Dave and I have never been in poverty.
But we’ve visited.
This means we have never dealt with the real difficulties people face when they are in true poverty. We haven’t had to fight to take care of our family while working minimum wage full time and still struggling to pay rent. We haven’t had to choose between feeding our kids or eating dinner ourselves. We haven’t experienced true poverty. But there was a period of time where we didn’t have quite enough.
We were both full time seminary students when we got pregnant with our first child. What we soon discovered was that being full time students and paying for prenatal care and baby supplies was expensive. We learned how to cover the basics. We qualified for the WIC program, which is a government program that provided peanut butter and cheese and cheerios. We ate lots of toast at the free bread bar on campus. We brought popcorn to the neighborhood potlucks. For our parents sake, I want to clarify that we probably could have called home and asked for help but we were young and stubborn and determined to make it on our own.
But when it came time to furnish the nursery, we had met our match. How would we afford nursery furniture? We were talking about that one afternoon when we were out walking. Then we saw it. Right next to the dumpster at our apartment building. A glider rocking chair. The wood was pretty chipped, it had seen better days, but it was in one piece. So we grabbed it and painted it and hauled it up stairs. We were so excited.
Had we just pulled a rocking chair out of the trash? Yes.
Did it make a loud screeching sound if you rocked too far in either direction? Yes.
Did we have to learn how to stay in just the right spot so the screeching sound wouldn’t wake up our baby? Yes.
It wasn’t great. But it was our screechy dumpster chair.
It turns out old habits die hard.
I really thought our dumpster diving days were over . . . until a few months ago. We were talking about how we needed new dining room chairs. We were driving down the street in our cul-de-sac and we both saw it. Four dining room chairs, out for the trash. We had just been saying that we really needed dining room chairs. Some quick reupholstery on the cushions and they were as good as new. Then a few weeks later we were on our way to buy plywood for a project, and another neighbor was throwing out some beautiful pieces of plywood. Excellent. Then one of our neighbors put out a desk chair and- I kid you not – we HAD JUST BEEN TALKING ABOUT HOW WE NEEDED A DESK CHAIR. But as we got closer, we saw a paper sign taped to it that said “this is trash.”
I’m not sure that note wasn’t for us. I am sure that chair didn’t go to the dump.
Last week we started a focus on everything Jesus taught about money. Many of us have had times when we didn’t have quite enough. But most of us have also had times when we had way too much. And yet we still wrestle with a nagging fear that there might not be enough, that we should hold on to everything we can, just in case. What can we do to get rid of that fear so we can not be so tied to what we own? How can we let go of the worry that makes us buy and keep way more than we need? That’s what our passage today is going to talk about today.
Let’s take a look at Luke 12:13-34:
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’
They ask Jesus to arbitrate a dispute between two brothers. But Jesus isn’t interested.
And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’
Jesus doesn’t get involved because it is a fight between two brothers trying to get everything they can. It’s about greed. But Jesus wants to teach them that life isn’t about accumulating everything you can. So he tells this story:
Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
Notice how many times the rich man says “my.” My barns, my grain, my goods, my soul. Me and mine. Just the rich man and his stuff. There isn’t anyone else there with him. No family, no friends, No one else. He has spent so much time building a fortune that he didn’t build into people, and now he is alone with the things that he loves. What does he plan to do with his fortune? Relax, eat, drink, be merry.
That’s the goal most of us have, isn’t it? Relax, eat, drink, be merry. Which isn’t bad in and of itself. A little R&R. But look at what Jesus says next:
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
The man had a lot of plans for the future. But God says “this very night” his life will be demanded of him. All that focus on wealth to be able to sit back and enjoy his fortune, and now his life is taking an unexpected turn. The phrase “your life is being demanded of you” is written in the greek to imply a third person plural. More literally it says “they will demand your life of you.” But who is they? Several scholars attribute this “they” to the possessions he has acquired. Instead of building relationships and doing good in the world he has only focused on building up his store of possessions, so much so that these possessions will now take his life from him. In a great twist, pursuing happiness through his things has cost him the life he was trying to find.
