Saturday, August 29, 2009

Owning our Space

My wife and I recently moved from Los Angeles to our home state of Iowa where we purchased a home for the first time in our lives. What’s nice about it is that we have the same access to various things – like art, ethnic food, and entertainment – as we did in LA, but we also have more space than we’ve ever had in our lives. The question we’ve been asking ourselves lately is “what is this space going to be used for?”

I find it interesting that Americans in general have a certain propensity to not leave open spaces open. Why is it that we always feel the need to put one more piece of d├ęcor in the room or to add another set of tools to the garage? What is it about owning a certain amount of stuff that makes us feel more “settled?”

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, he shares about an encounter Jesus has with a rich young man. The man has obviously heard Jesus speak before, and he asks him, in essence, what he must do to have the best life possible. Jesus’ response is quite brilliant: “Obey the commandments”, referring to the ten commandments given to Moses, to which the young replies, “Which ones?” as if there were some commandments that didn’t apply to him. I find the young man’s response quite peculiar, yet it’s an all too tempting of a response two thousand years later for people, including me, who consider themselves followers of Jesus.

If we understand the Ten Commandments within the context of wedding language, then God’s giving of the commandments to Moses (and the Israelites) was a way of saying, “I want to forever be joined to you. You be mine and I’ll be yours. Together, we’ll offer ourselves to the world as a demonstration of how to truly live the best kind of life.” The commandments as a whole then become an invitation into this “eternal” life, as the young man in Matthew’s story refers to it.

So if the commandments in their fullness are God’s invitation to live the best kind of life, why does this young man think only some apply to him?

In his brilliance, Jesus picks up on this faulty assumption, and replies to the young man’s question of “which ones?” by listing only some of the commandments: “do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” Now notice which commandments Jesus leaves out from the list in Exodus 20: “have no other gods before the One true God; don’t worship any idols; don’t misuse God’s name; remember the Sabbath; do not covet your neighbor’s stuff” (my paraphrase). What’s different about these commands? Whose relationship do they address, our relationship with others or our relationship with God?

After hearing the partial list of commandments, the young man confidently replies, “All these I have kept. What am I missing?” And the door finally opens for Jesus to show this young man the larger picture, saying “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor…” And after hearing these words, the young man went away sad.

What was Jesus going after in his response of “go, sell…?” Apparently, Jesus has no issue with the way this man is treating those around him. His issue is with the man’s heart, his affection, his first love, whom this young man has seemingly forgotten. Jesus’ command of “go,sell…” is first and foremost NOT a condemnation about owning a lot of stuff. It’s about a lot of stuff owning us!

Therein lies the challenge in following Jesus. How can we continue to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength when we’re so busy cluttering our lives with our stuff and its maintenance? How can we change our relationship with our possessions so that it doesn’t take precedence over our relationship with our Creator?

I’d love to hear your stories about the ways you keep ownership over your stuff. And for now, I’m thinking I’ll leave the spare bedroom empty.