The summit of human felicity

Marie Kondo has risen to international stardom as a lifestyle authority. “I have yet to see a house that lacked sufficient storage. The real problem is that we have far more than we need or want,”[1] she declares in tidy prose in one of her best-selling books. Before Marie Kondo, there was George Carlin (not quite as tidy):

Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for your stuff. That’s what life is all about, tryin’ to find a place for your stuff! That’s all your house is; a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. So now you got a houseful of stuff. And, even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff! And that means you gotta move all your stuff. Or maybe, put some of your stuff in storage. Storage! Imagine that. There’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on other people’s stuff.[2]

In Jesus’ story, the rich man said to himself, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” The tone of contentment barely conceals the man’s underlying anxiety, the fear of running out, the fear of not really knowing if ample might not one day turn out to not have been enough.

The rich man was talking himself into believing that bigger barns would provide the sense of security that would finally allow his soul to relax. And we find ourselves in a cultural moment where there’s not only a storage industry, but an equally thriving anxiety industry and a decluttering industry – all with a single promise, a single goal: to allow us to relax, eat, drink, and be merry.

I was three when my sister was born, my brother was seven. For three years, the three of us and our parents lived in a 2-BR apartment with one bathroom. I bet Marie Kondo would have been very pleased with how we arranged five sets of towels, wash cloths, and tooth brushes around a single sink. The environment wasn’t exactly zen-like, my brother and I made sure of that, but I also can’t remember a day when, while practically living on top of each other, we didn’t relax, eat, drink, and play merrily with what little stuff we had.

Much of the gospel tradition is about stuff: having too much stuff, not having enough stuff, having trouble letting go of stuff, loving stuff more than people, wanting stuff more than God. We want enough stuff to live without worry. We want the right stuff to live with joy. And really all we want is to relax and enjoy life’s fullness.

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem when he taught the disciples about not worrying. “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”[3] He taught them to proclaim the good news fearlessly and to be bold in confessing him before the authorities who wanted to silence them. That they could trust the Holy Spirit to give them, at that very hour, the courage and the eloquence they would need as witnesses for the kingdom. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat,” he told them, “or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens,” he said, “they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.”[4]

It was in the course of these teachings about worry-free living that he told the story about a rich man whose land had produced abundantly.“ What should I  do? I have no place to store my crops,” the man thought to himself. And he continued, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” He had all his heart desired, but apparently there was no one to talk to but himself. During his brief inner monologue, he managed to say “I” six times and “my” five times, and even the lovely pronoun “you,” meant for direct address of another, he used only to talk to his own soul. Didn’t he have a family? Didn’t he have neighbors? Didn’t he hear the news we hear of droughts, floods and war that destroy farms and crops and homes and leave so many neighbors facing foreclosure and famine? At some point in his life, the man in the parable had chosen to live in a world of one.[5] He thought to himself. He spoke to himself. He lived by himself and for himself and within himself. It didn’t occur to him that he could gain the whole world and lose his soul. 

God, overhearing the man’s sad soliloquy, cut short his solitary fantasies of his soul’s content. “You fool,” God said. “This very night your life is being demanded of you.”

“Why is this man called a ‘fool?’” the writer of an old commentary asks the reader. “Because he deemed a life of secure and abundant earthly enjoyment the summit of human felicity.”[6]

What then might the summit of human felicity be, if not a life of secure and abundant earthly enjoyment? Jesus warned his audience, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”[7] But what did he mean when he spoke of being “rich toward God?”[8]

Shel Silverstein wrote a little poem, The Search.[9]

I went to find the pot of gold

That’s waiting where the rainbow ends.

I searched and searched and searched and searched

And searched and searched, and then—

There it was, deep in the grass,

Under an old and twisty bough,

It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine at last ...

What do I search for now?

What might be the summit of human felicity, if it’s not the abundance of possessions, not the pot of gold or the bumper crop in the bigger barn? Barbara Brown Taylor suggested that

the rich man was a fool because his quest for treasure was too limited. Or to put it another way, his sense of purpose was too small. He had fallen for the … myth that accumulating stuff was a big enough purpose for human life on earth. He had watched too much television. He had actually believed that his soul was made to thrive on the things that he saw there.[10]

She wrote this back in 2002, imagining the rich man in front of his tv, dreaming of a Land Rover, a Swedish mattress, a house on the lake, and a bigger boat. I imagine him scrolling through endless feeds, his eyes glued to one screen or another all day, every day, not noticing that he had begun to actually believe that his soul was made to thrive on that inflated pseudo-abundance of things to absorb, believe, reveal, laugh at, click with outrage, click with ironic detachment, click with what felt like genuine engagement, and, of course, click to buy—endless streams of stuff to buy, storage units to rent, and custom plans to order for barns of every type and size with same-day delivery.

Jesus doesn’t tell us what he means by being “rich toward God,” but he gives us some hints. He draws our gaze up and out to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, asking us to consider them, to notice how they participate fully in life’s abundance, how they flourish in life’s givenness, how they simply are what they were made to be.

He asks us to consider God’s faithfulness to all that God has made, including ourselves, and to give ourselves in turn to a life rooted in wholehearted love of God and neighbor. “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink,” he tells us, “and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them.” And then he points to the one purpose big enough for human life to become fully human, the summit of human felicity: “Strive for Gods’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”[11]


[1] https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/41711738

[2] Quoted by Cynthia Briggs Kittridge https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/august-4-ordinary-18c-luke-1213-21

[3] Luke 12:11-12

[4] Luke 12:22-24

[5] Matt Skinner http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5368

[6] From the Commentary on the Whole Bible (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, 1871) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/jamieson/jfb.xi.iii.xiii.html

[7] Luke 12:15

[8] Luke 12:21

[9] Where the Sidewalk Ends (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 166.

[10] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Treasure Hunt: Luke 12:13-21,” Review & Expositor 99, no. 1 (Wint 2002), 101.

[11] Luke 12:29-31

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