Lectionary reading: Luke 12:32-40
This American Life Episode: 446 Living Without (2011)
In the 12th chapter of Luke, Jesus warns his listeners against possessions and anxiety. When someone asks Jesus to split up an inheritance, he responds by saying, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you? 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: 14-15, NRSV). But Jesus is quick to tell his listeners to not give into anxiety; he tells them to not worry about life and instead to seek God’s reign (Luke 12: 22-31).
Jesus’ message leads to today’s reading from the same chapter of Luke; chapter 12, verses 32-40. Jesus’ exhortation against possessions and anxiety are not unfounded. He points towards God’s good pleasure and assurance on heavenly treasures over earthly ones. That Jesus needs to make such assertion is not unexpected. Much like in present times, it was natural back then to find comfort and protection on what they were able to physically hold on to. Letting go, however, does not have to be a source of anxiety, at least not in the long run.
And so we turn to Episode 446 from This American Life: Living Without (2011). In this episode, Ira Glass presents various stories of people who have been forced to give up something. Anxiety, fear and disappointment are part of these people’s struggles yet, ultimately, they find peace and reassurance. In some of these examples, living without deals with more than mere possessions; they give up their source of security, a physical ability or pursuing a specific passion. However, giving up something, and learning to live without, whether material or not, is something most can relate to.
The episode’s introduction tells the story of Walter, a 3 year old boy giving up his pacifier. The boy struggles as he learns to live without something that brings him comfort. Walter’s parents wean him off his pacifier in stages; he can only use his pacifier upstairs, then only upstairs in his bedroom and then only in his bed. Walter himself reaches the point where he tosses his pacifier, announcing that he no longer needs it. Later that night, however, he cannot find comfort and does not sleep. The nights get better for the young boy; he’s able to sleep on his own and no longer needs the comfort of his pacifier.
The interesting part of the story is when Walter asks his adult family to tell him the story of how each of them got over losing their pacifiers. Of course, many of the adults do not recall that particular story in their childhood and so they resort to tell Walter stories of other things they gave up as children. Jesus’ words resonate with this story as Walter lives through the various stages of giving something up. There is the attachment to something, in Walter’s case, his pacifier. Then there is the process of giving that something up; the fear and anxiety that build as someone lets go of a source of comfort. Eventually, the fear and anxiety subsides as Walter realizes that others have also given something up, to the point where they do not even recall – or even to the point where they no longer need – that specific source of comfort. And so, to hear Jesus say that we should not worry about giving up certain things is like hearing about Walter learning to not worry about giving up his pacifier.
A different story on that same episode, Act II, tells the life of former baseball player Bobby Norris. Bobby was drafted by Major League Baseball and, like most young players drafted, was sent to the farm system. Bobby, however, was never called up to play in the big leagues. He spent several years in the minors, injured and sometimes just sitting on the bench until one day when he decided to give up baseball. This decision was difficult for Bobby and for some years could not even watch a baseball game on TV. Bobby had been forced to give up something he loved and now was learning to live without it.
Bobby ended up working as a commodities trader, a job he enjoyed and was good at performing. Eventually, he returned to baseball, not as a player but as a coach; he works for a baseball academy coaching children. This new involvement with baseball brings Bobby great satisfaction and allows him to love baseball once again. Much like Walter, Bobby gave up something that brought him much comfort. And, just like Walter, Bobby realized that he had to give that up because it was not right for him. At the end, he finds comfort in coaching children even if he gave up his goal of playing professional baseball. Again, we can hear the words of Jesus saying, “Do not worry; it is OK to give up some things.”
There are more stories presented in this same episode that connect the act of giving up something, the fear and anxiety that it brings and ultimately, learning to live without. This process is not an easy one; and, of course, we never hear Jesus say just that. But, the words in Luke does remind us that there is something bigger than the anxiety of not having something. The adults in Walter’s life could not remember the time they used a pacifier. Just like that, we can know that in the future we might not remember that one thing we had to give up, no matter how fearful we are now of losing it. At the end, is not about losing something and being rewarded. It is about giving something up and knowing that it is OK. Knowing that there is comfort; that we have communities available that have also given up something and can provide the support needed. Or, simply knowing that giving up something does not translate in the inability to find satisfaction.
As Jesus said, “it is God’s good pleasure to give you God’s reign.” Your heart is where your treasure is. And, if Walter can find comfort in the adults in his life instead of his pacifiers, so can we find comfort in what God gives us instead of the things we have to give up.