As I drive around town, I often notice signs advertising an upcoming auction of a house and all its contents. These once belonged to elderly people who left no heirs to inherit their belongings, or perhaps the heirs have no use for their parents’ clutter and have decided to sell it all at auction. My friends who enjoy going to auctions tell me that great bargains can be found on antiques, collectibles and the like. I don’t know about anyone else, but this strikes me as sobering and sad. Sad because another human being once treasured these things and took care of them and now they are sold for mere pennies on the dollar. Sobering because I look around my house and especially my basement, and I have a sense of foreshadowing about my own accumulation of stuff.
I can remember the day I moved out of my parents’ house at age 17, when everything I owned fit inside two small suitcases and a cardboard box. It all fit comfortably in the trunk my grandfather’s Dodge Dart. By the time I moved to my own apartment a couple years later, I filled my own car with stuff: trunk, back seat and front seat. When I made my last interstate move, from Michigan to Fort Wayne, I had so much stuff that both my pickup truck and the largest truck available at U-Haul were filled to capacity, and I still left another couple truckloads behind, intending to come back for it later.
Over the course of my life, I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff. My personal library alone includes hundreds of books, and although I have made some sizeable donations to other people’s libraries, I continue to buy more books. And then there is the collection of Dickens Village Christmas houses by Department 56. When Gayle and I first moved in together, there were 7 of them, and since we both liked them, each Christmas we bought one more addition to the collection. Two years ago, thanks to a generous donation by someone who was trying to rid herself of her grandmother’s collection, we inherited another 30 houses—so many that we can’t even put them all on display because we don’t have enough space in the house for them. Yet we keep them.
“A person’s life does not consist in an abundance of possessions,” Jesus says (Lk 12:15). Although I don’t consider myself wealthy, there is no doubt I have a lot of possessions. That makes me uncomfortable. And while there is a tendency in all of us to make excuses for what we own, I don’t think the focus of this parable is so much on the possessions as it is on the man’s focus on and attachment to his possessions.
Jesus refuses to take sides in this inheritance battle. He knows that both sons have turned their focus on the things in their lives rather than the people in their lives. It wasn’t because there was so much of an inheritance to share; it was their desire to have a larger share than they needed that caused Jesus to tell the story of the farmer who wanted to hoard his bumper crop. The inheritance itself didn’t matter; what mattered was that the possessions were taking possession of them.
The temptation we all face is to measure our lives by the stuff we own – by the size of our home, the make of our car, our bank balances. Some of us measure our worth by the number of bathrooms in our houses, while others measure it by how many pairs of shoes we own. Some use jewelry, some use cars, some use Department 56 Christmas houses. This temptation is real for all of us, no matter how much or how little we own.
This is true partly because our society measures our worth in financial terms. There are annual lists of the richest people in the world, measured in billions of dollars. I have never seen a list of the most spiritual people, the most loving people, the most generous people.
Probably all of us have, in a moment of fantasy said, “If I won the lottery, I would…” And we proceed to list the things we would buy, the bills we would pay off, the trust fund we would set up for our kids and sometimes, at the end of our list, a mention of leaving something to charity. Rarely do we ask ourselves the question, “How will I use all the resources that have been given to me to further the Reign of God?”
This, too, makes me uncomfortable.
In God’s economy, what matters most is not how much we earn or how much we have, but rather how much and why we give. The truth is that the only people who are really in control of their money are the ones who give it away. And only those who recognize God as Source know that the resources with which they have been entrusted are meant to be shared.
When my grandparents were alive, I frequently heard reference to how things were living through the Great Depression. My father, who grew up in the Depression, told me he didn’t even know he was poor until much later, even though his own father had abandoned his mother with three children in the late 1930s never to return, rarely sending even a small amount of money to help raise his children. The reason he didn’t know he was poor was because his mother moved the family in with the grandmother who, although poor herself, still found a way to give – whether it was offering a glass of water to a passing stranger or a lard and sugar sandwich shared with hobos—men we would today refer to as homeless– who came regularly looking for food. Those who live below the poverty line but still find a way to share don’t feel poor, while those who have six-figure salaries but can’t part with anything always seem to struggle on the verge of poverty.
The irony of wealth is that when we become less possessive of what we have, our possessions lose their control over us. When we are in control of our possessions we become more generous because we realize the truth that we actually own nothing – we are merely stewards of the abundance God has entrusted to us. It never was about us, we learn, it was always about being in the divine flow of abundance and making sure that those whose lives intersected with our own experienced God’s abundance through our sharing. This is true of our personal wealth and of our national resources. There are those who are so fearful of loss that they rant and rave about the evils of taxation, despite the fact that women and children just down the street from them don’t have enough to eat or have adequate housing or medical care. For Christians, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a guarantee of personal wealth at the expense of others. The Gospel calls all of us, especially North Americans in this era, to release our fear of economic ruin and share the abundance God gives us with all those who struggle just to survive. This is, Jesus tells us again and again, the only way to heal a hurting world—in other words, to build the Reign of God.