Holding onto what we have is a natural human instinct. And like all the themes we are looking at from “Dethroning Mammon”, it has both positive and negative aspects. Holding on to the hand of a small child in order to cross a road safely is clearly a good idea. A determined will to hold on to life itself can make the difference between survival and death in extreme situations. But not all holding is as clear-cut. Holding on and saving can become hoarding. And hoarding has a dark, uneasy, shadow. The instinct “to put aside for a rainy day” is deeply ingrained in human beings. In earlier times, it often meant the difference between surviving a poor harvest, or a harsh winter, or not. But where does saving (good) become hoarding (bad)? How do we know when to spend, or use, or share what we have put aside? How do we know when to let go and when to hold on?
One of life’s conundrums is knowing that. You might say that “wisdom” amounts to the ability to discern what to hold on to and what to let go of. That affects every aspect of our lives – human relationships,worldly goods, past experiences, future aspirations. It affects our identity, our sense of meaning, our faith and our hopes. It is difficult always to get it right and people often spend a life-time gradually getting better at it. Perhaps that is why wisdom has traditionally been regarded as the preserve of the older generation.
In the Archbishop’s book the text he uses to think through this issue is the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet in St John 12:1-11. In the little scene, Mary takes an alabaster jar containing a pound of extremely expensive spikenard oil and pours the whole lot over Jesus’ feet. Judas is scandalised seeing something so precious wasted so profligately and huffs and puffs, saying it would have been better to sell it and give the money to the poor. It highlights the fact that one person’s wastefulness is another’s generosity and that the best use of resources is sometimes a subjective matter.
There is another text that I think is helpful for thinking through this issue of holding on and letting go and that is the parable of the Prodigal Son in St Luke’s Gospel. (11:15-32) In it, if you recall, a man has two sons and the younger one asks his father for his share of the inheritance that will eventually be his and goes off travelling. The other son remains at home working on the family farm. The back-packer has a whale of a time but, of course, his funds soon run out and he is reduced to doing menial jobs like feeding pigs. Thinking that even the pigs are getting a better deal than him, he decides to go back, ask his father’s forgiveness and return to his old life, even if only as a servant. While he is still some distance away, his father spots him and rushes out in welcome with fresh clothes for him and calling for all manner of festive preparations to be made. Understandably the elder son who has dutifully spent his time working, feels pretty cheesed off and is most reluctant to join in the party. He just doesn’t get his father’s desire to celebrate his brother’s return.
The parable has many layers but at its heart is an important thread about holding on and letting go which I’ve picked out below.
The father lets go of the inheritance that is still, by rights, his own assets.
He lets go of his younger son when he leaves home.
The younger son lets go of his previous existence and finds that the grass the other side of the fence is not quite as green as he thought.
Then he lets go the new life that has turned out to be disappointing.
Finally he is willing to let go of his status as a son.
On his son’s return the father lets go any hurt that the son’s departure may have caused and is overjoyed to see him again.
The elder son holds on to his duties on the farm and faithfully stays.
He also holds on to the resentment he feels at the younger son being given a party after being such a wastrel.
He holds on to the resentment he feels that his father never threw him a party.
The contrasts are startling. It is one of Jesus’ most hard-hitting parables. It challenges us not just about whether we hoard our material possessions but whether we are generous in a more fundamental way. It challenges us with the idea that love and joy don’t have a lot to do with what is fair or what people deserve. It suggests that we might need to think really quite radically about whether we are holding on to, and letting go of, the right things.
When challenged by the elder son about why his father never threw him a party, his father disconcertingly replies that he could have had one any time he chose. The lurch of realising the opportunities he has missed must have been salt in his wounded, resentful soul. The elder son is often marginalised in the story but for me, he is its pivot. He reminds us that life is for living; joy is a legitimate goal as well as all the other more worthy goals of life. He reminds us that it’s easy to miss out by holding on to what we should have the grace to let go of.
Some things to ponder this week:
- How easy do you find it to enjoy things?
- Are there things that you know you should really let go of but can’t seem to shed? Old grudges, disappointments, resentments?
- Are there things that you know you should hold on to and take care of because they are fragile? Friendships, love, hope?
- How might you find new ways to address letting go of the bad stuff and holding on to the good stuff?