Leo Tolstoy wrote a wonderful short story entitled "How Much Land Does A Man Need?" in 1886, a story which author James Joyce called "the greatest short story ever written." In the story, a Russian peasant farmer named Pahom says to himself, "If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!"
It should go without saying, of course, that in the course of the story, fear and greed drove Pahom to greater and greater lengths to find happiness and security in his land. Pahom certainly isn't the only literary figure to chase a treasure. Captain Ahab had his Moby Dick, Pahom had his land, Lord Voldemort has his Harry Potter.
Me? I've got my shoes.
This is a pair of shoes from the shelf in my closet at home. I bought them on sale a few months ago, even though I won't need them for running until October or so. When it comes to shoes, many of us runners are closet shopaholics. We compare websites, we email one another, we spend lots of time looking for the perfect shoe, preferably at a low price. And when we get it, we're mollified for just a day or two: pretty soon we're back on that computer like Takeru Kobayashi on a plate of hot dogs.
But there is that moment when I'm satisfied. There is that moment when I'm holding the box, inhaling the intoxicating scent of new shoes, and I think, "Now I'm okay. Now I'm set." That moment is the moment of real trouble for us – and Jesus hit that moment right on the head when he told this parable to the crowd around him.
But what was the rich man’s mistake? What was the brother’s mistake? Most, if not all of us, believe that an inheritance should be divided evenly, right? As far as the rich man is concerned, grain that isn't stored properly is ruined, right? So: what is Jesus correcting with this parable? What is he teaching us to avoid when he talks about how we store our treasures?
The mistake of the rich man had nothing to do with grain. The mistake of the brother had nothing to do with inheritances. Their mistakes were made long before this stuff was ever part of the problem. Their mistakes were their misplaced treasures. The possessions they treasured held them captive, while the freedom in which God created them was buried under their fear and greed. When the brother treasured his inheritance, and the rich man his grain and barns, they stored up treasures that can never be truly treasured. It is this mistake that Jesus is teaching us to reject.
But what is it that drives this mistake? Why do we treasure things that can never truly satisfy? What causes such great fear in us, that we should put all our trust in possessions or money or stuff? Is it a fear of inconvenience? I don't think so: inconvenience isn't pleasant, but it is definitely survivable. Is it a fear of discomfort? Again, no, for the same reason. Are we afraid of a loss of social standing? This might be nearer the mark, but again, a loss of social standing or reputation might be unpleasant, even painful, but we can survive such things. Even a fear of poverty, which can certainly be painful and even harmful to us and to our families, is not what drives our misplaced trust in things and possessions.
Our need for stored treasure has to do with one great, overwhelming fear: the fear of losing control. We are afraid that we are not in control of our world. We are afraid of the random, the uncertain. We are afraid of what we cannot control – and we fool ourselves into thinking that the treasure we can control are the treasures that matter, that they are, in fact, the treasures that will save us.
Our fear can lead us into all sorts of sins and trouble. Think of some of the commandments we break in our lust for treasures we think we can control. Our fear of commitment and authentic relationships leads many of us into committing adultery, reducing God's gift of sexuality to a cheap physical encounter that can break up families. Our fear of not being compared favorably to our neighbors leads many of us to covet our neigbor's possessions – "keeping up with the Joneses" is an expensive sin, but it is also one of the most common among us. Our fear of speaking the truth to those who spread lies leads us to gossip and false witness, and not only that, but our fear leads us to think that the only way we can improve our own reputation is to bring down our neighbor's reputation. Our fear of risking peace, which makes us vulnerable but also makes us more completely God's children, leads us into thinking that harming our neighbor physically, even killing him, is justified if the circumstances can be defended adequately. And our fear of poverty, chaos and loss of control, as we've already seen, leads us into satisfying our greed and hoarding treasures, stealing those treasures if necessary.
Now, of course, we all fall into different places when it comes to our fear and what it can do to us. I am far less afraid of the commitment and demands of marriage today than I was in the first year after my divorce. A soldier in Iraq has far more justification for fear of violence than I do in Minnesota today. But no matter how close or far away we may be from that which causes us to fear, we are all afraid, and deep down it comes back to our fear of losing control, of what may happen to us.
