“Possessions and Riches”
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Luke 12: 13-21
years ago I was mugged and stabbed one evening in
But I did have emotional and psychological reactions. Some were emotional and psychological reactions you might expect. I had to force myself to walk in my neighborhood after dark for a time. It required a firm act of will to do this for a while. Shortly after this experience, I decided to lose weight and get healthier, and I became a vegetarian.
I had one psychological reaction that I would have never expected. For several months after this incident, I found myself once or twice a day experiencing an almost irresistible compulsion to buy something. I seemed to need to spend money. I became for several months a compulsive shopper once or twice a day.
After a couple of foolish purchases, my compromise with this compulsion was to buy newspapers. I love newspapers. There’s always something interesting in them. They don’t cost much. So for several months, I read not only the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times every day, but also the Cherry Hill Courier Post, the Norristown Times Herald, the Delaware County Times, and the Atlantic City Press.
Fortunately, the compulsion gradually disappeared and after a few months it just went away, although it can temporarily reappear still today in bicycle shops and book stores.
Here’s what I think was happening, as best I can figure it out.
The experience of being mugged taught me down deep inside in a new way that I am vulnerable and fragile…that I am ultimately powerless. Anything can happen at any time.
Others of us have had this experience. We’ve been fired by surprise; our doctor has given us bad news; a partner has left us; our house has burned down; our car has crashed; death has suddenly taken a loved one. These things can confront us with the reality of our mortality and susceptibility. Anything can happen at any time. It is a truth we mostly avoid thinking about.
This is what I think happened to me after I was mugged. Deep inside myself, somewhere beneath my cerebral cortex, my soul and spirit became aware of my daily vulnerability and finitude. Anything can happen at any time.
Spending money became for me for that time a ritual I used to try to persuade myself that I had power and potency in order to reduce the anxiety that came from my experience of ultimate vulnerability.
Buying things was a ritual I used to try to convince myself that I was not as vulnerable as life had just taught me I was. It made no sense as a ritual. Buying newspapers did not make me safer or more secure. Owning a copy of the Delaware Times did not make me less vulnerable.
But ultimately we are not fully rational creatures. In a rational world, there are rules of supply and demand that govern the marketplace. In the real world, money and possessions and ownership are not just about what they might appear to be on the surface of things. They take on other meanings.
Buying and amassing and owning may be – at some level – ritualistic acts that we use to ward of the anxiety of our vulnerability, insecurity and impotence.
If we can get a sense of this, we are a long way toward understanding what Jesus is trying to teach us in this passage from Luke today.
The story is this. Jesus was teaching and a man said to him, “Teacher, Rabbi, tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me.”
This was not an inappropriate request. Part of the work of rabbis was to arbitrate conflicts between family members, neighbors and co-workers.
But Jesus would not do it. Getting in the middle of family fights about inheritances was not on Jesus’ short list of the way he intended to spend his time on earth.
After saying no to the man, Jesus did turn to the crowd he was teaching and he used the man’s request as a teachable moment.
He made a statement and then told a story. The statement is translated in the New Revised Standard version this way: “Take care. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12: 15)
If you look at the original Greek in Luke, this is a very smooth translation of what it says, but it misses some of the nuance. Joseph Fitzmyer translates it this way: “Take care! Be on guard against every form of greed, because one’s life does not depend upon one’s belongings, even when they are more than sufficient.”[i]
Notice that Jesus’ warning is specifically directed toward those of us who have more than we absolutely need. He says: “Be on guard against every form of greed,” – there is apparently more than one form of greed – “because one’s life does not depend upon one’s belongings, even when they are more than sufficient.”
Those of us who have more than we need are at particular risk. We need to be especially careful, Jesus is saying. We need to be careful not to begin to suppose that our belongings give us life.
Then Jesus tells a story to illustrate his teaching. It is a tough story…a story I don’t like much. I think I have managed to avoid preaching on it my 40 years in ministry.
The story is about a rich farmer who has an unusually productive year. He doesn’t have enough space to contain his crops. So he tears down his barns and builds bigger ones. He says to himself: “I’m set for life. I can eat, drink, and be merry without worry now.”
But that very night…he dies. He dies. His new barns full of crops are no good to him at all. This is a tough story.
Now, Jesus was not an ascetic. He liked good food and good wine. They called him a glutton and a drinker. (Luke 7: 34) He frequently went to parties at the homes of affluent people. On at least one occasion he told a rich man that he was coming to be his house guest for a while. He invited himself to be the man’s house guest. (Luke 19:5)
Jesus enjoyed partaking of the good things of life. So what Jesus has to say here is not about whether or not it is okay to live well. It is not a guilt trip.
What Jesus is saying is that having more than we need makes us susceptible to a particular kind of delusion. The delusion is that that having possessions and money to spend and being able to buy things takes away our vulnerability and mortality and susceptibility. The delusion is that our affluence somehow makes us safe and gives us security and power over our existence. The delusion is that our affluence saves us.
Let’s be realistic. There are things we can buy that make us more secure. Access to good health care does make us less vulnerable. I actually think the best way to assure that we and our families and my loved ones get good health care is for us to work to make health care a human right and to make medical insurance universal.
a home makes us less vulnerable. Safe affordable decent housing should be a
human right. Nobody should be compelled to sleep on church steps, which is
Access to healthy food, education, therapy, safe neighborhoods…all these things that money can buy are good things and they do make us less vulnerable and safer and they do make life better and we should try to make them available to more and more people.
These things are not delusions.
But buying, owning and amassing more than we need in order to cover over the anxiety of the awareness within ourselves that we are mortal and finite is a delusion. And this is what we are all in danger of doing. Be careful, Jesus says, your possessions do not give you life.
It is the temptation we all face…to try to deny the anxiety of our finitude, our mortality. Anything can happen at any time.
What if instead of masking it or trying to run away from it, we lived into it? What if every day when we begin our day we began with a ritual that said, one day I will die? It could be today. Anything can happen at any time. What can I do today to live a truly rich life? To be rich toward God. Not someday when I have finished my education or have my dream job or have built up my pension or I am retired. How can I live a rich life today?
For me, it seems that there are four things that are eternal – love, justice, truth and beauty. How can I invest my life today in that which is eternal: relationships, work that makes a difference, learning, and beauty.
James Tinnemeyer talks about the images of jetsam and flotsam. Jetsam is the stuff that, when a storm is coming at sea, we throw overboard to keep the ship from sinking. Flotsam is what is left over after a shipwreck that we can hang onto until we make our way to shore.
Jesus invites us to know the difference.
[i] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (Doubleday), 967.