LOVE & MONEY: A Zen Reflection that Starts With a Christian Text

LOVE & MONEY: A Zen Reflection that Starts With a Christian Text June 25, 2017

A Zen Reflection That Starts With a Christian Text

James Myoun Ford
Blue Cliff Zen Sangha

I stumbled on a version of what follows that I’d written a couple of years ago. Thought I could tighten and tweak and that it might be useful. Especially right now…

Paul in his first letter to Timothy asserts, “For the love of money is the root of all evil…”

I recall that line being thundered from the pulpits of my childhood. Ours was a poor people’s religion, and our preachers knew precisely what that line meant. It applied to those men who had their feet on the necks of pretty much all the men and often the women in our congregations, most bosses and pretty much every banker. It was closely related to that other great line, one directly from Jesus, how it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter paradise. And it was a winner with us.

It really is a great line, one that many have cited over the years as a challenge to the chronic chasing after gain that pervade our culture. And despite the occasional pointing to some benign culture somewhere that people don’t visit very often that isn’t riddled with avarice, I suspect in some deeper ways this assertion speaks a harsh truth about pretty much all cultures. Certainly it speaks a truth about the people within them. And, I mean people like you and me.

However I was reading something online and made the mistake I usually avoid of wandering into the comments. Although for once instead of feeling I needed to wash myself after reading, this one contained an interesting assertion. The writer said that that translation is wrong. A more accurate rendering would be “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil…” A much more nuanced reading. With which as a liberal sort of guy, with more hands than Tevye, I find some resonances.

Now Timothy, both the first letter and the second, as well as Titus,” the so-called “Pastoral Epistles” are not generally believed to actually have been written by the Paul who most agree wrote the bulk of the those letters enshrined in the New Testament. Not many in the scholarly community, anyway. The general consensus among that crowd is that they are vastly more likely the work of an anonymous Christian writing as much as a hundred years after Paul’s death.

Not that that matters so much for me. I’m not much of an enthusiast for appeals to authority. And especially not when the authority is supposed to be God dictating something or other that by some strange coincidence agrees with the writer’s previously held opinion. In fact for me a rule of thumb is any text that purports to the word of the divine should be treated with even more skepticism than ordinary truth claims.

Now, if it is good counsel, if it makes sense to a reasonable person, if it leads to healthy choices, kindness, or generosity, that’s sufficient for me. And, yes, I pick up those are my prior assumptions. But, they come out of a lifetime of seeing what leads to happiness for individuals and justice in life. And, besides, this is my meditation.

Now, if the sacred text rings hollow, for instance some other advice in the Pastorals like ordering women to keep quiet in churches, and slaves to be submissive, well, my conscience, common sense, and a little thinking things through lead me to dismiss it as what it is, someone selling a bill of goods. Instead of healing it becomes about crowd control. Specifically in the case of the Pastorals it’s almost certainly written by someone worrying about how to get the nascent Jesus organization, which was anarchic and focused on Jesus’ imminent return, sufficiently on the same page to survive in a world where Jesus in fact did not return.

All this noted, how about that “love of money” thing? Is it anything more than sour grapes for the losers in life? Today with a president who likes that epithet “loser” for, well, anyone who isn’t filthy rich like him takes on new nuances. That noted, the issues around the quest for wealth are also deeply human questions, and even if the author is sexist, and supports slavery it doesn’t mean he didn’t see some things that are problematic, and held them up for closer examination. And I do believe the “love of money” is one of those universal religious questions important for all of us.

What about that quest for wealth? And so, whether by Paul or pseudo-Paul, what is a fair reading of the tenth verse of the sixth chapter of the first letter to Timothy? According to the anonymous Wikipedia article on the phrase “love of money,” Daniel B Wallace in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, asserts the sentence can be read accurately in six different ways. “There are two reasons for this: first, it is difficult to tell whether the noun ‘root’ is intended to be indefinite, definite, or qualitative. Second, the Greek word for ‘all’ may mean ‘all without exclusion’ or ‘all without distinction.’” A little follow up shows Professor Wallace is no friend of loose interpretation, so I’m inclined to accept his thesis here.

It’s not that the translators of the King James text were wrong, but that they chose one of several reasonable readings. What I find intriguing is how pretty much all contemporary translations go for a more careful and generous reading. The love of money becomes “a” source for “many” evils. Considering how many of these translations are the product of more conservative Christians, their choice of a more nuanced reading of the text is itself interesting. Particularly, I find, in a culture that is swimming in the love of money. If I didn’t think these people were seeking the true and authentic translation of the text, I might think they were shilling for the “love of money” crowd.

Now, I’m a Buddhist of a liberal sort. And, how my Christian sisters and brothers choose to engage their sacred texts is for the most part their business. However, as a Buddhist, as someone alive in this particular time and place with all its glories, and all its ills, many directly connected with a culture of avarice, I am deeply concerned with the question of the “love of money.”

