In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is approached by someone in the crowd who says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus responds, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Then Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:12–15). Jesus refuses to get involved in a family dispute, but then sets the whole affair in a larger context. The point is made that discipleship to Jesus involves a shedding of stuff, a letting go of things.
Jesus tells “a certain ruler”: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” With this particular individual, Jesus makes the relinquishment of his possessions the condition of his discipleship. Did Jesus sense an idolatrous attachment to money, power, and position? (See Luke 18:18–25). When Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector, experiences the healing freedom of faith, he tells Jesus he will give away half of his possessions to the poor and return fourfold any amount he defrauded others. In response Jesus exclaims, “Today salvation has come to this house” (see Luke 19:1–10).
Rarely is our attachment just to our money or possessions. Our greed is inseparably bound up with all that money gives us: pleasure, power, position, prestige, and prominence in the community.
The spiritual masters tell us that we can spend our whole lives climbing up the ladder of supposed success and when we get to the top, we realize it's leaning against the wrong wall and there’s nothing there. To get to the place of real spiritual abundance, we have to let go of all our false, unrealistic goals, our selfish agendas, and our passing self-images. The spiritual life is as much about unlearning as it is about learning. It is as much about letting go of things as it is about acquiring new attitudes and passions.
One of the great errors of framing Christian faith in terms of reward and punishment in the next life, about heaven and hell, is that it allows us to deemphasize the present and the necessity of “working out our salvation in humility and trust” (Phil 2:12, my translation). Whatever salvation consists of, it is happening now or it is not happening. By making salvation into a transaction, rather than a personal and communal process, we have given ourselves permission to hold on to all the stuff that actually prevents us from living a healthy, transformative spiritual life. We hold on to power and control, to money and possessions, to judgment and retribution, to bitterness and resentments, to the need to win and be applauded. We even use our Christian faith in ways that boost our private ego and feelings of superiority.
In the spiritual life: Less is more. It’s a strange kind of mathematics. Reduction results in increased spiritual vitality and development. I am struggling to learn this. It’s not easy in a culture that constantly pressures us to acquire more and tells us that we need more to be happy.
“The sage never tries to store things up. The more he does for others, the more he has. The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance.” – Lao Tzu