By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 12:13-21
This personal testimony is posted on a website sponsored by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. A woman wrote:
I’ve always had trouble throwing things away. Magazines, newspapers, old clothes… What if I need them one day? I don’t want to risk throwing something out that might be valuable. The large piles of stuff in our house keep growing so it’s difficult to move around and sit or eat together as a family.
My husband is upset and embarrassed, and we get into horrible fights. I’m scared when he threatens to leave me. My children won’t invite friends over, and I feel guilty that the clutter makes them cry. But I get so anxious when I try to throw anything away. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, and I don’t know what to do.
The mental health disorder of hoarding has gained increased attention in recent years. Like other disorders, it is impacted by brain chemistry. But it has also been linked to traumatic loss, particularly early in life. Research reveals that foster children who have been passed from home to home are significantly more likely to develop hoarding behaviors. Feelings of insecurity and fear are common to those who suffer a hoarding disorder. It is a “stress response that involves holding on to things because having more makes them feel safer and happier,” notes Elaine Birchall, a Canadian social worker who counsels hoarders.[i] Hoarding is a real and a serious mental health condition.
Greed, on the other hand, is a real and serious spiritual condition addressed often in Scripture like this morning’s parable. Last week I also preached a parable from Luke’s gospel. That parable focused on one of Luke’s favorite themes: prayer. But this morning’s parable also addresses a favorite theme for Luke: the topic of wealth and possessions. To be perfectly frank, Luke doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the wealthy. The Jesus of Luke’s gospel, more than any other, highlights the truth that excess wealth can endanger our souls. For better or worse, our relationship with our possessions impacts our relationships with God and others.
Also like last week’s message, this morning’s parable requires an understanding of first century Mediterranean culture and its values. One of the distinctions I noted last week is that it is a collective or communal culture. People don’t think of themselves as individuals; they consider themselves – identify themselves – in relation to their group.
Last week I also mentioned the importance of honor in Mediterranean culture. Honor can never be “taken.” One cannot “toot their own horn” as we are sometimes encouraged to do in American culture. Rather, honor is earned; bestowed upon someone by another because of honorable actions. Those who are honorable demonstrate loyalty to their group and uphold their group’s norms and values.
Finally, Mediterranean culture was a patron/benefaction social system. Those who were wealthy were only viewed as honorable if they functioned as patrons, sharing their wealth with those less fortunate. They would give to the poor and needy who would “pay them back” with public praise that elevated their honor or reputation. That was the return on their investment, so to speak. There were no social services like we find in American today. The social “safety net” of antiquity was the generosity of the wealthy motivated by a desire for honor, the by-product of public praise.
The parable Jesus tells this morning is told in response to a request made by someone in the audience. A man has been listening to the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching and hopes Jesus will intercede in a dispute between him and his brother over the family inheritance. But, I don’t think Jesus’ response was what he’d hoped for. It sounds as if Jesus is chastising the man when he says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then, as he so often does, Jesus elaborates on his response by telling a parable. It is the story of a wealthy land owner. The Greek word used to describe his land makes clear: this is no family farm; this is big business; perhaps akin to agri-business today. And, having such a vast area to plant, one can assume a large harvest. This particular year, the harvest is exceptional; so large, the man lacks adequate storage for his surplus.
Now, there is one more cultural component to this story that we, in our context, would not comprehend. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people thought that all good, all goods were limited. There was no mass production like we experience today. Today, when something runs out, we go to the store or to Amazon.com. We seem to experience no limits. We live awash in an endless supply of products, information, and technology. Even when our money runs out, we go out and get more by extending our credit. But in the culture of Jesus’ time, there were limits; all good things were limited and if someone had more than they needed, then someone else was living in need or want. So, if this land owner has more than he needs, more than he can use, the honorable thing to do would be to share his excess; acting as a patron toward the less fortunate. But, he is not honorable; he suffers from the spiritual malady of greed.
