"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

On divestiture

The Gospel of Christ proposes a radical materialism, particularly in the light of the rich young ruler and the early Christian communities in the book of Acts.  Christ should profoundly change our relationship with stuff.  I am not a Gnostic who believes that the material is evil; yet we encounter a deep shift within our priorities when we de-centralize our incessant need for material stuff.

We like our stuff.  And, additionally, the vast majority of us live with far more than we actually require for living.  We have systems redundant beyond measure to ensure that we are clothed; we call them “outfits.”  We own so many things that may see use once or twice a year.  We go to great lengths to ensure that we have places to put all of our stuff, even to the point of building bigger houses.

Our relationship with stuff has been so embedded in our psyche as completely normal that we often miss out on living simply because of all of the things that we “need” in order to have life.  Getting rid of things can be terribly difficult, particularly when related to prized possessions and the ever-abundant sentimental artifact.  Not having things in terrible physical abundance is associated with lack.  Getting rid of the things that we acquire create an emotional roller coaster as we equate may divestiture with failure.

We can forget that truly living lives invested meaningfully in other human beings requires sacrifice.  We must offer our time, energy, and presence to another person in order to be present as a fully supportive individual.  We have any myriad of opportunities to engage in relationships with other human beings that make us fully human.  But our incessant relationship with our stuff has a way of killing off natural and human connection.  Yet I find very few people interested in radically reshaping their relationship with stuff because, let’s face it, reshaping one’s relationship with stuff is hard.

A very rich man who lived in Alexandria prayed to God every day that the lives of the indigent be made easier. On hearing about this, Abba Makarios sent him a message: “I would like to own all your estate.”

The man was puzzled, and sent one of his servants to ask what [Abba Makarios] would do with all that wealth.

Abba Makarios said: “Tell your master that I would immediately answer his prayer.”

How can we put our relationship with stuff to good use?  I do not mean to advocate for divestiture as the only option, but it certainly is an option.  What can we do to remain good stewards of the things that we have so our material possessions do not come to steward us?


6 responses

  1. I discovered the sayings of the Desert Fathers when I was a monk (I’m not a monk any longer). I like the following: “Evagrius said that there was a brother who had no possessions except a Gospel book and he sold it in order to feed the poor. He said something worth remembering: ‘I have sold even the word that commands me to sell all and give to the poor.'”

    By the way, even after you’ve taken a vow of poverty, you still fight the battle over wanting “stuff.” The materials, naturally, are neutral. It is what we desire to do with those materials that matters, which is the lesson Makarios teaches us.



    12 June 2010 at 8:38 am

    • Hi Jim! Thanks for your comment.

      Again, I think that the vow of poverty is what we are all called toward but that the vast majority of people live this out through active stewardship. Even if you sell all that you have, you are likely to have cash on hand with which to invest. The investment decision requires stewardship. To my knowledge, only the Trappists go so far as to even hold their clothing in common. And even holding things in common does not mean that the community can escape the question of stewardship.

      12 June 2010 at 8:47 am

  2. That story at the end of your post is really powerful. (I’ll admit to having to read it twice before I “got” it, though!) Real food for thought, I do feel that God has been nudging me recently with regards to some of my “stuff” that I really am holding onto for no good reason.

    12 June 2010 at 9:02 am

    • Yeah Becky, I generally tend to encounter the need to read stories from the Desert Fathers 3-6 times before I start to understand what is the main point of the story. What impresses me about the estate story is that the man had the ability to make a meaningful impact relative to his prayers. Perhaps he didn’t realize his power to act until challenged by the monk. Perhaps he was avoiding the implication of responsibility thinking that God was going to act independent of his obedience. So often I fall into the latter trap.

      12 June 2010 at 9:10 am

      • The latter is completely how I saw it; that he had the assets to bring about an answer to his prayer but thought that God would act independently of that.

        12 June 2010 at 7:38 pm

  3. David

    The fruit of the Gospel includes submitting God’s wealth back to Him and not keeping it for ourselves.

    Having said that, the point of the story of Christ and the rich young ruler was not that he lacked one thing: the giving of his wealth, but that he lacked one thing: Christ! and his wealth revealed that.

    So I guess my question is, if we we are to see wealth as a gift and as dispensable, how do we additionally embrace Christ’s gifts to us for our provision and enjoyment?

    12 June 2010 at 12:11 pm

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