POSSESSIONS OR OBSESSIONS?
Luke 12:13-21 New International Version (NIV)
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
By the time most of us have reached mid-life experience has taught us that our lives have been based on a lie – that material prosperity and all the things it can buy will make us happy.
Our culture is obsessed by possessions. We have convinced ourselves that the good life comes through accumulation. But experience teaches us that it doesn’t. It actually becomes a drug; the more we get the less it satisfies us and the more we want.
Robert Franks, in his best seller Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess, says that ‘what we call retail therapy’ doesn’t work. Two decades of rapidly increasing affluence and the shop til you drop mentality has not made people any happier…Lavish spending has become part of life. Things that used to be luxuries now are expectations and we feel deprived without them.’
Yet, even though experience has taught us that it’s a lie we still tend to live as if we believe it. And in a world where our possessions often become obsessions, it is difficult to know where to draw the line between the legitimate enjoyment of material things and an idolatrous devotion to materialism.
Jesus warned that this attitude is the great enemy of our souls. He referred to it as the worship of Mammon. Mammon originally was a Middle Eastern idol god: but by Jesus’ time it had become associated with wealth and luxury. Jesus stated quite categorically: ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon.’In other words, he identified our compulsive pursuit of materialism as idolatry; something that is in opposition to faith in God.
In Luke chapter 12 we read how someone approached Jesus to seek his support in a property dispute. It was common in those days for people to take their disputes to trusted rabbis. But Jesus refused to get drawn into it. However, he did use it to give us some of the most valuable advice we could ever get on how to maintain a balance between the legitimate appreciation of material things and an idolatrous obsession with them.
He said: Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions.’ Of all the things that Jesus said I think these words speak more powerfully to our life situation than any others.
Jesus understood how easy it is for money to become more than a mere commodity. He knew that it has a subtle power to take God’s place in our lives: like when we allow it to become our basic source of security, feeling safe if we have it and anxious if we don’t; and when we look to money and the things it can buy as the way to find meaning in life. In both of these it replaces God, the only source of security and meaning.
And so he went on to tell a story about a successful farmer whose good fortune had finally brought him to that point in life we all dream about – not having to work or worry any more about money; but could now look forward to a life of ease with all his needs and wants provided for.
But there was one thing he’d failed to factor into the equation; his own mortality. He, like every one of us held no lease on life, and, despite all his hard work and careful planning, he was destined not to live long enough to enjoy it. God said to him: ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
And though this may seem an unlikely scenario for us in our sophisticated world of high-tech medicine and insurance against all sorts of circumstances, we also live with the insecurity of knowing that we also have no lease on life and prosperity.
None of us knows whether cancerous cells are growing secretly within us, or that our arteries are not beginning to get hardened, or that some unforeseen accident will not strike us down, or that the managers of our carefully accumulated investments will not make made bad decisions, or that another global financial crisis will not rob us of what we’ve worked for. There is no absolute security in this life and the one thing that is common to us all is that one day we will die and leave it all behind.
In this story Jesus warns those of us who are materially secure of the twin dangers of self-centredness - never seeing beyond ourselves, and short-sightedness – never seeing beyond this life. The rich farmer’s attitude was the very opposite of Jesus’ teaching – instead of finding his happiness in giving he tried to conserve it by keeping. Instead of ‘laying up treasure in heaven’ as Jesus put it, his spiritual investment strategy was limited to a view of life that turned out to be more finite than he realised.
But Jesus also had something to say to those of us who are not so materially well-off and struggle with the daily worries of providing for ourselves and our families, amidst all the complex and competing demands placed upon us. And in the following verses he gives some very practical and deeply spiritual advice. “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing… Don’t worry about such things.These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers all over the world, but your Father already knows your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need.”
Jesus was saying that what we have to do to live truly contented lives is to re-focus all that nervous energy and thought away from our obsessions and onto doing God’s will. It was like he was saying, if you are going to worry about anything, worry about doing God’s will, and He will look after the rest.
Breaking free from a lifetime habit of worrying about money, or expecting it to make us happy, isn’t easy. Our world is driven by concerns about the economy and we get conditioned to think that it’s the thing that gives us a sense of security and meaning. The advertising industry feeds our dissatisfaction; persuading us that more is better, and life is in possessing. The result, for most of us, is one of two things: miserliness, in which we try to make ourselves feel secure by hoarding money; or materialism in which we try to quench our dissatisfaction by spending it.
So what does Jesus say about this? He teaches us to take direct action. “But more than anything else,” he says, “Put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well.”Learn the truth that our ultimate fulfilment and contentment doesn’t come from the accumulation of things, but from a life filled with purpose – a life lived in the centre of God’s will. Do this, he says, and you can rest secure in the knowledge that God who calls us also provides us.
However, even though most of us know the logic of this and have a lifetime of experiencing it, we still need the occasional reminder to keep us from slipping back. I certainly do because I seem to have a natural capacity to worry about money. I remember once taking a day off for quiet reflection. I was sitting in my car overlooking Moreton Bay and thinking about a Psalm, which in my Bible was titled ‘God’s Provision.’
It struck me as very appropriate psalm that morning because I was suffering one of my occasional bouts of money worries. I closed my eyes and let my thoughts run, and as I did, I happened to recall Jesus’ words about ‘looking at the birds of the air’and how God provides for them. At that moment I opened my eyes and noticed a sea eagle flying right into my line of vision, then turning around and flying back out of my line of sight. In its talons it was holding a large fish.
Now I didn’t hear any voices speaking from Heaven, but the fact that that took place right before my eyes at the very moment my mind had been on those very words of Jesus made me feel that was a message for me. A message to live trustingly, trusting God who provides for birds and flowers to also provide me with all that I need to live the life He wants for me; as He always has.
Jesus taught us that our “lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions.”Life continually teaches us the same thing. Sadly, many of us never learn it. The wisest people have always known that happiness is not found by deliberately chasing it. It is a by-product of a life filled with meaning. And the greatest meaning for life is to know that we are in the centre of God’s will for us, loving Him and loving people, and doing so with the quiet confidence that knows that He will provide us with everything that we need to do it. And as for the money and the possessions that we pick up along the way, they will no longer be obsessions that enslave us, but blessings, received from the good hand of God, in whom we find our true contentment.