Being Liberated from Stuff (part 2)

Jesus told that story of the rich man and Lazarus in response to the ridicule he was receiving from some prominent religious leaders who were, according to Luke’s Gospel, “Lovers of money” (Luke 16: 14). This brings out another aspect of the problem. Flaunting our wealth is a way to tell ourselves and our neighbors that we have arrived and are important.

Religious people tell themselves that their wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Such prosperity teaching is as old as history but Jesus isn’t having any of it. Instead, “being liberated from stuff” is the sermon he keeps coming back to again and again. The Apostle Paul picks up where Jesus lets off when he rebukes those who “imagine that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6: 6-12).

Thinking that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing makes it all too easy to ignore the seamier aspects of acquiring great wealth. Different professions reward people much more than others not because they contribute more to society but because they have more political and economic clout. And most of us who are wealthy received out wealth by being born into wealthy families. It’s worse when our wealth is connected to organized crime or the destruction of whole communities in other parts of the world. Such recognition makes us humble about all the stuff we’re accumulating.

Paul flips such prosperity teaching on its head as he takes on those who “imagine that godliness is a means of great gain.” Sure,” Paul says, “there is great gain in godliness when it’s combined with contentment.” We brought nothing into this world and we’ll take nothing with us when we die. Contentment, therefore, is being satisfied when we have food, clothing, and shelter. Such contentment is the first step to being set free from the tyranny of stuff.

It doesn’t necessarily mean giving everything away but let’s do it if that’s what it takes to be free. Mother Theresa is an example. She lived in a small single room in the Sisters of Charity house in Kolkata, India. The furnishings of the room were a small desk, a chair, and a single bed to sleep in. She wore the simple white dress with a blue border of the Sisters of Charity and she picked out her shoes from the donated shoes that her order gave to poor people.

The problem isn’t money itself. It’s our love of money. Money is a great resource that makes so many good things possible. But it’s very alluring, tempting us to want more and more of it. That’s why Paul says that seeking to become rich is a snare. We get caught up in our desires and lose our faith in God. We also lose our humanity.

Jesus, makes it stark, “You can’t serve both God and money.” So how shall those of us who are rich thread that eye of a needle so that we can be part of God’s exciting new world coming? Listen to Paul’s advice in I Timothy 6: 17-19 in Eugene Peterson’s translation:

Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last forever, gaining life that is truly life.

I recently saw this relationship with wealth in action when I had the privilege to be part of an informal advisory group for Ray Martin. The problem of climate change has become Ray’s passion and one way he has responded is by donating $ 1 million to begin a Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions at Eastern Mennonite University. Driving with Ray and others to participate in the launch of the Center was richly rewarding. He told me that he felt very privileged with the amount of wealth he had accumulated but he didn’t want to die as a rich man. Ray’s extravagant generosity was focused on making our world a better place. In return, he received so much joy and satisfaction,”gaining life that is truly life.”

Being Liberated from “Stuff”

What is it about “stuff” that gives it such a grip on our lives? And how do we find liberation from it? These are tough questions with no easy answers. Well, perhaps no easy answers that most of us are willing to consider. I think of Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler when he told him to give away everything he had and come follow him.  That’s not easy but it’s straight-forward. Giving it all away could have liberated him from the thing that had the biggest control over his life.

I live in Fairfax County, one of the richest areas of the most powerful and wealthy county in our world. That makes me feel poor. Many of my neighbors have so much more stuff than we do. They drive fancier cars, live in bigger houses, wear better clothes, eat at more upscale restaurants, and send their kids to more elite schools. And stuff costs so much here. On and on it goes and I begin to feel jealous and resentful.

My wife Ruth and I have worked for churches and faith organizations all our lives. Neither of us ever drew six figure salaries. Even so, we have been comfortable and have never been in need. So why do we feel poor and worry about our retirement? Probably, because we compare ourselves with people who have more stuff than we do. And we live in a financial system where we need to stack up money to support ourselves after we retire.

We need to get a grip and one place to start is by going to developed by Care International. When I punched in our income and net worth I discovered that we are among the richest 1% of people in our world. Come on! That can’t be us. I don’t think of myself as being so incredibly rich. No! It appears that I am one of those rich guys who Jesus said is like a camel who has to thread the eye of a needle to get into the kingdom of God.

Especially troubling for folks like me is Jesus’ story of the rich man living the good life and the poor beggar Lazarus sitting at his gate covered with sores and longing for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table (Luke 16: 19-31). Is it a simple morality tale of a reversal of fortunes where the poor go to heaven and the rich go to hell?  No, but it’s a stark warning that our love of money combined with our unwillingness to see and respond to the plight of others is a sure road to hell both in this life and in eternity.

The first step toward liberation is an honest recognition of how much stuff we actually have. On my next post on this topic I will explore avenues toward further liberation and living in the freedom of having our wealth become a source of joy-filled giving and service.