“What’s wrong with treating what we receive as ours?”, we might ask. A gift is a gift, after all.
Human beings have an instinct for possession. Even in the most deprived conditions, human beings find ways to mark out what is theirs and not anybody else’s, no matter how valueless the possession may be. We are hard-wired to be acquisitive and once we’ve acquired, we are hard-wired to guard, often jealously. Is that always a bad thing? Arguably not. The human instinct to care for, protect and, if necessary, sacrifice much for our own children is, at heart, a valuable survival mechanism. A society which regarded children as beings that everyone should look after in common, without any specific affiliation to their parents or other family members, sounds like something out of a horror movie to most of us. But even our own children are not ours to treat absolutely at whim. They are not possessions. No people are the possessions of others, to be treated and disposed of as such. The horrors of historical situations where any other view has prevailed do not need cataloguing here for us to be aware of their dangers.
Even without reference to such extremes, we have probably all come across relationships where there is an unhealthy degree of regarding another person, whether child or adult, as belonging exclusively to another. Sometimes it happens without people really being aware of it and even, sometimes, with the best of intentions.
Of course, when it comes to material goods, we are all sinners. Most of us anyway. Parents down the ages have always had to remind their children, “Share nicely!” And as small children we are forced to overcome our reluctance to share our Lego or whatever when we really don’t want to. As adults, no one much says to us about our material goods, “Share nicely!” and if they did we’d probably tell them where to go. We are able to indulge our possessiveness. We pay our taxes, of course, but how many of us would willingly pay them, if we didn’t have to? Have you ever overpaid your tax bill because you wanted to share more of what you’d earned with society?
The old saying, “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” tells you something. Possessions and possessiveness underpin much of our society. Some of that can be harnessed to good effect – people tend to care about what they feel they own; they protect it from harm, they nurture it, they beautify it. In the absence of that spirit of ownership, things don’t always work well. The system of collective farming in the old USSR failed miserably to provide adequate food for its citizens largely because nobody felt that the kolkhoz they were working on belonged to them, in any real sense, so nobody pushed themselves too hard to make it work or improve it, especially if that involved personal sacrifice.
So a degree of possessiveness is beneficial. Too much of it is another matter. A number of Jesus’ teachings highlight that. Think of the parable he tells of the rich landowner who has a bumper harvest and plans to build extra barns to store it all, and who says to himself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat; drink and be merry.” but the parable ends with God saying to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” and Jesus comments, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God.” (St Luke 12: 16-21) Being rich towards God, it seems, is not the mark of a miser.
The word “miser” in English is eloquent. It is derived from the Latin adjective, “miser” meaning “miserable” or “pathetic”. Hoarding; possessiveness; acquisition given free-rein; an addiction to shopping; these things do not make us happy; they make us miserable and diminished. I read an article* the other day discussing so-called “financial fasting” where a few brave souls have taken the plunge drastically to reduce their shopping and consumption and live according to a “gift economy” rather than a more conventional one.
“A gift economy, “ the writer explains, “means unconditional sharing of skills, time, knowledge, information, or material goods between people, in contrast to a conventional exchange-and-reward economy. ” That is the kind of economy that might well build up riches towards God. An economy that gives without counting the cost, or the reward; an economy that shares, not because anyone has told us we must, but because we want to. Those who tried this experiment found they’ve “never been happier” and “were more receptive to simpler pleasures: the great outdoors, time spent with loved ones, the generosity of strangers.” A way to become rich towards God and rich towards ourselves, perhaps.
Some things to ponder this week:
- Does the stuff that you spend your money on make you happy?
- How do you feel about sharing your worldly goods with strangers?
- What would you find difficult to share and why?
*”Rethinking Money” by Rachel Oakden writing in “The Simple Things” February 2017 issue. Interestingly, the writer begins her article with reference to the Archbishop’s book.