not keep. He had the right to more yet he did not exercise that right. The Corinthians were commanded to give but Paul let them off! There’s nothing wrong with dishwashers and washing machines, and more besides, but choosing to be content with food and clothes is often the best example.
The experiences of this week have also helped me appreciate the limitations of the ‘food and clothes’ challenge. Vulnerable members of society, for example, need more than ‘food’ and ‘clothes.’ In Tampa there are thousands of children who have the bare necessities but not much else. They have clothes on their back but these clothes are dirty and never washed. They have food to eat but this food is not healthy. As Christians we understandably rejoice when we put food in peoples’ stomaches and clothes on their back but sometimes food and clothes aren’t enough. For the vulnerable in society to grow into the children of God they can be in Christ demands with-ness not just witness through social action. Food and clothes, without a loving relationship that points to Jesus, aren’t going to lead people to the bread of life who nourishes the soul and the living water in whom no one will thirst.
This week God has reminded me that I can not turn a blind eye to the needy in my own backyard simply because they have food and clothes. Food and clothes aren’t enough for the lost, vulnerable and hurting to experience the lavish generosity of God in Christ. They need more than food and clothes – they need our investment in them as people loved by God! 1st Corinthians 9:11-12 speak of a command Paul did not keep. 1st Timothy 6:8 challenges me to live off less so that others can experience the lavish generosity of a God who gave everything for them. Both texts offer the same challenge. My prayer this year is that every Christ-follower will be willing to live off less and invest themselves fully in others. May your willingness to say no to what is rightfully yours cause others to experience that the promises of God in Christ are surely “Yes!” and “Amen.”