1 Timothy 6:1–21 is a work of exhortation. At the close of the letter, the author is offering up wisdom for living—some of it practical, some of it spiritual, and some of it both. The conceit of the letter and therefore this chapter is that it is advice to young Timothy, the protégé and the fellow worker of Paul. But the wisdom offered here is not only to Timothy, but to the reader also, who stands in for the faithful at large, whom the author also imagines as an audience for the letter. This is personal exhortation, but it is also a general one.
It is striking then that the author lingers so long on advice about the economic life of human beings. There are other pieces here too—a standard Pauline virtue list makes its appearance (see v.11), as in Galatians 5:16–26, Ephesians 5:1–10, 1 Thessalonians 5:12–22, and Romans 12:9–21; 13:8–14, among others—but the centre of this discourse is the value of human life as reflected and refracted through economy and social constructions. The Pastoral Epistles are known as reservoirs of conservative theology and ecclesiology, working to push the Pauline tradition toward acceptability and sustainability as the movement spread into the broader Roman world. But here at the end of 1 Timothy we find these conservative, stabilizing sentiments alongside ones that would be at home in much more revolutionary settings.
Scholars debate the demographics of earliest Christianity. Was it a movement of the lowest classes, slaves, and women, or did it comprise a much broader cross-section of the Roman world? Did its adherents practice a form of socialized life, or was the church an extension of normative Roman patronage systems, with wealthier and higher-class members underwriting the life of the community in an expression of the honour/shame system? There is enough in this chapter of 1 Timothy to support several different possibilities. Admonitions to social order (slaves should regard their masters with honour) and a rejection of wealth co-exist here, and it seems that the author of 1 Timothy expected to have readers and hearers from multiple locations on the social landscape.
In this regard, 1 Timothy is like Diego Rivera’s Frozen Assets, which sees the city in multiple ways at once. Rivera’s mural takes account of the soaring skyscrapers and the titans of finance that they imply, but it also focuses on the experience of the homeless poor, who are packed into a shelter like sardines into a can. The author of 1 Timothy understood that the audience of the letter would be reading or hearing it from a number of different perspectives.
Perspective also matters in the photograph of the ‘slave pen’ from Alexandria. While it is a sympathetic image that provokes solidarity with and compassion for the persons enslaved and confined there, the view is from the outside—from freedom—looking inward. This might be something like the view of the community from the perspective of ‘those who in the present age are rich’ in 1 Timothy 6:17–19. If it is true that they are patrons of the gathered Jesus-followers, then the author of the letter might be urging them toward more solidarity with the poor and dispossessed among them.
The overwritten, annotated, and reworked work of Banksy in Calais might be our best analogue for what we find in 1 Timothy 6. It is a commentary on status, wealth, inclusion, and difference, but it is a multidirectional one, with indistinct authorship and overlapping messages. It gestures at the inherent worth of persons even as it links that worth to economic value, and appeals to the possibility of wealth as an argument for human dignity. Like 1 Timothy 6, the Banksy in Calais speaks across class and status toward multiple locations, and like 1 Timothy, the image leaves us with as many questions as answers.
Dickerman, Leah, Diego Rivera, and Anna Indych-López. 2011. Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art)
Ibrahim, Yasmin, and Anita Howarth. 2018. Calais and its Border Politics: From Control to Demolition (Abingdon and New York: Routledge)
Longenecker, Bruce W. 2010. Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
6 Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. 2Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.
Teach and urge these duties. 3If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, 4he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, 5and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. 6There is great gain in godliness with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; 8but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. 9But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.
11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; 15and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
17 As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, 19thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.
20 O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, 21for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.
Grace be with you.