I think a big piece of this has to do with the difference between want and need. Those of us who have been to Nicaragua know that they get by with a lot less than we do, at least in terms of material things. They commented to us when they visited us, “Your houses are so decorated.” I think that was a nice way of saying, “do you really use all this stuff? And if not, do you really need it?” It’s a good question.
George Carlin on Stuff
…All I want, all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody's got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there. That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house…A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that (junk) you're saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!
Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore. Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else's house, you never quite feel a hundred percent at home? You know why? No room for your stuff. Somebody else's stuff is all over the…place! And if you stay overnight, unexpectedly, they give you a little bedroom to sleep in. Bedroom they haven't used in about eleven years. Someone died in it, eleven years ago. And they haven't moved any of his stuff! Right next to the bed there's usually a dresser or a bureau of some kind, and there's NO ROOM for your stuff on it. Somebody else's (stuff) is on the dresser.
Have you noticed that their stuff is (junk) and your (junk) is stuff?
(All material written and owned by George Carlin.)
We do accumulate a lot of stuff.
Those who get the most stuff at the end wins, right?
So how much stuff is enough stuff? As you know, my sister moved here in January. After living in Flagstaff for eight years, she had a lot of stuff accumulated. As we priced moving it all out here with her dog, she made the brave and wise decision to get rid of most of her stuff so that she could start fresh. She took what grounded her, sold and gave away the majority of the furniture and clothing and shipped some special pottery and things that were good for her to make the transition. It didn’t take too long for her to furnish a house, often with castoffs from those of us with too many things.
When I lived in San Francisco, we were trained to have a plan to take what you needed in an emergency. All that you could toss on the bed and wrap up in a bedspread. What would you take? What is enough?
Is there something about our current system that “enough” is always ahead of us and never behind us? Campaign rhetoric is often about who has “enough” and who defines enough. Does a person on welfare have enough to get by? Is the current tax system enough to give the larger society what it needs? How much spending on health care is enough?
Jesus had compassion on those who had very little in the way of money. He was born homeless after all. He hung out with the poor and the outcast. And he was constantly setting the bar higher and higher for those of us with a bit more wealth.
The story of the rich young ruler is a story of ownership. It is about how much you own, how much “stuff” you have accumulated. It is also about what you do with that stuff. It is about how to reconcile having that much stuff with being a disciple.
The ruler was rich, we know, which means that he had enough money to buy all of the ritual sacrifices that he needed. Back in those days, it was believed that our gateway to heaven was bought through sacrifices, which meant that only the rich would be saved.
But this person had the humility or perhaps the arrogance to say, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Perhaps he thought he already had it and he just wanted Jesus to publicly proclaim that he was the best. But Jesus chose instead to tell the truth. He said to him, in essence, “Even though you have kept all of the commandments, if you really want to know what the reign of God is all about, sell everything that you have, give to the poor, then come and follow me. You will have all that you will need. Jesus says elsewhere in the Bible that those who try to save their lives will lose it and those who are willing to lose their lives will have life eternal.
The truth is that real life, real salvation happens when we give, but not only that. Real life, real salvation happens when we surrender our control over our lives to the control of God. Real life, real salvation happens when we are no longer bound by earthly things, when money or possessions are no longer our gods. This is the truth that will set us free.
We own things, but that is not the be-all and end-all of our lives. Our things will not grant us eternal life. They are at best a temporary fix. That’s the first thing about ownership this story teaches us: It’s not how much you own, because owning things is temporary. Owning eternal life is what it’s about.
But we need to be careful with this, too. For we know people who can be so heavenly bound that they are no earthly good. How you live while you are preparing the way to salvation is vitally important.
The second thing the story tells us about ownership is how our stuff can own us. It shows how having too much stuff can bog you down and make you start sacrificing to the stuff.
The rich young ruler was given the advice by Jesus to simplify. Give your stuff away. Sell it if you must but give the proceeds to the poor. Then come and follow me. If you follow with all of your stuff in hand, it bogs you down and it makes it hard to really follow. This is probably the hardest part of the scripture for most of us. We are bombarded on all sides with the encouragement to accumulate stuff, not give stuff up. We are encouraged to complicate not simplify our lives. But Jesus says, in essence, I want your soul to be the good news. Don’t let your stuff get in the way of your destiny.