Friends, we need only look around us to see how little control we have of the world around us. How many of the people on the I35W bridge this week were in control of that situation? My brother-in-law crossed that bridge less than two hours before it collapsed: it could have very easily been our family on the news, grieving a loss we couldn’t control. For nearly six years we’ve been living under a cloud of fear that formed when the World Trade Center was destroyed on a normal, ordinary Tuesday morning. Fear of a recurrence of those terrible attacks has led us to fight wars around the world, wars that take our family members away from us and into situations where an enemy wears no uniform, where control is far more uncertain and illusory.
Here’s the thing: control is not the primary value in the life of a Christian. Jesus told the parable of the rich fool to teach us that control is not our problem – fear is our problem. The primary value in the life of a Christian is faith. The opposite of faith? Fear. Fear can lead to greed, to envy, to lust, to violence; fear can lead us astray in many, many ways. But Jesus offers us the treasures that can fight the power of fear: faith, and out of faith, love.
It would be easy to think that managing our possessions better is the teaching point of this parable, but it’s not – the possessions, and the inheritance, are meaningless; they are, after all, just stuff. What Jesus wants his disciples to understand is the fear that drives us to treasure such meaningless things. Learning to manage things better doesn’t solve the problem of our fear – only faith and love can do that, and faith and love are what Christ comes to give.
Here are the treasures that must be pursued: the treasures of faith and love. To believe that God is always present, that even in the worst of circumstances God is there: that is a treasure worth treasuring! To believe that our lives consist of the presence of a creating, redeeming and sanctifying God: that is a treasure worth treasuring! To believe that our souls are far more important than our possessions, that each of us bears the breath of a loving Creator within us: that is a treasure worth treasuring! To know that out of love God did not withhold himself from us, but came in the person of Jesus Christ and lived among us, living in love even when it cost him his own life: that is a treasure worth treasuring! It is faith, and love, and far more, that Jesus offers in place of the treasures we have stored up for ourselves in our possessions. Our lives are created for the treasures of faith and love, and without them, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “all is vanity, a chasing after the wind.”
I have one more prop to show you: this marshmallow roaster. Most of you know that my grandmother died in January 2005. We cousins watched our parents divide their inheritance amongst themselves, and they invited us to request anything we’d like to have from Grandma & Grandpa’s house in town and also the farm. Among the list of things I requested were these marshmallow roasters (we have four of them). They’re pretty ingenious, if you ask me: the handle extends. They can be short when you load them up and long when you want to roast stuff in the fire. Looking at these roasters the other night, while we were sitting by our own fire, I realized that as inconsequential as they may be, these roasters have now outlived my grandparents. Properly maintained, they will outlive me. But they’re roasters! They are not a treasure – they are things. Our family’s treasure is wrapped up in the faith my grandparents handed down to their children and then to us grandchildren. Our family’s treasure comes in the love we have for one another, a love that rises out of our faith and casts out fear. Because my grandparents treasured faith and love above things, my dad and his siblings had little to fear from one another, and so the work of dividing what was left behind really didn’t threaten their relationship as siblings. Faith, and love, cast out fear; the treasure worth treasuring frees us from our misplaced trust in shoes, grain bins and marshmallow roasters.
I want this life of faith. I’m not there yet: my eyes still sparkle too much at the thought of new running shoes, guitars, books and new cars. But I’m learning. I’m learning that possessions are meaningless without faith and love. I’m learning that what I have is not nearly as important as what I believe and who I love: these are treasures that give life in ways I never thought possible. Whatever you treasure in your own life, ask yourself: is this to be the sum total of my life? Am I to be treasured for this? Your life is meant for faith, and love, and the treasures worth treasuring, and with joy Christ offers them to us freely. Treasure what you’ve been given, and behold – all things are ours in Christ, now and forever more. Amen.
Here's a picture of the shoes and marshmallow roaster in question:
Anyone interested in reading the story by Tolstoy can find it here. Thanks to earthchick for the suggestion!