When compared with modern culture, Jesus really seems to get everything backwards. Any financial planner will tell you it is wise to plan for the future for the sake of your personal security. But if that is the basis of your security, Jesus is liable to call you out.
I do not know how many times I have read the parable of the fool in the Gospel of Luke. It's the one where the rich man has a huge harvest, and he says to himself that he will destroy his barns and build bigger ones. Once the bigger barns are built, he figures, "I'll say to myself ... you have many goods stored up for many years; take your ease: eat, drink and be merry." In response to this, God says, "You fool! Tonight you are going to die and then whose will those things be which you have provided?"
When I first read this passage more than twenty years ago, I thought Jesus was condemning eating, drinking and merrymaking, and that superficial interpretation kind of stuck. But it isn't what he is saying at all. Jesus is rather pointing out the problem of putting one's trust in things or circumstances on the one hand, and on the other the difficulty of never being able to find satisfaction -- never arriving at the point where one can actually eat, drink and be merry, or, as it were, enter the moment.
I may think I'm not like that, though. I'm the exception. I wouldn't be like the rich man who isn't satisfied with his profits! If I only had the chance, a huge harvest, or a lottery win, for instance. I wouldn't seek to build bigger barns, but would begin the merrymaking immediately. I promise.
Isn't it odd how such statements amount to the same thing the rich man declares when he decides to enjoy his life once the bigger barns are built, and that by saying such things I prove myself to be exactly like him? My entrance into the moment is, like the rich man’s, contingent on something else, bigger barns and stored-up wealth, winning the lottery, getting a great job, buying a house, marrying, or…fill in the blank.
This realization struck a deep chord in me. We can appreciate the gift of each moment we have now; it does not need to be draped in a more perfect circumstance in order for us to receive it. The gift lies before us in each instant, moment to moment, building into hours and days, and the only appropriate response is gratitude and enjoyment. The gift of God, of life, of happiness and contentment does not lie in the things we own or in the particular circumstances in which we live. And when we realize this and detach ourselves from the need for such things, this is really what it means to be poor in spirit.
The reality of the principle should have always been clear to me given the context of the parable. It is preceded by the request of someone in the crowd to whom Jesus is speaking. A young man wants Jesus to arbitrate a dispute. He says, "Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus refuses, and instead says, "Beware of covetousness. Your life does not consist in the abundance of the things you possess." Then he gives the parable of the fool, whose life is required of him that night, and to whom God asks, "Whose will those things be which you have provided?"
What a huge issue in a consumerist culture. We work hard, and things are our reward. Ownership becomes the first right and the final virtue. From a young age we are reared on advertising and occupational optimism. There are multitudes of goods to acquire that purport to make you happy, and if you put enough effort into it, you can be anything you want to be!
The more money you make, the happier you will be. The more things you acquire, the more fulfilled you will be as a person, but more than that, you will be a better person, a person of worth, because in a consumerist culture the person who contributes to wealth the most has the greatest value. The more value, the more privileges you win -- the big house, the nice car, the health care. One's existence is justified by being a productive member of society, and to not be productive, or to be poor, in this scheme, is to be unjust, is shameful, and is demonized and stigmatized.
There are some who teach that real faith will result in riches, that wealth and consumption are the satisfying fruits of trusting God, and therefore the poor are obviously those who lack faith. Just send a dollar, and God will arrange for you to get back at least ten, if not a hundred. Despite the fact that in most cases this is an obvious scam, it's interesting how many people fall for it that see affluence as its own reward, who on some level believe that comfort and possessions equate to the salvific experience and consist of life's final meaning.
But if I try to find meaning in possessions I'm never able to attain that plateau which has been promised in the fog of material wealth, so I continue to male plans and solid investments, to build bigger and bigger barns with no end in sight. Contentment is just around the corner. One thing is acquired, and then suddenly something new is needed. Jesus says that one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things one possesses.
Jesus tells the man, “Beware of covetousness. Your life does not consist in the abundance of the things you possess.” The Christian philosopher Rene Girard bases much of his work on the word “covetousness”, which may also be rendered as “desire”. In this passage Jesus warns against desire as the locomotion of acquisitiveness. Girard takes it to the next step and elaborately shows through the Scriptures and other religious texts, in literature and myth, and in the history of humanity that we not only desire an abundance of things, but we desire to have the particular things that belong to others.
