Material Possessions and Christians

December 17th, 2013

Prized Possessions or Junk?

Mary and Stephen Smith had lived in a farmhouse they inherited from Mary’s mother, Sophie Turner. With the house had come all of Sophie’s possessions—antique furniture, kitchenware, china, appliances, linens, jewelry, photographs, a piano, framed prints, a spinning wheel, lamps, several trunks full of letters and cards spanning 50 years, and her collection of Hummel plates. Mary had never brought herself to sort out what she wanted to keep and what she needed to throw away or give away. The guest bedroom, the attic, the closets, the garage, and the corncrib were full of stuff.

Mary and Stephen had lived in the house for 30 years, during which time they had added their stuff to Sophie’s; and like Sophie, they had never cleaned out much. Childless, both of them had invested spare time in hobbies. Mary was a weaver, and her workroom was filled with scarves, stoles, and other clothing she hadn’t sold at craft fairs. Stephen was a woodworker and had set up his shop in the barn, which had already been nearly filled with farm equipment belonging to the Turners. His unused choice wood, bowls, and other handiwork lined the shelves of his shop. Mary died two years after her husband. Now her estate was up for auction.

At the auction, neighbors and friends survey Mary and Stephen’s possessions and say to themselves, “What a lot of junk!” They don’t mean to be disrespectful, but they don’t see much that they would need. The auctioneer, who doesn’t want to haul it away, has priced most everything low—Sophie’s Hummels and china, Mary’s loom and her weaving, Stephen’s woodworking tools and his handiwork. The possessions that have defined Mary and Stephen have come to be items for an auction. The auctioneer’s job is to point to each one and ask a question that is very much like the question Jesus asks in the parable of the rich fool: “These tools, these Hummels, this loom, this china—now whose will they be?”

Wants Versus Needs

Our consumer society tells us that there is never enough. Advertising online, broadcast media, and magazines show us new items to want, and there is always an updated version of what we already have. Advertising isn’t the only way that public media drives our need to accumulate possessions. Magazine articles, TV shows, and films often present an image of “the good life,” which encourages imitation.

In addition, the phenomenon of shopping as entertainment is another way our society encourages us to buy more than we need. When we shop without having a clear reason for doing so, we are simply entertaining ourselves by looking around, and in the process we are likely to find something that we’d like to have.

“Not everything that we want is something that we need, yet in global capitalism we are encouraged to think that what we want is the same as what we need. The system runs on the appetite of desire—if you want it, buy it; shop till you drop,” writes seminary professor Keith A. Russell.

So what do we need? There are some possessions that clearly fit into the category of need—tools or appliances for preparing food, shelter, and clothing. However, necessities can become luxuries when we want too many of them. Yes, I need a winter coat, but do I need three winter coats? Yes, I need a set of dishes, but do I need two sets? Do I need the most expensive set I can afford?


Consumerism is the system that increases desire for more than we need. In the days before shopping malls, department stores were in downtown areas, and the merchants sought trusting relationships with their customers. Now customers have turned into consumers.

The English words consumer and consumption have their roots in the Latin word consumere, which means “to devour, waste, exhaust.” Historically, the word consumption had a negative connotation when it meant “tuberculosis,” a disease that literally wasted away human beings. However, in today’s usage that negative meaning is frequently lost, even though consumption of material goods produces a lot of waste. In the world of business and economics, consumption has come to have a neutral, if not positive, connotation.

Consumers build a healthy economy. Consumerism is also a way of life. It is celebrated by some because it is the driver of an affluent society, but it is the subject of criticism because it denotes a market mentality driven by excess and greed. Faith communities are among the few sectors of society with the ability, indeed the calling, to raise questions about what is excessive and greedy. “From a faith perspective,” writes Keith Russell, “justice needs to be built into the economic order so that greed does not win out.”

Serving God or Wealth

The Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” equates a simple lifestyle with freedom. The suggestion is that a complicated lifestyle equals bondage. Our material possessions complicate our lives by distracting us from what is important. The risk is that our possessions will come to possess us. The more things we have to manage, clean, organize, or repair, the less time and energy we have for loving family, neighbor, and God. Jesus taught that we cannot serve God and mammon. The Common English Bible presents this translation of Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Is there a way to have wealth and serve God? Writer Gerry Rafftery says, “Yes!” He writes that when most of us hear the words mammon or wealth, we think that we are not among the wealthy. Therefore, we are not in danger of serving mammon. However, by comparison to most people in the world, we may be surprised to find ourselves among the wealthy.

According to the Global Rich List, if you make $25,000 a year, you’re in the top 1.8 percent of the richest people in the world. In one hour, you make $13.02. If you make $50,000 a year, you’re in the top .28 percent of the richest people in the world. In one hour, you make $26.04, while the average laborer in Ghana makes just $0.08 in the same amount of time.

Rafftery says, “Through the eyes of Jesus, the mammon question was never about the quantity of what we have, but always about the quality of what we do, or don’t do, with what we have (the widow’s mite, the Rich Young Ruler, and Zacchaeus are great examples).” We can earn money and have possessions so that we can provide food for the hungry, so that we can do work that helps others, or so that we can offer hospitality to the stranger.

Writer Erica Kennedy answers the same question as Rafftery with a “maybe not.” She says that serving God and wealth is possible if we meet one condition: We have to understand our role as stewards. She says, “We cannot have mammon or wealth and serve God until we are clear that God is the owner and we are the stewards of the mammon that always continues to belong to God.” She adds, “Asking ourselves over and over, ‘Who does the mammon belong to? Why has it been given to us? How do we gain a clearer understanding of having versus owning?’ are possible ways for us to gain and retain such clarity.”

The biblical witness is that we are to love our neighbor, to care for the poor, to care for the earth, and to care for all else that has been entrusted to us. To live faithfully, we must ask ourselves questions such as these when we acquire possessions or choose to keep ones we already own: Will this possession help me to follow my calling as a Christian? Will it distract me from my calling? Am I being wasteful with the wealth that is given to me when I make purchases? Will my purchase hurt people (those who make it or use it) or God’s creation? How does what I own reflect Christian values? Where will this possession go when it is no longer mine?

No generation in history has had as many material possessions as we have today, and no generation has faced the challenges of dealing with possessions as intensely as we do. Our choices make practical differences in a world that is increasingly overwhelmed with stuff. What will we do with it?

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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