When I began the King's English, I was looking forward to covering this phrase. I only realised today that I never did! Well here it is, finally.
On the surface it’s a quaint archaism. But it speaks of a deadly trap. “Filthy lucre” is used four times in the King James Bible and in each case it refers to a grave temptation for gospel ministers (1 Timothy 3:3,8; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:2). Eg:
Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind. (1 Peter 5:2)
The KJV follows Tyndale in leaving the Vulgate’s lucrum untranslated. Lucrum is the Latin word from which we get “lucrative”. It just means profit. The underlying Greek word is a compound word meaning “unclean gain”. So here’s what we’re being warned against: unclean gain, base profit, filthy lucre.
The repetition of this biblical warning should make us think. But it rarely does. Many times people have joked with me: “What attracted you to the ministry? It can’t have been the money!” Everyone has a good laugh. Everyone except the Apostles. They were worried about ministering for the money in the first century. What about in the twenty first century when Christianity is big business?
Listen to John Bunyan illustrate the dangers of lucre.
Then CHRISTIAN and HOPEFUL went till they came at a delicate plain, called Ease, where they went with much content; but that plain was but narrow, so they were quickly got over it. Now at the further side of that plain was a little hill called Lucre, and in that hill a silver mine, which some of them that had formerly gone that way, because of the rarity of it, had turned aside to see; but going too near the brink of the pit, the ground being deceitful under them, broke, and they were slain; some also had been maimed there, and could not to their dying day be their own men again.
Then I saw in my dream, that a little off the road, over against the silver mine, stood DEMAS (gentleman-like), to call to passengers to come and see; who said to CHRISTIAN and his fellow, "Ho, turn aside hither, and I will show you a thing."
CHRISTIAN. What thing is so deserving as to turn us out of the way to see it?
DEMAS. Here is a silver mine, and some digging in it for treasure; if you will come, with a little pain you may richly provide for yourselves.
HOPEFUL. Then said HOPEFUL, "Let us go and see."
CHRISTIAN. "Not I," said CHRISTIAN; "I have heard of this place before now and how many have there been slain; and besides, that treasure is a snare to those that seek it, for it hinders them in their pilgrimage." (Pilgrim’s Progress)
It is indeed a snare and a hindrance. So how can we avoid it?
At heart, we must recapture a vision of the Generous Father. Our God treats nothing as a means to some other end. It is His eternal nature to love the other. First His Son, and then, through His Son and by the Spirit, He loves the world. “God so loved the world He gave” (John 3:16). He is a Fountain of life and love whose glory is to pour Himself out. His activity is not mercenary. He’s not in the whole “creation-salvation game” for what He can get out of it. He commits Himself to us for the sake of committing Himself to us. Because this is the kind of God He is. He genuinely loves to give and He gives to love.
Once we’ve grasped this, we’ve learnt the secret of life and of ministry. Immanuel Kant wasn’t so far off really. Treating people as ends in themselves is absolutely right and good. If even God does it, then it must be the good life. But such living is the fruit of the gospel. It’s the good life that comes about with this good God.
So when I’m tempted to minister for “shameful gain” (NIV) or “filthy lucre” I should not be surprised. It’s actually a perennial temptation. But look first to the Father, poured out in Jesus. I have all I need in His generosity. And look, secondly, to “the flock of God which is among you.” They are not means towards further gain. They are my “crown” and “joy” (Philippians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:19). They are my reward – a reward far greater than that snare and hindrance: “filthy lucre.”