And he said unto them, Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth (Luke 12:15).
The pursuit of things, or stuff, is an age-old story. We have not added a new twist to that story; we have simply “succeeded” in ways which would seem fantastic to previous generations. Our lives today are saturated with stuff.
Jesus, having warned the people to keep themselves from covetousness and reminding them that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, tells a parable about a man whose land had produced plentifully; he decided to tear down his barns so as to build larger ones (Luke 12:16-17). Americans can relate to that story: even though household size has diminished in size over the past few decades, the size of the average house has increased. People need more room in their houses to store all the stuff they keep buying! We cannot escape the message; marketers have done their task well. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with advertisements enticing us to buy more things. They would make it seem as if our lives would not be complete without the newest technology, the complete set of dishes, etc. We are known for being a consumerist society, but it seems that one of our major problems is that we are not actually consuming what we purchase; we just keep storing up stuff!
We may store stuff. but it does not take very long before we become overwhelmed by it. How many times do we have the urge to purge our stuff? What happens if we think about the prospect of moving: do we break out into a cold sweat just imagining the trial of having to figure out what to do with all that stuff? All of a sudden we start to wonder if our stuff is subtly but surely becoming our master!
Why do we heap up so many goods and items? We have many things because we use them in order to live or make life a bit more effective or pleasant (things like houses, cars, dishes, cookware, food, drink, etc.). We keep some things because they commemorate our activities or because we associate them with pleasant memories. We find other things are useful to keep around when needed: tools, emergency supplies, etc. Yet sometimes we get stuff and keep stuff because it suits our pride or vanity, attempting to “keep up with the Joneses.” Sometimes we just like the feeling we get when we obtain stuff.
Obtaining and maintaining possessions is not inherently problematic or wrong; while on earth all early Christians, and Jesus Himself, obtained and used food, clothing, necessary supplies, and even luxuries like expensive ointment (e.g. Matthew 26:6-13). Jesus does not condemn the rich man of Luke 12:16-21 simply for being rich but because he laid up treasure for himself while not being rich toward God. Thus it is not inherently problematic or wrong for us to have houses, cars, food, drink, cookware, technology, etc.
Yet we must always be aware that our possessions can become as our god; such is when our obsession with stuff becomes a snare and sin to us. The rich man in Luke 12:16-21 put his trust not in God who gave him abundance but in the abundance itself; he had no answer to God when his soul was demanded of him before he expected it. Such is why Jesus gives the pointed reminder of Luke 12:15: we must not fall prey to covetousness, because our lives do not consist of our possessions!
Thus we cannot define ourselves or be defined by the stuff we have, obtain, and/or use. We can store up supplies for an emergency or a rainy day, but such is no guarantee of safety. As humans we are very easily tempted to put our trust in the things that we have stored up around us and to forget that we must put our trust in the One who allowed us to obtain all such things. We do well to remember that we came into this world with nothing, and we shall take nothing out of it (1 Timothy 6:7).
Such a warning is equally apt in terms of sentimentality. Television shows abound with people known as “hoarders,” whose houses are filled to the brim with stuff collected over many years. When such people are profiled it becomes evident that their hoarding of possessions is a symptom of a much greater problem, either some sort of insecurity or the investiture of great emotional significance into a wide variety of goods. While it is natural and understandable for us to associate certain objects with memories and emotional significance, our lives do not consist of our possessions, and we can all too easily make too much of them. Life is but a vapor; a natural disaster could easily destroy all of our goods, and if we have our lives, we have not lost any of our humanity. It is a blessing to keep memories; it is good to preserve keepsakes; but we must always keep such things in perspective.
Modern life is awash in things and stuff. Christians must always remember that our lives do not consist of the abundance of our possessions. Our possessions can never truly make us safe, they cannot make us more human, and they cannot fully preserve memories. Life is worth living, not because of stuff, but because of God and our fellow human beings; we came into the world with nothing, and we cannot take our stuff with us. Let us put our trust and our investments in God and not in our stuff!
Ethan R. Longhenry