The third aspect of ownership the story brings up is that part of ownership that is reflected in our being honest. The rich young ruler was sad, for he had many possessions. Of course he was sad. He thought he had done everything that was required of him in order to have eternal life, in order to be saved. He kept all of the commandments since he was a child. How many of us can say the same? And now Jesus came along and ruined everything. He told him, “You have done everything but live like me. You are more righteous than most, but your possessions make it a bit more difficult to be my disciple.” Now, we don’t know if Jesus knew anything about this person. We Don’t know if he had any prior dealings with him. We don’t know if Jesus knew him to be trustworthy or not. We don’t know if there was a context in which he was telling him to give to the poor, or whether he was saying something about the poor in his town which he might have ruled, or the poor in general. What we do know is that the thought of selling all he had made him sad. The thought of being a disciple made him sad, because it meant giving up a part of the person he had been. Of course it’s a hard process for us to decide upon what discipleship means to us. It’s too dang scary. But we need to own that part, too. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The commandment of absolute truthfulness is really only another name for the fullness of discipleship.”
We know that the Christian mission is difficult. It will lead to the cross. We know that the Christian mission is also the best way to bring about justice in this world. We know that the Christian mission is to embrace inclusivity. We know that the Christian mission is to welcome the outcast and stick up for the downtrodden and the oppressed. We know that the Christian mission is to say, “The Spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed all of us to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the captives free and to proclaim the acceptable year of God’s favor.” (Like 4:18-19)—what the Hebrew Bible calls the Jubilee. That is our mission. That is our vision. That is what sets us apart from the rest of the world. That is what we own. It’s not the stuff that we have. The stuff will not set us free. In fact, it often binds us even more.
But our ownership is more important than that. Our ownership is tied up in focusing on things eternal; simplifying our lives so that we can see the important things and the important people; recognizing our discomfort with the process of truth-telling and personal reevaluation; and ultimately coming away with a form of discipleship that is one that we can own and be satisfied with.
I chose this reading of the rich young ruler found in Luke because it is different than the ones found in Matthew or Mark. In Matthew and Mark, the story ends by saying that the ruler went away because he had many possessions. But Luke ends it with saying he was sad. It does not say what he did. It doesn’t say whether he sold all he had and gave to the poor and then came and followed Jesus. I don’t know whether he did or not, but I like to believe in the possibility.
John D. Rockefeller toward the end of his life wanted to make sure that he was not the richest man in the graveyard. He wanted his wealth to mean something. He set up foundations and think tanks. He built churches, American Baptist Churches, to be exact. He endowed the Ministers and missionaries benefit board of which several of us in this room are the beneficiaries.
My friends, a disciple’s life is about transformation.
We can be captive to our wealth and complicit in the ways of principalities larger than ourselves. Jesus wants the rich young ruler to be free. “All things are possible with God.”
So do we get by or do we thrive? The questioner from the grab bag was onto something when he or she said, “I want to give to others and I want to have enough and I want to have material things for myself.” The fact that you want to give to others is admirable. Heck it’s Biblical. Some of us feel that giving to others is a way of having enough. One should not go hungry so you can make your pledge check. No, any organization worth its salt will advocate for you to budget a way to get by and help another get by. That is how you thrive. You pay it forward and help out those in need. Ken Sehested said it this way, “Speak out clearly, pay out personally.”
Let me close with an image from seminary. Each day, we had chapel services at Union seminary in NYC. They were student run and very creative. We worked out our theology at the seminary chapel services. One week, the leaders decided to take up an offering. It was to help the needy. But they challenged us to not just give, but to recognize that there were people in the community with whom they shared a pew who wondered where their next meal was coming from. Many of us feel like poor Job who does everything right and then lose everything. They encouraged the students and faculty to put money in the plate, but if there was someone who had a need, they were welcome to take money out of the plate, as long as the rest of the people did not judge them.
And ever since, I have sought to find ways to honor those who struggle to make ends meet. I know I spent a lot of years just getting by. And I seek to no longer settle for getting by. I want to thrive. But I don’t define thriving the way I used to. I now define thriving by my ability to be generous—to do my part to help make the world a better place. I don’t always succeed. But I feel good trying. This question keeps me honest. Thank God for that.