This is my second year doing a summer series that involves reading some children’s books as supplemental readings to the scripture. Each sermon will contain a link to the book in question.
As a parent, I realize I spend a lot of my time trying to teach a lesson that few actually learn. It’s a lesson I’m not so sure I learned all that well, despite still hearing my parents’ voice echo behind my own every time I say “You want it; you don’t need it.”
Want is an endless pit. Need is finite. But more importantly, there is a line between the two somewhere—a line that could be labeled “enough.” This is the puzzle that entangles pretty well every person everywhere: How much is “enough”?
The 30% Problem
I read an article not long ago that addressed this question. Someone did a survey, asking folks how much more money they would need to be satisfied with where they were. The answer? Roughly 30% more. Regardless of how much someone earned, they wanted 30% more. That number was alarmingly consistent whether someone earned $20k a year working a couple part time jobs to pay rent, or whether they were earning six figures in an executive capacity.
You’re earning $30k? You think you would be satisfied at $40k.
You’re earning $60k? You think you would be satisfied at $80k.
You’re earning $100k? You think you would be satisfied at $130k.
You think you would be satisfied, but you won’t be. You’ll just be in the next bracket up, reaching 30% further up the economic ladder. And so the rat race continues, over and over and over again.
Contentment and Too Much
We have a problem with contentment in our country. After all, consumption and contentment are opposites in nearly every way, and our country and our culture runs on—no, it feeds on—consumption. Our identity and status are locked up in our role as consumers—consume more (and the right stuff) and you are successful, popular, and good; consume less (or the wrong stuff) and you can quickly be on the outs with those around you.
This problem with consumption and contentment is exacerbated by the fact that we live in a world of too much. We have 24/7 everything—from news to entertainment to food. Someone somewhere is always ready to loan you money so you can feed your appetite for consumption now instead of later. And in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there is always something newer or more retro; flashier or more subdued; lighter or stronger; faster or slower; or all around better than what you already have. It is hard to be content in a world of too much.
Contentment, as we have seen, is not merely a problem for the wealthy; it is a common challenge to humans everywhere and every-when. Around two-thousand years ago, Jesus spoke the words of our scripture lesson, warning his hearers then and now about the deceptive allure of greed.
Life, Jesus insists, is not about acquiring or consuming a lot of things. Then he tells this story of someone who worked hard but experienced an unexpected windfall—a bumper crop several times larger than usual. But his resting in this story does not illustrate contentment, but greed—through and through.
The man in the story does not offer gratitude to God for this good fortune—he does not acknowledge God at all. Instead, it’s all about me, me, me:
‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.” (Lk 12:17-18)
This “eat, drink, and be merry” connotes not satisfaction but indulgence. In the Old Testament, this kind of language is used to talk positively about celebrating God’s blessings with friends and family, but in the Greek world of the New Testament the meaning is quite different. It describes the same lifestyle as the prodigal son lived as he squandered his inheritance. It describes a kind of self-centered, wasteful extravagance that dishonors God’s good gifts instead of rightly appreciating them.
Too Much Stuff!!
This parable of Jesus always reminds me of the comedy bit by George Carlin, where he lampoons our consumer and possessive nature by suggesting that “the whole meaning of life” is “trying to find a place for your stuff.” All your house is, Carlin says, is a pile of stuff with a cover on it. We lock up when we leave because we are afraid someone is going to come and steal our stuff. We move into bigger houses because we have too much stuff. When we go on vacation, we have to bring some of our stuff with us, because we only feel comfortable when we are surrounded by our stuff. If we have more places than stuff, we’ve got to buy more stuff…… And so on.
It’s funny because it’s true.
But you know what else is true?——Ecc 5:10 (ESV): “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.”
But there is a deeper truth in scripture about greed—one that is more implicit than explicit in our scripture lesson, but one that is quite central to the biblical message—and it is a truth also present in the children’s story today.
It is this: there are consequences to greed that affect others—specifically, taking more than we need steals from others. On account of his greed, the king in the children’s story forces the boy to spin all the clouds into string and eventually opulent and unnecessary clothes. But without clouds, there can be no rain. Fields dry up; crops die. Animals and people thirst. One king’s greed affects the entire countryside. And is often the case in real life too, those folks consumed by greed are completely blind to how others must bear the consequences of their sin.
One of the more explicit places in the Bible where this can be seen is James 5:1-6 (ESV):
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire.
You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.”
James paints a picture of workers who are not paid fairly, of righteous people taken advantage of and made victims of violence. He graphically illustrates how the things we lust after are transient and etherial, rotting and corroding away to nothing over time. Greed (“fattening your hearts” is equated with “murder.” The greedy person here has clearly valued possessions more than people, and they will “weep and howl for the miseries” on account of that choice.
You can scour the Bible for examples, but Jesus never chooses possessions over people. Never. Jesus never values things above persons. The entirety of the incarnation took place because God values us humans—bearers of the divine image—so much.
But there is only so much in this world. There is enough, I believe; but not when consumption rages unchecked. The biblical witness equates greed with theft and murder—that when we take more than we need we have stolen from someone else and perhaps even condemned and murdered them.
Disciples of Jesus do not live that way. Disciples of Jesus are to live lives marked:
by generosity, not greed;
by justice, not legal manipulation;
by caring for persons more than things.
Disciples of Jesus are able to do this because we know the key to contentment in a world of too much. Just a few verses down from our scripture reading, Jesus speaks of the futility of human anxiety, of our preciousness to God, and of God’s awareness of our needs and desire to see them met. If we trust God, we can put into action the instruction issued by our Savior in v.31: “Pursue God’s kingdom first and foremost, and these other things will come to you as well” (Lk 12:31 VOICE). Or as the old King James put it so many years ago: “seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
What’s the key to being content in a world of too much? Trust God. Live in God’s Kingdom in the here and now. And our gracious and loving God will guide your feet to paths of peace.