It is like a pie. Imagine, if you can, a pie is cut into slices. Because I love pie anyway, I will start off with a little larger slice for myself and then slice it up for others. But, imagine if I have 6 people at dinner with me and 6 slices. If I decide to keep another slice for myself for later that means that one of my guests does not get any pie because the good pie is limited. There is only so much of it and if I take more than I should, someone else won’t get any. That was the ancient understanding of limited good.
It is an interesting thing to note that our New Testament seems to consider greed and idol worship as one and the same. Colossians 3:5 says, “Then put to death those parts of you that belong to the earth – fornication, indecency, lust, foul cravings and greed which is nothing less than idolatry.”[ii] Likewise in Ephesians we read: “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”[iii]
So why are idolatry and greed defined as one in the same? Well, because it boils down to trust. We worship what we trust. When we worship God, we trust God and we don’t look to other things to provide security. But when we succumb to greed – when we have and keep more than what we need – we place our trust in that excess stuff. We wrongly believe that unnecessary excess provides us some long-term security. But, it doesn’t and it can’t… no more so for us than for the wealthy land owner of our parable. By having more than he needs he thinks he has provided himself with long-term security. Yet that very night, he dies and – as the saying goes “You can’t take it with you.” What he had greedily hoarded will now be liberated for the use of others. The man of the parable quite literally loses his life. Yet, spiritually, life is lost anytime we surrender ourselves to stuff; anytime we put our trust in stuff. Proverbs 1:19 says, “Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”
Quaker writer and pastor, Richard Foster warns that, as post-modern Americans, we live, increasingly, in a culture where we are possessed by our possessions. We become possessed by our possessions. He writes, “Covetousness we call ambition. Hoarding we call prudence. Greed we call industry.”[iv]
A man who owned a very nice and expensive home in California felt the awareness of a spiritual struggle within; that his possessions were beginning to possess him. In the midst of his struggle, the Santa Anna winds blew a forest fire in his direction. His home and all his belongings went up in smoke. A reporter approached him to interview him about his tragic loss. But the man felt, at long last, a victory over his ongoing, spiritual struggle. He proclaimed, “Now, I’m a free man.”
Friends the mental health disorder of hoarding and the spiritual condition of greed are not the same thing. And yet, greed also often involves holding on to things because having more makes us feel safer and happier. But it is an illusion. It is a form of idolatry that jeopardizes our relationship with God and with others. Unlike the culture around us today, Jesus reminds us that our “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”[v] No amount of stuff can ever make us safer or happier.
So what are we to do if we recognize in ourselves an unhealthy attachment to stuff? What can we do if, like the woman who confessed on that website, we feel an intense anxiety when we thinking of letting go of our stuff? And how can we grow our trust in God as our only real and reliable security? Well, through the spiritual practices of generosity and simplicity. We’ve all heard that cliché “The best defense is a good offense, right?” As followers of Jesus, when we take up the spiritual practices of generosity and simplicity, it builds our trust in God. It is as the old Shaker hymn says, “’Tis the gift to be simple; ‘tis the gift to be free.” If we want to be set free from our possessions, we need to practice generosity and simplicity. If we want to learn to live truly by trust and faith, then we must let go of all the excess stuff we’re holding on to. Like the rich land owner, some day all of us will leave it all behind. Someday our lives in this world will come to an end. And the ability to part with the stuff in this world now is a lifelong practice session for the ultimate letting go we experience in death.
Several of you were here yesterday afternoon at Trinity to attend the funeral and celebrate the life of Wiley Jones. I’m glad that I was able to get to know Wiley. He was a tremendously gracious and generous man. I visited with Wiley many times at the Springs before he passed and, for as long as he was conscious and aware, although he was weak and I’m sure didn’t feel well; he still maintained his graciousness. His lifestyle was modest; but his generosity was enormous. Wiley truly epitomized the lesson that giving to others, parting with things throughout our lives, is the spiritual preparation for the ultimate letting go we experience in death.
Friends, our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. Our only true security is found in God.
[i] From the website LiveScience.com. Issue 32773: What Causes Hoarding?
[iii] Eph. 5:5. NRSV
[iv] Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. Harper Collins; 1988; p. 81.
[v] Luke 12:15
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