A few years ago, I read in the newspaper about Yale environmental studies grad student
building her own tiny house to bring to school. She wanted an eco-friendly, inexpensive place to live, so she built a 8’ by 18’ house on a flat bed trailer. It had a kitchen, sleeping nook, study area, storage and bathroom as well as solar panels and propane so it was totally self sufficient. I read with interest partly because I am interested in new ways to live more lightly on the earth, but also because sometimes I fantasize about living small.
I don’t know about you, but life can seem overwhelming at times: So much stuff to take care of, so much to organize. Everything needs to be done yesterday, but my room is like a bomb went off in there and I can’t figure out what to do first.
I think, if I could just shrink my world down a little bit, then maybe I could get in control.
Living in a tiny trailer starts to sound pretty good: Everything would have its place, and I would live unencumbered by all the clutter…Ahh…. Simple.
Funny how luck would have it, though—I married someone who pretty much thinks bigger is better. It wasn’t enough that we bought an old house with butler pantry and four bedrooms;
we acquired the house next door! When we sold those houses, we bought an ever bigger old house with three floors and an attic the size of a barn. Thinking big is my husband’s specialty. It can be easy to judge those who live large.
Take today’s Gospel lesson:
Jesus tells a story about a rich land owner who has such a good year, he doesn’t know what to do with all his produce. Common sense gives him the answer: build bigger barns!
But as luck would have it, the night he decides to expand his holdings, he dies. God calls the rich man a fool, because he spent all his time and energy for nothing. And Jesus ends the parable by saying: “so it is with those who store up treasures for themselves
and are not rich toward God.”
Message taken: storing up stuff is bad.
So it should be license to tell my husband to rid of all his stuff, right??
And my kids, too—right??
Except that I am not sure it is as simple as that.
There are certainly stories about things going terribly wrong because of hoarding.
The people of Israel wandering in the desert tried to store up extra manna
instead of trusting that God would provide, and the whole thing turned to a rotten mess.
Ananias and Sapphira, some of the first Christian converts, held back some money
that was supposed to go to the church, and they were struck dead on the spot.
But having an abundance of something is not always bad in scripture.
King Solomon was wildly rich; wealthy widows funded Jesus’ ministry.
And Joseph stored up grain in Egypt which enabled him to feed a nation for seven years.
Storing up stuff can be prudent planning, a good use of resources.
Building bigger barns can be a good thing.
The key to understanding Jesus’ message in this parable is the motivation of the rich man.
Notice the pronouns throughout the rich man’s speech:
What shall I do? I will build larger barns, I will store up my grains and goods.
It is all about what this man will do—
he is focused on his own plans and takes no one else into account.
And notice what he’s using his possessions for.
He isn’t like Joseph, storing up so that he can feed others.
In fact, God’s response reveals he has no one to leave his possessions to.
This man is an island, where he depends on no one, and no one depends on him.
His purpose is therefore simply to enjoy himself, to “relax, eat drink and be merry.”
Jesus’ problem with this way of life is that it is self centered.
Storing up treasures for oneself without regard to the needs of others is a big problem.
It is a root cause of poverty— power and greed combine to create economic disparity.
It causes environmental degradation, as people consume more resources and fill landfills.
It can even cause war as the under class rises up to demand a better life.
And it is isolating—you wall yourself off to protect your stuff, and you don’t need anyone—a lonely way to live.
The point is that if you’re building bigger barns then you are likely to hurt others, the earth on which we depend, and yourself. As people who live in a consumer society, Jesus’ words make me re-examine my relationship with stuff. For example, you might know there is a whole movement right now to de-clutter your life. It’s embodied by Marie Kondo, organizational guru and creator of Netflix series “Tidying Up,” Who counsels people to give away what ever does not spark joy. Watching her work with couples and families who need to clean out reveals that an accumulation of stuff is more than just a mess.
Clutter affects people’s relationships, causing conflict and stress, not to mention the time and resources it takes to maintain all that stuff. Clearing out items that do not bring joy opens up energy to focus on other people, rather than stuff. Another smaller movement is working on the acquisition end of the problem. The Compact was a group in San Francisco which pledged in 2006 not to buy anything new for a year. They made exceptions for food and basic necessities like toilet paper and underwear But otherwise they got what they needed by buying second hand, borrowing, or bartering.
This community living off the consumer grid grew into an online community of 9800 people in 2015. They were motivated by a desire to reduce the amount of waste in a disposable consumer culture—They wanted to support local businesses, as well as “just trying to bring less into the house.” https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/thecompact/info?guccounter=1
Marie Kondo and the Compact may seem like extreme responses, but they do get me thinking. Thinking of real people and how they relate to their possessions; people like the Mohlers. The Mohlers were church friends of ours when I was growing up.
Mr Mohler was a plastic surgeon, and his family was pretty much the only ‘rich’ friends we had. They built a cabin on the back of their large wooded property, complete with hot tub,
full kitchen and two baths. I had thought their spacious home with the big screen movie theatre TV was amazing. That cabin made them seem like the Vanderbilts to me.
The Mohlers were always generous with what they had. They hosted teens from Northern Ireland and Ireland every year as part of a peace program. They offered their cabin for youth retreats and hosted professional gatherings there. Church groups could always use it, And for the better part of a year, a family stayed there rent free while their house was rebuilt after a fire.
Their focus was never on the stuff; it was how the stuff could be turned to helping others.
Their wealth and possessions were used as an expression of their desire to serve God.
The truth is Most of us could benefit from some creative resistance
to the forces that turn us toward stuff and away from people, the earth, and God.
While we do not need to feel automatically guilty for our possessions or relative wealth,
Let us not kid ourselves into thinking that we have this figured out.
If anything, this parable reminds us that our relationship to stuff can prevent us from being rich toward God.
Jesus redirects us to invest in relationships of care and compassion
rather than the acquisition, maintenance, and disposal of stuff.
Perhaps we do not need to live in a tiny house or to build bigger barns—
But we do need to connect deeply to God, who is the Source of all we need.
We need to recommit our whole lives--, our time, our resources, and our possessions To God and God’s work Knowing that this is what sparks joy This is what nurtures relationships
This is what cares for our planet
This is what makes us rich, rich toward God.