More than a century ago Leo Tolstoy wrote about a greedy farmer in his tale, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” This farmer was discontent with his life because he never seemed to have enough. He moved town to town looking for greener pastures and greater opportunity. On his journeys he heard rumors of a far-away place where a distant tribe possessed more land than anyone could walk over in a year; and it was all there for the taking. He went to investigate and found the rumors to be true. The farmer met with the tribal chief who informed him that he could in fact have all the land he wanted.
“Pay a thousand rubles and begin walking in a circle,” the chief instructed. Everything within that circle, so long as the circle was completed by sundown, would be his. So early the next morning, the farmer began his grasping acquisition of land. He began running, as quickly as he could, trying to make as large a circle as possible. Late in the day the farmer realized how far from the starting point he was and began the desperate return trip. He ran with all his waning strength back to the beginning of his circle. Just as the sun was setting he arrived, sweating and wheezing, at where he had begun. The people cheered and celebrated. Never had anyone acquired so much land in a single day!
In joy they bent down to rouse the farmer from his exhaustion, but he did not stir. He was dead. Tolstoy concludes the story by saying: “The farmer’s servant picked up a spade and dug a grave and buried him. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”
How much land – you can insert different words here like “square footage” or “cars in the garage” or “clothes in the closet” or “number of gold certificates” – how much of all this stuff do you really need? Probably not as much as you think. Any observer of culture would have to admit that our society is filled with greedy Tolstoy-like farmers, killing themselves in the chase to get just a little more, hoping that one more acquisition, conquest, accomplishment, beach house, or success will bring some satisfaction.
Beyond the obvious physical toll it takes, there is the not as obvious but just as real impact this land grabbing lifestyle has on our emotional and spiritual well-being. David Gushee calls this American way of life, “Affluenza:” Materialism, commercialism, and consumerism drive us, he says, to get the latest and greatest with no thought for the least of these, no thought for what it does to our own souls, and no thought for what it does to God’s good world.
When we chase after just more and more stuff, we are chasing a mirage. It is a lie to believe that having enough money in the bank, obtaining the most expensive piece of property, making the investment with the highest return, shaping the most clever fiscal policy, or acquiring the best performing stock will lead to economic safety, security, and some kind of relaxation and peace of mind. Not so. Such thinking is a death-spawning run in a circle.
I readily concede that the human heart needs something to pursue. To chase after the higher and better, to possess that for which we long and love is a crucial part of our nature. The challenge before us is to seek what is right and best, to seek what will actually fulfill that search and quench the thirst. The challenge, and the answer, is to seek what Jesus called “the kingdom of God,” a treasure more valuable than anything that might land on our bottom line.
Yes, we can enjoy the good things that come into our life, and we may be able to afford the monthly payment on a lot of different luxuries, but more and more stuff will never be enough to help us sleep at night. Rather, it may cost us more than dollars.