We are obsessed with stuff, with greed, with self-absorption. But to Jesus, stuff is not the problem. Our hearts are.
by Ralph Tausz
It’s a store that sells stuff for your stuff. It’s called The Container Store, and it’s one of the fastest growing retailers in America. The fact that a store that sells containers can not only make it but can also thrive certainly indicates that there are a lot of people who want to get organized.
Or perhaps it simply means that we have a lot of stuff.
Just look at our stuff. We have big stuff and little stuff, old stuff and new stuff, nice stuff and junky stuff, summer stuff and winter stuff, Christmas stuff and everyday stuff, stuff for the car and stuff for the cat, sentimental stuff and stuff for the rummage sale.
We’re surrounded by stuff and attached to our stuff, yet we wouldn’t mind a little more stuff. We talk about stuff, and we think about stuff. We collect stuff and reorganize our stuff. We worry about our stuff, so we lock up our stuff. We rent storage spaces for our stuff. We even watch shows about people who have way too much stuff (Hoarders) and people who have old stuff (Antiques Roadshow).
We’ve laughed at the bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Yet how easy it is to live as though thats’ our goal! How easy it is to let our car, our clothes and the latest gadgets give us our identity. How easy it is to let our possessions distract us from spiritual things. How easy it is to live as though happiness comes from having stuff. But how hard it is to see that there might be something wrong with that.
A harmful obsession
According to our Lord, our obsession with stuff is far from harmless. Whether He called it “mammon” (which means money and the possessions it can buy), “treasures,” “fields” or “possessions,” Jesus addressed the topic more than any other as He did in Luke 12:1334, which includes the parable of the rich fool and his barns. But to Jesus, stuff is not the problem. Our hearts are the problem,as well as our propensity to love and trust stuff more than God. That’s why He addressed two heart issues–our attitude toward stuff and our anxiety about stuff–in Luke 12.
First, Jesus speaks to our attitude toward stuff. “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness,” for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15). The Greek word translated “covetousness” is also sometimes translated “greed” or “avarice.” The word is pleonexia, which literally means “the thirst for having more, always having more and more and still more.” Its the unquenchable thirst to have more possessions for oneself. When our Lord says “all covetousness,” He is saying that this thirst to possess exists in many forms, but certainly one of most common is the thirst for more and more stuff.
The Church has always taken our Lord’s words against greed very seriously. There are two commandments, after all, about coveting. Since the 300s, there has existed in the Church a list of what became known as the “Seven Deadly Sins.” Around A.D. 600, Gregory the Great incorporated this list into official church teaching. It was used to identify the normal perils of the soul in everyday life for the common people. Greed has always been on the list, along with pride, envy, wrath, sloth, gluttony and lust. The title of the list is misleading; all sin is deadly. But this is still a helpful list to show us the depth of our sin and our need for a Savior.
Who is truly your God?
“Avarice is not desire as such, or even desire for temporal possessions as such, but the immoderate desire for them; for it is natural to man to desire external things as means, but avarice makes them into ends, into gods,” Peter Kreeft wrote in Back to Virtue. When it comes to our stuff, the issue is no less than idolatry. As Luther taught us in the Large Catechism, Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.
Usually when we think of greed we think of Scrooge, the miser who counts and recounts his stacks of hoarded money. But it is also greed that drives us to buy and fill our closets, homes and garages with more stuff than we’ll ever need. Both the miser and the spendthrift are greedy, keeping all their wealth for themselves. Neither has anything left for his neighbor.
Self-absorbed and materialistic
In Luke 12, Jesus tells a parable about a man who had so much stuff that he was badly in need of The Container Store. God provided him a superabundant harvest of grain one year. The man, after consulting with himself, decided to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones. He loved his stuff; it made him feel secure enough to take early retirement and fulfill his heart’s desire to live for himself and “Relax, eat, drink and be merry.” We would probably call this guy a success. Jesus simply calls him a fool. “‘This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:2021). In the rich fool, Jesus clearly pictures for us what greed does: makes us solitary, self-absorbed and materialistic.
Our Lord then goes on to speak to our anxiety about stuff. His disciples looked into the future with worry about having the basic stuff of life: food and clothing. But Jesus wanted them to consider how their anxious hearts showed just how little they trusted the Father. Their lack of faith made them live as though they were orphans, not God’s adopted children. Our constant fretting betrays us too: “What in the world are we going to do for money?” “Who will take care of my wife when I’m gone?” “What if I lose my job?” “What if the company goes under?””What if this economy never improves?” Jesus would rather that we think about birds and flowers.
“Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither store- house nor barn, and yet God feeds them” (Luke 12:24). You’ll never find a bird awake at night worrying. You’ll never find a bird who is stressed out. You’ll never find a bird hoarding birdseed as security for the future, and you’ll certainly never find one who needs The Container Store. Our fine-feathered friends simply live by faith that the Father will take care of them. And He does. So what are we worried about? We’re more valuable than birds.
“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27). You’ve never seen a lily naked or in shabby clothes. For ever since they first came forth from the ground, God has dressed them in splendor. So what are we worried about? If the Father so clothes a here-today-gone-tomorrow flower, how much more will He take care of us?
Containers of mercy
Jesus addressed greed by telling a parable. Jesus addressed the disciple’s anxiety by pointing to birds and flowers. Jesus addresses our greedy and anxious hearts by calling us to repent and turn back to Him.
In Christ, we have the one whom heaven could not contain, yet who came down from heaven to be contained in the flesh of a man so that He could bear all of our greed and anxiety in His body to the cross and triumph over it in the resurrection. This was all so that we might be vessels–containers, if you will–of His mercy. In Christ, we have the God who became stuff–our very flesh and blood–in order to save us through holy stuff–His gifts of Word and Sacraments–who forgives us and set our minds on things above.
We don’t have to try to win by getting the most toys. We’ve already won because we have Christ. We have no need to get our identity from our stuff, because God has already identified us and marked us as His own in Holy Baptism. We don’t have to live as though happiness comes from having stuff, for we have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who gladdens our hearts and frees and enables us to live as generous people.
We don’t really need The Container Store. We have all we need in Jesus.
> In 2010, Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash (EPA).
> God wishes to show us how he cares for us in all our need and faithfully provides also for our earthly support (Luthers Large Catechism).
> Go to www.lcms.org/?pid=1116 to see how God forgives our sins of greed and gluttony in the divine service.
> He wishes that we pray for these goods in order that we may recognize that we receive them from His hand (Luthers Large Catechism).
> All that we have, and whatever else is in heaven and upon the earth, is daily given, preserved, and kept for us by God (Luthers Large Catechism).
About the Author: The Rev. Ralph Tausz is pastor of The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Apostles, Melrose Park, Ill.
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