Dictionaries can be useless sometimes. Recently, I looked up the meaning of the word ‘ownership’. Several different dictionaries defined it as ‘to possess something’. OK, so I looked up the meaning of ‘possession’. The answer? It’s something you own. Talk about going round in circles!
The dictionaries at least highlight the fact that there are two sides to ownership. We don’t just ‘own’; we own something. I own my car. I own my shoes and socks. You own your mobile phone. The Church owns worship centres and manses; and so on.
That’s a start, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for. I wanted to understand the essence of the concept of ownership. What is the difference in my relationship with my car and all the other vehicles in the car park at the local shopping centre, that means I can say I own one, but not the rest?
For one thing, it’s about rights and power. Owning my car gives me the right to decide who drives it, who the passengers are and where it goes. Having the keys to the car also gives me the power to back my decisions. And even if I lose my keys, the law of the land acknowledges my rights and power over my car, decreeing that others can’t just jump in and drive off without my permission.
For another, it’s about responsibility. As its owner, I’m responsible for how my car is driven: keeping to the left, not going too fast, stopping at red lights. The same laws protecting my rights also decree legal consequences if I do not exercise responsibility and my car causes damage to other people, or their cars.
It’s been this way for a long time. One of the Ten Commandments is ‘you shall not steal’ and the book of Exodus is full of case-law to expand on the meaning and consequences of stealing in ancient Israel. For example, if someone doesn’t keep their cow under control and it eats the crop in another man’s field, then the owner of the cow has to make restitution (Exodus 22:5). As quaint as such examples can seem to many of us who live in cities in the 21st century, the principles behind them resonate loudly, don’t they?
Thinking about ownership like this, it’s a one-directional dynamic. I own; something else is owned. However, while the Bible endorses laws of property rights that flow from this, God’s word also takes a broader view and speaks to us of the spiritual reality of our relationship with things. The danger, we are warned, is that ownership can too easily become a two-way dynamic. The things that in a legal sense we own, they can own us — in a spiritual sense. And that is not healthy.
We hear this in Jesus words: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) We also hear it when He says: “… life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15b)
And the apostle Paul has very strong things to say: “Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of the world. If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. Those who desire to be rich [who let possessions own them] fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money [letting it own you] is the root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith..” (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
This is not the way of someone who is owned by God, whose treasure is being stored up in heaven. Instead, that person will “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness and gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:11)
These words speak to those who have many things and those who don’t. Those who are not rich are in danger if they set the course of their lives towards becoming wealthy. But those who are rich are also in the quicksand, if they trust in their wealth as if it’s strong and trustworthy. In both cases, God warns of the spiritual damage if we let things own us. We are in the service of whatever owns us and, as Jesus also said, we cannot serve God and another master. (Matthew 6:24)
As individuals and as a Church, let us take heed of these warnings and, instead, seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). Then, as Jesus promised, all things necessary for life will be added to us.
Executive Director, Uniting Financial Services