The Myth of Ownership
In our modern world, we are led to believe all that we possess we ‘truly’ own. This notion of ownership is validated by contemporary dictionary definitions that define ownership as: the act, state, or right of possessing something. It seems if you possess it ‘you’ own it! Contemporary views on ownership are also freighted with the belief of absolute discretionary use. That is to say, if I own something I have the right to use it in whatever manner I see fit. Therefore, all ‘I’ possess: my house, my car, my material goods, even my body are exclusively ‘mine’, and can be used for my exclusive benefit. Furthermore, the ubiquitous machinery of our consumerist culture, readily affirms the veracity of these claims, allowing our numb consciences the absence of guilt.
But, if we allow our minds the even briefest of moments to soberly reflect on the fate of our relationship with material things at the point of our death, we soon realize that the opposite is actually true: nothing we ‘own’ in this life is truly ours. No ‘worldly’ possession can travel with its ‘owner’ beyond the grave. Even the body, deemed by many to be ‘truly ours’, dissolves. It seems the grief filled assertion of Job, stands true: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.’ If this is a more realistic appraisal of our relationship to material things, then should we not take time to reconsider the notion of ownership, especially given it eats up so much of our precious time?
As a Christian who believes in the infinite wisdom of God, I am drawn to the Bible for an answer to this simple yet profound question. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story commonly known as the parable of the shrewd manager. An except follows…
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg– I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ Luke 16:1-4 (NIV)
Jesus relates the plight of a manager who is discovered by his master as being wasteful, and is subsequently given notice. Fully aware of his temporary station, the manager quickly devises a plan to secure his future life. So, immediately prior to his dismissal, he goes to his master’s debtors and offers them a huge discount if they settle their accounts quickly. In doing so, he wins great favor with both them and the master (who commends his actions). Through his shrewd actions and quick thinking, the manager fully employs his master’s resources to establish the opportunity for a prosperous life following his untimely dismissal.
Generally speaking, Jesus’ parables have two main characters: one that corresponds to God and the other the individual hearer of the story. Jesus uses this story to highlight a number of important truths about the hearer’s relationship to the material possessions laid at their disposal by God. Firstly, he intimates that ownership is really stewardship (management), and that which ‘we possess’ really belongs to ‘the master’. Secondly, accountability to God for the use or misuse of those material resources is inevitable for all managers. Thirdly, the time which those material things are at the disposal of the managers is relatively brief, so careful management is called for. Fourthly, those possessions are to be used in such a way to grant direct temporal benefit to others and so indirectly benefit their owner (God), who values people above things. Finally, wise management implies a future reward for the right handling of the resources granted.
In this story, Jesus also offers some insights on the nature of material things. He says, ‘Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much…’ Luke 16:10 (NIV). Jesus here suggests that the wealth of ‘this world’ is relatively little in comparison to eternal riches. Wise use of the former results in the granting of ‘much’ of the latter. He also indicates that worldly wealth is artificial: ‘So if you have been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches.‘ (v11) The suggestion being, transitory material wealth has only token value, and is not ‘true’ wealth. Finally, Jesus debunks the notion of discretionary ownership: ‘And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?’ (v12) Here he affirms that material possessions are really God’s, loaned to us as the means of proving our worth and suitability for gaining ‘our own’ wealth.
If we are willing to accept the Bible’s perspective on material things, then we must dismiss the notion that possession of material wealth equates with discretionary ownership. Rather, we must also accept that all we ‘own’ in this life has been gifted to us by God, representing a means for qualifying for the possession of true/eternal riches. Not only so, but we must acknowledge personal responsibility; accepting that God will call us to account for our use or misuse of these temporal gifts. Finally, how well we manage the temporal possessions at our disposal, will determine the greatness of eternal riches we receive when we are called to account by God on that final day.
Ownership, as it is commonly understood in our culture, is a myth. Nothing we possess we ‘truly’ own. Rather, we been given access to someone else’s resources (God’s); resources of relatively little value in eternal terms, but having great valuable in as much as they provide the opportunity to test our trustworthiness for gaining eternal possessions. Therefore, access to these material resources simply represents the means for proving our stewardship before God, and the opportunity to gain true and enduring wealth, should we prove faithful. Those who delay their gratification to possess things, with a view to true ownership can expect far more than this life can offer. Moreover, this far more on offer, will never fade, rust, rot, or be stolen. For the faithful manager then, eternal possessions granted by God can be claimed as truly their own, for only in eternity is ownership no longer a myth.