Thursday, June 18, 2009

Simplicity and Possession

By Deanna Matzen

In Matthew Chapter 19, a young man comes up to Jesus and asks what good deed he must do to have eternal life. Jesus responds by telling him that there is only one who is good, but that he should keep the commandments. The man asks, "Which ones?" Jesus basically tells him all of them. The young man, pleased with himself, says that he has kept all of those commands and asks Jesus what he lacks. Jesus tells him that to be perfect he must sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. The man was dismayed because he had many possessions, so he walked away.

Jesus responds by saying to his disciples, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." The disciples were astounded and asked, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible." (Matthew 19: 16-26; NRSV)

For many of you, this scripture is probably old hat. Many of us remember this passage because Jesus is either using hyperbole with is eye of a needle metaphor to grab attention, or we're in serious trouble. One of the explanations I've heard for Jesus' metaphor is that the "eye of a needle" is a gate in Jerusalem's wall that is so small that a camel would have to get on its knees to pass through it after removing all of the items it was carrying on its back. While some people suggest that this explanation is just not accurate and off the mark entirely because it puts salvation in our own hands and not God's, I would like to posit that even though the gate explanation may not be what Jesus meant, it certainly does serve a purpose. While this explanation may suggest that we can get into heaven of our own accord by simply removing our possessions from our camel (sell them and give them to the poor), I believe that we need God in order to do even that.

In my opinion, choosing to live simply (voluntary simplicity) requires something from us that is unobtainable on our own. In order to live sustainably on this planet in ways that honor God, neighbor, and planet, there is a quality required of us that is more than any human can obtain on their own. We need the Spirit of the Living God to call our hearts to contrition and desire to care for this planet by relinquishing possession of our stuff. It is a spiritual call that requires Godly strength to resist temptation, grace for the times we fail, and hope that change is possible. We are all rich--no matter what our socio-economic status might suggest--we all need God to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

One way to read this passage is that one of our greatest barriers to God is our possessions. Jesus did not answer the young rich man's first question about obtaining eternal life with the command to sell his possessions. He told him to keep the commandments. The man, pleased with himself but unsatisfied with the answer asked Jesus again. What Jesus saw in him was the truth that the young rich man wasn't keeping the commandments because he coveted his possessions too much. I recently read essay on simplicity by A. W. Tozer* and it called us to consider deeply the things that possess us. It is not wrong to have possessions--we all need clothing, shelter, hobbies, and tools for living--but when we are possessed by our possessions, we are not free; we are enslaved to our self-life.

"To be specific, the self-sins are these: self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love, and a host of others like them...Self is the opaque veil that hides the Face of God from us...We must bring our self-sins to the cross for judgment. We must prepare ourselves for an ordeal of suffering in some measure like that through which our Savior passed when He suffered under Pontius Pilate."
Ask yourself today:
How am I like the rich young man?

What in my life possesses me and veils the face of God?

What am I not willing to take off my camel to enter into the Holy City?

What choices have I resisted making that would help me better steward God's creation?

*In "Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines," edited by Richard Foster

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