I've been reading about Jesus' parables for the past several weeks, and today's lectionary lesson was the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. It's a wonderful lesson (although depressing for the fool himself...) about having our priorities straight regarding life, our possessions, the things that makes us happy, and our faith in God.
In his book, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room, 2003), Robert Corin Morris relates a story (originally from Jane Goodall) about a group of chimps. A large shipment of bananas had arrived, eventually to be given one at a time to wild chimps. But the chimps, which are naturally cooperative in food gathering, became frenzied at the abundance, hurting one another, and fighting with an alpha male that had taken over the pile. But the alpha male was not happy: he was enraged and defensive (p. 140).
Morris finds this story a good parable for affluent culture (p. 141). Abundance isn't bad per se; the world itself is abundant and varied as God created it (p. 141). Certainly the Song of Songs gives us a biblical example of sensuous pleasure (pp. 143-144). But the Bible also criticizes unjust gain (Ezek. 22:13, craving possessions (Matt. 6:24), and hoarding (Luke 12:15-21) while praising God as the ultimate source of positive gain (Deut. 8:18) (p. 142). Morris notes, though, that we start to think so positively of our abundance that we want more and more so we become taken over by craving and base our identities on desire and acquisition (pp. 144-145).
On the other hand, Morris tells about impoverished Christians he’s met who appreciated basic things like friendship, sunlight, food, and water. This is not to say these people didn’t suffer or that poverty is a good thing, nor that all poor people have their values in line; but affluent people (who, like the chimps, are possibly very unhappy) become surprised at the joie de vivre of people who have no special possessions to give them joy (pp. 147-149).
Morris notes that he has learned several lessons over the years which helped him put his own affluence in perspective (including times when money was tight but, nevertheless, available), and which also freed him to give things away that he once would’ve hoarded. Perhaps I’m being too individualistic, but I think that for many of us, simply being told to become less controlled by our possessions is only a first step. A sermon on giving may make us feel put-off by a comparatively works-righteous message about money---or, it might plant a seed in our hearts and minds. (This morning's sermon was of the latter kind!) We can also live to learn "non-possessively in other ways. Perhaps we’ll pass through lean times; perhaps we'll discover that we can give more than we thought we could; perhaps God will lead us to new adventures so that we have to discard some “stuff.” Through our living, we discover how God helps us through varieties of situations.
In turn, when God helps us, he commands us to put ourselves in the shoes of us so that we grow in concern and empathy. We become a little less like the rich fool, impressed with what he has and ready to make room for more. We think about those in need and how they can be helped. We become less like those unhappy chimps, hating each other over bananas.