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Christian Stewardship on ownership and possession

placeholder February 6, 2012   •   VOL. 50, NO. 3   •   Oakland, CA
Letters from Readers
Christian Stewardship on ownership and possession

Previously, we’ve touched on the idea that principles of Christian Stewardship are often at odds with some of the popular values of contemporary American culture. I believe this to be especially true when it comes to ideas regarding ownership and possessions.

By ownership I mean the identity we hold with regard to our relationship with things and/or people. Possessions refer to the objects of our ownership.

First, let’s examine the myth of permanent ownership. Sometimes we act as though what we “have” is ours to keep. The spirit of Christian Stewardship says God is the only true owner. We are just caretakers. Nothing we have is ours to keep — not our wealth, not our possessions, not our loved ones.

Jesus, when confronted about a question of possessions and wealth, told a parable in which God’s response to a man hoarding his riches is, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Luke 12: 20. The upshot of it all is, not only can you not take it with you, but it’s not yours anyway!

Secondly, let’s look at what happens when we claim ownership without regard to God’s authority and sovereignty. Our contemporary ideas about ownership can be traced back to the writings of the 17th century philosopher John Locke, who proposed, among other things, that people own their bodies and therefore have a right to anything they produce with those bodies. However, Christian doctrine says our bodies are not our own, but are gifts from God like all of creation.

Christian Stewardship says everything created will eventually return to God. We, who have custody of it for brief periods in between, have an obligation to treat it with dignity, share it generously and return it with an increase.

It is imminently clear that our attitude toward ownership is critically important to those of us who seek to live as servants of God. Christian Stewardship teaches that ownership is the exclusive purview of the Creator.

Our propensity to think of ourselves as owners can distort our relationship with God, other people and the world around us. It can seduce us into thinking we have the right and authority to use the things in our care in whatever way we see fit — to abuse them, misuse them, waste them or even do good with them — without regard to God or anyone else.

A concept closely related to ownership and possession is that of attachment — the feeling that we can’t do without something or someone. When we derive pleasure or particular utility from something, it’s quite natural to want to possess it, control it, always enjoy it.

As we’ve just discussed, we lack both the power and authority to keep anything for ourselves. We must constantly struggle to let go of attachment.

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew describes Jesus’ encounter with an otherwise righteous young man who was apparently attached to his wealth and what it brought to his life. In the account, Jesus instructs the prospective disciple to go home, sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus was asking the young man to live without attachment, and follow him instead. Matt 19:16-22

The Jesuit priest and acclaimed author and spiritual guide Anthony de Mello professed that only two outcomes are the result of all attachment — either we can’t seem to get what we are attached to, so we are frustrated, angry and unhappy, or we get what we’re attached to and we live in constant fear of losing it! (“The Way to Love,” de Mello, 1992)

Instead of clinging to that which we cannot possess or assuming roles that are meant only for God, we are invited to become Christian stewards and collaborate with God in the work of bringing his kingdom to greater fullness.

(Walt Sears is a member of the diocesan stewardship commission.)

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