The world lost another great Christian with the death of Eugene Peterson last month. Although not a household name outside Christian circles like Billy Graham, Peterson had a powerful impact in the church around the world all through his nearly 86 years of life. Widely regarded as “the shepherd’s shepherd”, he will be missed.
His influence extended to the NSW political scene. When teaching at Vancouver’s Regent College in the mid-1990’s Peterson met a young man studying to become an Anglican minister in Sydney. On an essay submitted by that young man about how he thought God was calling him to serve diverse communities through ordained ministry, Peterson wrote in the margin “or maybe in Australian politics”. Mike Baird took that suggestion on board and, in due course, became the Premier of our State.
Peterson is best known for his version of the Bible, The Message. More a paraphrase than a translation, The Message has opened the scriptures to many through its vibrant, contemporary language. Bono is a fan.
So in honour of Dr Peterson, I want to have a look at how The Message renders the Bible’s most famous verse on money. In traditional translations 1 Timothy 6:10 reads as follows:
“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
Not, as popular memory has it, “the love of money is THE root of ALL evil”. We have the King James Version to thank for that misunderstanding, but most recent translations get it right, removing the inference that every wicked thing can be traced back to money.
Anyway, how did Eugene Peterson render this text? The Message puts it this way:
“Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble.”
The Message was written to capture the idea that the Bible is a love letter from God to humanity. I think Peterson was onto something when he used “lust for money” instead of the more literal “love of money”. In context, the apostle Paul wasn’t trying to say anything positive about this attitude towards money, so Peterson deliberately uses a word that has more worldly, negative connotations. The Greek word in the text is phileo, a word used of an admiration and affection between equals – such as brotherly love. Peterson captures the idea that it’s wrong to regard money as your equal! It’s meant to be our servant, not our brother, and to “love money” is to give it influence over us that’s inappropriate. It’s fair enough to call that “lust”.
The Message’s approach to the second half of the verse is also insightful. It captures the thought that this lust for money brings trouble specifically to the person who does the lusting. “The root of all kinds of evil” is a more general sounding term and, while it’s true that many evils in the world can be traced to someone lusting for money, it’s not really what the apostle Paul is warning Timothy about in these verses.
Context is everything, so it’s worth looking at how The Message renders the sequence of verses 9-11:
“But, if it’s only money these leaders are after, they’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after.”
I think Peterson has it wrong by making this only about leaders. It’s really about any Christian who “wants to get rich” (NIV). That’s how I’ll interpret the passage.
So the process being described is that when a Christian prioritises getting more money as their life goal, this leads them down a destructive, trouble filled path. It’s a path full of obstacles to their relationship with God and temptations to abandon their moral foundation; it’s a path on which, when they inevitably stumble, they’ll be badly injured, in ways from which it’s almost impossible to heal and that will have devastating implications for the whole of their life. In fact, a near certain end result is that they abandon their faith and lose Christ completely.
Eugene Peterson personally didn’t do that. From what I understand, though his books earned lots of money, he lived a simple life and gave much of it away to support young theology students in their studies. He called his focus on following Christ “the long obedience”.
In its own way, the path of the long obedience is as difficult as the one that a lust for money leads you down. But the end result is the polar opposite. Peterson apparently was full of joy in his final moments and, as death approached, said “let’s go”. When my time comes, that’s how I want to leave this world too!
Warren Bird is Executive Director of Uniting Financial Services