Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 12:13-34) transports me to a mansion on a hill in Los Angeles, with a plaster lion from Mexico in the living room, a 24 seat dining room table, original oil paintings by Michelangelo and Rembrandt, a rotating bed with pink chiffon and zebra stripes, a bathtub shaped like a clam, an office with orange and white stripes, an all red billiard room with a giant stuffed camel, a disco room with dancers, a party room with fancy friends, and a big back yard with Grecian statues, s-shaped hedges, and three swimming pools. It is the home of Navin Johnson, who made his fortune as the inventor of opti-grab glasses. He lost that fortune as quickly as he made it, from a class action law-suit that took him to the cleaners when people found the glasses made them cross-eyed. He has a meltdown with his wife, Marie, who longs for the simpler times before he became über-rich. Navin walks out, professing that he doesn’t need any of the stuff that he has accumulated. I don’t need any of this. I don’t need this stuff, and I don’t need you. I don’t need anything. Except this. [He picks up an ashtray] And that’s the only thing I need. I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray… And this paddle game. – The ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need… And this remote control. – The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need… And these matches. – The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control, and the paddle ball… And this lamp. – The ashtray, this paddle game, and the remote control, and the lamp, and that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too. I don’t need one other thing, not one… I need this. – The paddle game and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches for sure. Well what are you looking at? What do you think I’m some kind of a jerk or something! – And this. That’s all I need. [walking outside] The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, and this magazine, and the chair. [outside now] And I don’t need one other thing, except my dog. [The dog growls at him] I don’t need my dog.
Steve Martin’s Jerk (one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite movies of all time) was certainly not the first to be confused about the value of stuff in his life. At this moment in the movie, he represents the same quintessential figure described by Jesus in today’s passage. The first century jerk got in a quandary when his land produced more than he needed to live on. What can I do? he thought to himself? I know, I’ll tear down my barns, and build bigger barns. And then, bless my soul, I’ll be set for retirement; I’ll just sit back and eat, drink (with little umbrellas in my cocktail glass), and be merry. His attitude makes God cross-eyed, and God takes him to the cleaners. This buffoon of a rich man sets the stage for Jesus teaching about where our true treasure lies. It’s not in accumulated wealth. It’s in the spiritual riches of love, compassion, grace, mercy, peace, joy, hope, faith, welcome, contentment. The the birds of the air and lilies of the field are worth far more consideration than Forbes and Fortune if you want to understand Jesus’ economics. His are the riches of fulfilling what you were put here on earth to do. In contrast, being anxious about material things, worrying about having to pay high taxes so that the hungry will have food stamps, is not part of kingdom living. In one of the clearest mandates in all of scripture, and one of the least heeded (even by the most fervent biblical inerrantist), Jesus says to all those who would follow him as their great shepherd: Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.
I have my share of personal possessions, so I don’t claim to be adhering to Jesus’ words any more than my capitalism-loving fundamentalist friends. But I aspire to. I long to live in a world that values the spiritual treasure motive and celebrates redistributed wealth, over against the values of the profit motive and the celebration of concentrated wealth that we breathe day in and day out. I have seen the truth of Jesus’ teaching played out this week as I’ve worked to help my in-laws downsize into an assisted living apartment. Several years ago we worked to help them downsize from the house they had lived in for several decades into an independent living apartment in the Salemtowne Retirement community. My in-laws are depression era folks; their memories of that traumatic time led them to save and keep lots of stuff over the course of their lives. The original downsize involved them letting go of probably 3/4 or more of their stuff. The letting go process was hard, but once they got into the apartment, it was like a breath of fresh air. They loved it. And this week, they have had to let go of about half the remaining stuff as they transitioned into the smaller apartment. It was a difficult process, but once again, once they made the move, their spirits lightened, and they love the new space. My father-in-law Ed actually thought the space was bigger than where they had been (the miracle of de-cluttering!) My mother-in-law Jean told Kim tonight, we have everything we need here, and most of what we want. Kim said that was about as good as it could get. It has motivated me to come home and start my own process of de-cluttering and letting go of stuff. The ashtrays and the remote control can go for sure. I’ll probably hold on to the paddle ball.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.