We see other people fulfill or seek to fulfill their desires, and a desire is born for the same object the other desires. The object is less important than the desire. Desire is born from a concrete witness, which is why modern advertising works so well. In the Old Testament vernacular, God commands that we not covet or desire the neighbor’s ox, or ass, or wife. The type of covetousness brought to the fore here is one that borrows or replicates desire from one’s neighbor; therefore Girard names it mimetic desire. It mimes the desires one sees that his neighbor has fulfilled, and because my neighbor wants, I also want.
Mimetic desire, per Girard, is then therefore the source of the conflict that leads to scapegoating, violence and war. Girard elaborates on the story of Cain and Abel and shows that because Abel acquired something that Cain did not have, the blessing of God, Cain’s desire for what Abel has leads him to commit the first human murder.
In the case of the brother who wants Jesus to coerce a division of the inheritance, we see mimetic desire play out as if on cue. The man wants what his brother has, not unlike the story of Cain and Abel. But instead of murdering his brother, he comes to Jesus and asks him to use his authority to influence the brother. The answer that Jesus gives does not address whether or not the inheritance should fairly be split, or what the man actually deserves in legal terms, but rather, it speaks directly to the man’s desire, his covetousness. He tells him, “your life does not consist in possessions” and he then proceeds with the parable.
The error of the fool in Christ’s parable is not only to imagine that his life and security can be found in affluence, but that his things actually belong to him, that he actually owns them. The implication might be that one who owns something therefore does not have any responsibility towards those who do not have what he has. In fact, mimetic desire plays a significant role here as well, when those who have, see the desire of those who do not.
Even though the fool already owns all that he needs, he copies the desire of others to have what he has and in competition clings to his own possessions even more, motivated by the conflict to build even bigger barns rather than be content and share what he already has with others.
The interior contrast that Jesus is driving at here is stark. We can attach ourselves to what we have to the point where it drives us to a kind of madness in which we begin to accumulate even more things, driven by covetousness or mimetic desire, and put off being happy until later; or we can be content with what we have – eat, drink and be merry – and acknowledge that in fact we don’t even own what we have, that it belongs rightfully to others as well.
St. Ambrose writes, "The things which we cannot take with us are not ours. Only virtue will be our companion when we die." St. John Chrysostom, in his sermon on poverty and wealth, says there is no need to build bigger barns, that we already have all the barns that we need, "the stomachs of the poor."
These statements are absolutely contrary to our culture in which we imagine that we work in order to own what we have and that our life consists of all the things we accumulate.
Property and money become closer to us than our neighbor, more important to us than genuine virtue, and this plays itself out in the way we live, in our frustrations over things that break or get lost or stolen, in our fear of losing what we have, in our fear of the poor whom we castigate and blame for their plight because we are afraid of becoming like them.
And yet, as I begin to really look into the meaning behind the text, there is this truly startling realization that Jesus is calling us, all of us who are His followers, to become like the poor, to walk the edge of uncertainty, and even to stop putting our faith in all the things that naturally make us feel secure, whether money stored in the bank or food stored in the barn.
I feel more secure when I have enough cash in my account to cover next month’s rent. We feel secure when we have food in our cupboards, clothes to wear, and lights. For some reason I cannot explain I get this really pleasant feeling of being secure late at night when I hear the dishwasher running, or the heater blowing through the vents in the winter, or when the air conditioner comes on in the summer. I am guessing my feeling stems from the reality that to have a dishwasher, a heater, central air and even lights is a fantastic luxury that I take for granted.
I do not believe Jesus is saying that it is wrong to feel safe, or to feel a sense of relief that you’ve got the rent covered and food in the cupboard. I do not think that Jesus is teaching morality in terms of right and wrong here at all, or at least, not in the terms that we tend to think of ethics and morality in our era. What I think Jesus is really getting at has more to do with one’s interior connection towards these things, whether they are really finally essential to our well-being, or if we can let go of them if we need to do so, and if we will actually do so when the time comes. He is addressing the condition of our souls, not just our external behaviors.