Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Pentecost 10: A Life of Autarkeia

If you had a few brief moments to spend with someone who is wise, revered, deeply spiritual, what would you want to talk about? Say it is Desmond Tutu or the Dali Lama or Billy Graham. My guess is you would want to make the most of that time by discussing something of significance. Think about the people who approach Jesus and the questions they raise. Some get it right and make the most of the opportunity:

Lord, which is the greatest commandment of all?
Lord, can you teach us how to pray?
Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

These folks are searching for answers to the most significant yearnings in the human soul. Others, well, their base concerns are indicative of a very different set of priorities:

Jesus, can you grant that my sons will sit at your side in glory?
Jesus, do you want me to call down fire from heaven on these people who have treated you so rudely?

And today… Jesus, can you please tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me?

Jesus was not concerned with power or vengeance or material possessions. He was firmly grounded in what the Greeks called autarkeia, a word which means ‘sufficiency,’ ‘contentment,’ or ‘enough.’ Aristotle described autarkeia as “a freedom from all things” or “to have need of nothing or no one.” The Stoics equated it with the word apatheia and espoused an even more extreme position of not even having desires.

In writing to the Christians in Philippi, St. Paul uses the word autarkeia in a slightly different way:

I have learned in whatever circumstances I am to be content [autarkes]. I know both what it means to be in modest circumstances and to be affluent. In any and in all circumstances I have been initiated into what it means to have plenty to eat and to go hungry, to be affluent and to be needy. (4:12)

For Paul, the Christian notion of contentment does imply doing away with all possessions, all relationships, and all desires. It means basing your sense of contentment on something greater than things that come and go, that fade or fail or find a way not to live up to their over-hyped expectations. What do you think was the source of Paul’s contentment; of his sense that he had enough of all he really needed regardless of the balance in his checking account or the newness of the automobile in his driveway?

“Jesus, can you tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me?” It is like going before a famous chef and asking how to make a peanut butter sandwich. And Jesus responds with a teaching on coveting, reminding all that life is about more than having possessions. I would like to say ‘amen’ to that, but, having just finished entering a month’s worth of receipts into my Quicken program, I wonder if my spending habits speak louder than my words.

Jesus’ teaching takes the form of a parable about a person who is already rich when a bumper crop comes in. What should he do with this huge bonus? The garage is already so full of stuff that he can’t park his cars in it. The attic and the basement are overflowing. Its 2,000 years ago and no one has yet thought up the self-storage business. So the rich man decides to build even bigger spaces to keep all of his things. And having it all in place, he imagines, will enable to him to kick back and lead a life of ease.

He is, in Jesus’ estimation, rich in things but impoverished in soul. There will come a time, perhaps even this very day, Jesus says, when all those things will lose their meaning and his spiritual poverty will overwhelm him.

One way to enrich your soul is to cultivate a sense of autarkeia, contentment; a belief that no matter what your circumstances you have enough of all you really need. Pondering this notion, John van de Laar, a Methodist minister from South Africa, wrote a reflection, which he called “Enough”:

Worry and stress are not hard for us, God,
we do them without thinking.

There is always the potential of threat
to our security,
our comfort,
our health,
our relationships,
our lives,
and we foolishly think that we could silence the fear
if we just had enough money,
enough insurance,
enough toys,
enough stored away for a rainy day.
It’s never enough, though;
The voice of our fear will not be dismissed so easily.

But in the small, silent places within us is another voice;
one that beckons us into the foolishness of faith,
that points our gaze to the birds and the flowers,
that, in unguarded moments, lets our muscles relax,
and our hearts lean into loved ones;
In unexpected whispers we hear it,
calling us to remember your promises,
your grace,
your steadfastness;
and suddenly, we discover
that it is enough.


What helps do you to discover this spiritual sense of enough? In what ways do you live into it? And it what ways do you not live into it; forsaking contentment for the supposed blessings of a material life? Today, tomorrow, this week, for the month of August, what can you do to become more rich in spirit and less dependent on things?