Wednesday, 27 February 2019

So many things we don't need...

Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15

We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1Timothy 6:8

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in every situation... Philippians 4:12

The Greek philosopher Socrates is reported to have said, as he strolled through the market-place in Athens, “Who would have thought there could be so many things I can do without!”

Well said, Socrates!

Socrates died about 400 years before Jesus, but is a good reminder that while the Bible is full of truth and wisdom, it doesn’t have a monopoly on these things. Truth is God’s truth wherever we may find it!

I wonder what the market-place in ancient Athens was like?

I picture a large open area teeming with people - men and women, buyers and sellers, children and dogs - milling around hundreds of stalls. A place where you could buy all the basic necessities of life: food and clothing, of course, but no doubt also toiletries, kitchen utensils and precious items, not to mention trinkets and ornaments. A busy place; and I imagine that many of the people will have had worried looks on their faces - “Can I afford that? Will it be enough? Can I get it cheaper further down the aisle?...”

And I picture Socrates drifting around, an observer rather than a participant, with a wry smile on his face: “So many things I can do without!”

That scene is vastly different from our modern glitzy shopping malls. Yet very much the same too: so much stuff that we just don’t need!

Jesus told the powerful story of “the rich fool” (Luke 12:13-21). I’ve quoted the words with which he introduced it, but it’s the story itself that’s key: about the successful farmer whose business grew and grew until he decided he was entitled to a life of idleness: “Take life easy! Eat, drink and be merry”. Only too late did he hear the voice of his creator: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” 

Who indeed? You can’t take it with you, Mr Rich Man!

Paul was well aware of this truth. Writing to his young protégé Timothy he spells out one of the great truisms of life, a truism quite independent of religion or philosophy: “For we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6:8). There are echoes there of that great Old Testament figure Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart” (Job 1:21). That’s a fact; let’s get used to it!

But sitting light to worldly possessions goes flat against the grain of human nature. And Paul knew this too. Writing while “in chains” (not a nice place to be) to the Christians of Philippi, he tells them that, whatever his circumstances, he has “learned the secret of being content... whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

There are two vital words in that statement.

First, “secret”... being content with what we have isn’t an obvious and easy thing; no, it’s a hidden thing. And therefore, second, it has to be “learned”... and the great teacher is, of course, experience - often painful, sometimes bitter.

I hardly need spell out the relevance of all this for us. When we think about the dangers of materialism it’s easy to shake our heads at the “filthy rich” - the tycoons, sports stars and film stars with luxury houses dotted around the world, and multi-million pound yachts bobbing in the harbour at Monte Carlo.

But no. This warning is for the rest of us as much as for them. We too need to look at all the wares on offer and ask the question: Do I really need this? Should I really be throwing that away? And when the adverts tell us that something is a “must have” product, to spit right in their eye (so to speak). “Must have”, indeed... Pah!

This is for our own good, of course: God isn’t just out to spoil our fun. An excess of these things will enslave us as they take over our lives. It will engender anxiety and fear, ruining our peace of mind. It will jeapordise our eternal destiny, like the man in Jesus’ story.

God wants us happy. I’m sure he doesn’t begrudge us enjoyment of the good things of life. Not at all. But he sounds the warning bell; and not to heed it is to be - to use Jesus’ word - a fool.

Here’s something else Socrates said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” That remark could have come straight out of the Bible - “examine yourselves,” says Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5. It covers each and every aspect of life.

And that certainly includes our attitude towards worldly goods.

Time for a bit of self-examination?

Save me, Lord God, from being seduced by money and material things. Teach me to be thankful for, and content with, what I have. Teach me, indeed, to be generous with what I have, remembering the words of Jesus: “There is more blessing in giving than receiving”. Amen.

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