In my sangha, in the liturgy that’s used most every day there’s a sort of public confession. It acknowledges my personal responsibility living and acting out of endlessly arising greed, hatred, and ignorance. For me these are the three archetypes of human delusion, the poisons of our hearts, the constellations of grasping, of aversion, and of certainty.

And I find “love of money” is a beautifully poetic description of greed, that constellation of grasping. And like anything important it is indeed complicated. Our contemporary western culture is built upon greed. But to stop there with the challenge is not enough. Within that constellation are some very good things. The wealth generated has created a level of comfort for so many people is unmatched in history. And of the attributes our capitalist culture celebrates that are really good, as I see it creativity is pretty much at the top. Also a capitalist culture is rife with people trying on new things or at the very least trying to improve old things. But, it is also all about greed, about that love of money, all about making more, always more. At some point that need for more leads to many evil actions. And it is destructive of the human heart.

So, how do we live with it? While I do think much of contemporary Christianity has been coopted by the love of money crowd busy reworking their scriptures to show Jesus as the best businessman in history, and that’s a big part of why people shy away from the harsher interpretation of the text, I suggest there is nonetheless something to the complexities of that line in Timothy. The problem is the love of money. And the love of money is the source of a host of problems. Like Tevye, Guanyin, the archetype of compassion has many hands. We should be aware of them all.

Here’s a thought. We live as human beings woven out of a mix of demonic forces. Demonic in the sense of supernatural, or, so large and complex it seems supernatural, and often, although not necessarily so, malign. With grasping, with greed, with the love of money we have a force so compelling that it certainly feels beyond the laws of nature. And, if uncontrolled it is ultimately destructive. Within our grasping we become a force of nature, harnessing it to our benefit, but, not evenly, not even vaguely so, and with a shadow that possibly will lead to the destruction of our atmosphere. (But for a while our portfolios, oh, my the profits!)
So, the spiritual question. How do we live in a world where desire is essential to our survival, and greed is the very seed of our destruction?

Well… This brings me to that koan, that question which is a direct pointing to some aspect of the fundamental matter, and with it an invitation to stand there, to notice, and to incorporate what is found into who we, you and I are.

Case forty-five in the Twelfth century Chinese anthology, the Wumenguan, the Gateless Gate. It’s as simple as pie, and as complicated. Master Wuzu tells the assembly that the Buddha and the Buddha to come both are servants to another. And then he asks the question. Who is that other?

As I reflect on that koan, as I think of the complexities of grasping which is not just what we do, but what we are, and the promise vaguely told within the depths of my heart, that we are not trapped, that we need not always continue the way we have, I recall that old song about how you can’t go over it, you can’t go around it, you can’t go under it; you have to go through it.

We are not only composed of greed, we are greed. And if that is true, what’s the way through? Is there a way through? Fortunately the answer is yes. But. The image in Buddhism for the great error is grasping. People sometimes think that means instead of grasping we need to renounce, to give up. Many Buddhists think this is the answer. Absent oneself. Give up. Don’t care. Certainly don’t want.

But, we are talking about ourselves and the stuff of our being. How do we reject ourselves, where the only way to really not care is to die. So, perhaps the yes comes another way. It is the very other that Gautama and Maitreya serve. And the solution is not difficult at all. We find it in how we engage what cannot be avoided. The way through is loosening up, is holding lightly. Freedom is found in how we live open handed, and open hearted.

It really is transformative. Holding the reality of our lives lightly, the power that is greed becomes generosity. (And those other demons change, as well: hatred becomes clarity, and certainty becomes curiosity…) We are powerful, and we are dangerous, but as we loosen up, as we hold lightly, we begin to see the connections, and we begin to see beyond our skins.
And like the sun rising in the morning, hope births into the world.

Here we discover that the words money and love need not lead to evil. Contrary to what our American Supreme Court says, money isn’t speech. But, it is power. Like love. And no doubt money and love are dangerous things. So, do not get coopted by money, or its love, don’t think it is God. That is the source of the evil men do. But it need not be.

Instead if you live in the world, live in the world, accumulate money honorably, and spend it wisely. And generously, do this all in service of that other. Do not put your foot on anyone’s neck. If you succeed reach out and help another. And as a member of a community, do the work that makes the world more generous and responsible to all its members. And don’t limit that to humans.

Open handed, open hearted. Live into the power, be the power. But don’t think it is God. To put it another way, knowing who that other is is in fact the great secret, the mysterious point of the spiritual journey, the path of salvation, salve, healing for a hurt world.

So. Who is the other?

She. He. It is here, right here, found as we are, and as we can be. And here we discover what bodhisattva action is, what the awakened life in the world is. Here where the cries of the world are our cries, and the healing of the world is in our hands.

Open handed. Open hearted.

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