So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.
Your life, Jesus says, isn’t about your stuff. Do not worry about having all the things you need. Now (this is important) this teaching was not intended for people who truly didn’t have enough. How do we know? Because Jesus always tended to people who needed food or shelter or protection or healing. He looked out for people whose physical needs weren’t being met and he met them. These teachings are a warning for people like the rich man in the verses before this, who have enough and are still afraid they will need more so they build more places to keep more stuff. This isn’t a verse we use to tell someone who is struggling to feed their kids that they shouldn’t worry about it. This is intended for those who are stockpiling possessions in storage units because they have run out of room in their home. Notice the focus isn’t even on the stuff itself, its the emotion about the stuff. It’s the worry, the fear, that Jesus is concerned about.
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?
This is simply common sense. If you can’t even add a moment to your life by worrying, then what will worrying accomplish?
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Let’s back up. The first part of the passage paints a picture of a man so overcome with fear of not having enough that he hoards more than he will ever need and at the end it consumes him, and he is alone. Then the second part of the passage addresses our fear, our worry about possessions, and how we can be free from it if we can trust Jesus. The rich man’s story shows us our problem. The teaching offer us the solution.
The problem is our fear of not having enough when we have more than we could ever need. The solution is to do the thing we fear the most.
Give it away.
This sounds counterintuitive, but stay with me.
You may think that if you have just a little more stuff, a little more money, you’ll finally feel secure. That if you had a little bigger house, or a little fuller closet, or a slightly nicer Iphone, then you will finally feel satisfied and no longer will worry about having enough. But that man in the passage isn’t so different from us. No matter how much he has, he wants more. No matter how much we have, we will always be afraid it isn’t enough. The only release from the fear that makes us grasp tighter to what we have is to let it go. That’s the choice. Fear or freedom.
Your fear makes you accumulate more than you need. But freedom can be yours if you give away your extra to those that need it more.
Your fear makes you think that your stuff matters. But freedom shows you that people matter so much more.
Your fear makes you think that you are in this alone. So you better build that barn to keep your stuff in. But freedom shows you that Jesus has been there all along.
How do we go from fear to freedom?
The first step to go from fear to freedom is to talk to God about it. Admit to God that you worry about money, even though you have enough. Admit to God that you hold onto stuff instead of holding onto people. Admit that you have held onto more than you need.
Then, look for your excess. What are the things that you have too much of? Are your closets too full? Do you have more food than you could ever eat? Take a look around your house, and look for the things that you have too much of. In the end of our passage for today, Jesus said “sell your possessions and give alms.” He didn’t necessarily mean you have to sell everything you own and give the money away so that you are now on the street with nothing. But instead sell what you don’t need and donate that money to people who do. There are plenty of people who need it. You could have a garage sale and donate the money to a charity.
Or, give it away. Give away what you don’t need to someone who does. Let’s start with something simple. How many of us have something in our closet we don’t need? How many of us have a lot of things in our closet we don’t need? Yeah, me too. I think we just found our homework assignment. The first baby step this week is going to be to go home, this week, and clean out your closet. (I bet you never thought that would be your church homework). But this is one way we can practice this principle together. Clean out your clothes and set some aside to donate. Not the clothes that are tattered and stained. Take those and cut them up and use them for dish rags. But the things that are nice, but you haven’t worn because you don’t need them, or you haven’t worn that size in ten years, or you have five other things just like it. Then collect them in a bag and bring them to church next week. We will sort them all together and donate them to places that can get them to people who don’t have enough. Your extra clothes will do a lot more good helping someone who needs clothes than sitting in your closet because you are afraid that you might need it someday.
This is a small step we can take to move from freedom to fear. It’s certainly not the only step. But it’s a first step. And we have to start somewhere. We’ll start with clothes, then we’ll give away from the other things we have more than we need, and soon we aren’t afraid anymore. Because the more we give it away, the more we realize how much we have. The more we give it away, the more we build relationships with other people.
Then one day we give away our fear and find freedom in following Jesus.
About the Author
Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan