Jesus and slavery

Jesus said: A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. Matthew 10:24-25

Perhaps the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while was so that you might have him back for ever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Philemon 15-16

Have you ever felt puzzled that Jesus regularly uses slavery as a way of talking about our relationship with God?

Surely, if he came to usher in the perfect kingdom of God, he ought to have condemned slavery outright! Today, after all, anyone who regards themselves as remotely civilized – Christian or not – sees slavery as an outrage. The idea that anyone has the right to own another human being is simply scandalous.

Yet Jesus and the early church seem to have accepted slavery as a fact of life.

So the question arises: Why? Why didn’t Jesus condemn slavery?

The answer is simple: in the world in which he lived, slavery was a fact of life, and there was no way he or the group of people who became his followers could change that. Plus, of course, the fact that Jesus saw his mission in this world in far, far wider terms – not simply the righting of particular wrongs, important though that is, but the demonstration of a whole new God-centred way of life.

Slavery goes back into the mists of time; there was, apparently, no culture or society that didn’t practice it. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived over three hundred years before Jesus, slaves were not really human beings at all; he refers to them as “living tools” – with all that that implies (use them as you like, chuck them away when you’ve finished with them). The Roman empire in which Jesus lived was massively dependent on it.

To be fair, slavery in the ancient world was often nothing like as horrible and shocking as, say, the transatlantic slave trade so much nearer our own time. For many, slavery was a far better option than living on the streets; you almost became part of the wider family, with a recognised status.

Many slave owners treated their slaves kindly and with affection. Slaves could rise to positions of responsibility in their masters’ affairs – they may have worked as ships’ captains or farm managers. One writer tells us that “the familiarity of slaves towards their owners was a stock theme of comedy”, suggesting that the masters didn’t have it all their own way.

But these factors, of course, could never make slavery right.

And this was something that Jesus and the apostles did recognise. Their approach, in essence, was to undermine slavery from within, rather than pointlessly hit it head-on. Hence the various New Testament passages where Christian slave-owners are instructed to treat their slaves fairly and with dignity. Ephesians 6:9 is a good example.

Especially, we have the intriguing little letter of Paul to Philemon, where Paul pleads with his friend Philemon to show mercy and compassion to his runaway slave Onesimus.

Paul met Onesimus while he was imprisoned, and unashamedly calls him “my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains”. He is unwilling to insist that Philemon should be forgiving to Onesimus – that has to be according to Philemon’s own conscience – but he hopes that he will treat him “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (verse16).

I would like to have seen Philemon’s face when he read those words, wouldn’t you? – suddenly realising that he had, as they say, some serious thinking to do… (I wonder how the story ended – what did Philemon in fact do? I would love to know.)

What can we draw from this history lesson?

First, let’s be alert to the fact that, tragically, slavery is by no means gone from our modern world. It still happens, as we sometimes see on the news; and there might even be shameful examples of it among the people who, say, wash our cars, pick our fruit or lay our patios.

Second, to keep in mind that ultimately all such social distinctions will be done away for ever: in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This great truth should be reflected in the way we conduct all our relationships – no kowtowing to the supposedly high and mighty, no looking down upon the supposedly lowly. Jesus died for everyone; Jesus loves everyone.

Third, to keep doing in every area of life what the early church did regarding slavery: that is, undermining from within what we cannot transform from without.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could change the world! – if we could right all wrongs! But we can’t. But what we can do is (how can I put this?) inject a little bit of Jesus into every situation in which we find ourselves.

Or, as Jesus himself put it, be the yeast that “works its way through the dough” (Matthew 13:33).

Lord Jesus Christ,

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me bring your love.
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you.

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope;
Where there is darkness, only light;
And where there’s sadness, ever joy. Amen.

Francis of Assisi (?), c1182-1226

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Honest doubt – or stubborn disbelief?

Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” John 20:27

Last time we thought about the sad mystery of why people “fall away” from faith in Jesus.

Our main focus was on people whose faith crumples because they never talk about, or seek help for, doubts and questionings that challenge their faith; and by the time they do, it’s too late. And I suggested that sometimes churches must bear a weight of responsibility for this, because they treat doubt almost as a sin, so that people feel too guilty to open up about it.

“But wait a minute,” somebody might say, “isn’t that being a bit soft on doubt? Didn’t Jesus tell ‘Doubting Thomas’ off for his doubt? ‘Stop doubting and believe’, he told him. And in other places don’t we find Jesus obviously very disappointed by people’s doubting?”

A fair question. But I think there is an answer.

First, a matter of translation…

Even though Doubting Thomas has gone down in history with that title, it isn’t quite correct. Strictly speaking, what Jesus said was “Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.” There are other words in Greek for “doubt”, but none of them are used here. Several Bible translations reflect this difference. The King James Version, for example, has “Be not faithless, but believing”; The New English Bible has “Be unbelieving no longer, but believe”.

So? Well, this suggests that Jesus wasn’t taking Thomas to task for honest doubt, but for stubborn disbelief.

Just think. Thomas had missed out on Jesus’s appearance to his fellow disciples (verses 19-23). But… never mind, he knew these men! He had lived intimately with them for over two years, as they walked and talked with Jesus. He knew that they were hard-headed men, not shallow and impressionable.

So when, as one man, they greeted him with the news “We have seen the Lord!” (verse 25), he should have believed them. If it was just one or two, fair enough – we could understand his inability to believe. But John gives a clear impression that, no, it was the whole group (just Judas missing, of course).

So Thomas was at fault, not for doubting, but for refusing to believe, in the teeth of good evidence. There is a big difference.

Mind you, having said that, it’s important to point out too how gently and lovingly Jesus treats Thomas: a rebuke, yes, but a very tender rebuke (verses 27-29). He actually invites Thomas to prove to his satisfaction the very thing he has refused to believe: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side…”. No anger; no condemnation. Just disappointment – and love.

(It’s also worth noticing that Thomas had a bit of “previous” when it came to doubt. In John 14:5 he’s the disciple who flatly contradicts Jesus when Jesus talks about “the way”; and a little earlier, in John 11:16, he’s the one who cynically suggests that if their friend Lazarus really is dead, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” Not exactly a little ray of sunshine, our Thomas! – yet, again, how kind to him Jesus is. Is there a message there…?)

When I said that some people’s faith collapses because of a slow build-up of unspoken doubts – the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, if you like – I had in mind doubt in the sense of questioning. It’s not lacking faith; it’s wrestling with genuine puzzles and mysteries. And this is surely something we all do. (In this sense you could call Job the patron saint of doubt; and therefore the patron saint of all of us.)

Is it a sin, in the aftermath of the New Zealand mosque shootings, to wonder, “Why did God allow that to happen?” Or likewise, when there’s a terrible natural tragedy like the Mozambique cyclone, to reflect, “If God really is God, couldn’t he have prevented that from happening?”

I have on my shelves a book, written by a Christian, called Is God a moral monster? It grapples, among other things, with those Bible passages where God is portrayed as, in effect, ordering mass slaughter (Joshua 6 would be a prime example).

I’m not sure how successful the writer is – but ten out of ten for trying! Anyone who has read the Bible without puzzling over passages like these… well, all I can say is that they have never really read the Bible at all.

So, a question to finish with: Are you bottling up doubts in your mind? Yes? Then, please, find a wise and trusted Christian friend and unload them. It could make all the difference.

And for the rest of us, a tiny verse from the tiny Letter of Jude: “Be merciful to those who doubt” (verse 22). Or, as the New English Bible puts it, “There are some doubting souls who need your pity”. Or, as The Message puts it, “Go easy on those who hesitate in the faith.”

Yes? Yes! Amen!

Lord Jesus, please be gentle with me when my faith falls short. Please help me too to be completely honest when I find myself doubting. And help me too to “go easy on those who hesitate in the faith”. Amen.

Why do people fall away?

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. 2 Timothy 4:9-10

So what went wrong with Demas?

We know next to nothing about him, but in just two other places (Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24) Paul mentions him as a “fellow-worker” and, presumably, a friend. But here, in 2 Timothy 4, we get this sad little note that he has “deserted” Paul.

We can’t say for sure that Demas abandoned his Christian faith; perhaps he simply didn’t see eye to eye with Paul (he wouldn’t have been the only one, if Acts 15:36-41 is to be believed!). But Paul’s remark that he “loved this world” strongly suggests that, in his view at least, Demas has “fallen away”.

Last time we looked at Hebrews 6:4-6, a sombre passage suggesting that anyone who does what Demas did can never be restored to salvation. I suggested that it is wise not to be too dogmatic about exactly how to understand this passage – but also that we should certainly take on board the fact that “falling away” is a very serious matter. God is not to be trifled with.

But the question arises: Why do people fall away anyway?

No doubt there can be various reasons. Demas, for example, seems to have developed a greater love for “the world” than he did for Christ. And in his parable of the sower Jesus speaks of people who, though they received “the word”, are unable to cope with “trouble or persecution” or with “the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth” (Matthew 13:1-23). That suggests three main reasons for falling away: caving in to fear of persecution, getting snowed under with worries, or – Demas’ problem – succumbing to materialism.

In my time as a full-time minister I found pastoring those who seemed to be falling away by far the most difficult job I had to perform. Calling on someone and taking them to task – “Er, we don’t seem to have seen you much recently” – was usually horribly embarrassing: give me a visit to the dentist any time.

But it had to be done, and whether it involved the wagging finger or the arm around the shoulder (so to speak) it never got easier. And if things didn’t work out, I always felt guilty, that I had failed somehow. (We ministers can be plagued by insecurity, you know; delicate little petals we are; kindly keep that in mind for future reference…)

No doubt I had failed. But I tried to remind myself also that every person has a responsibility for their own soul, whatever my inadequacies.

In most cases people’s faith just dribbled away. Early enthusiasm waned and eventually died. Very rarely was it the hard pressures of life that did the damage – ill-health, family worries, job difficulties. On the contrary, these often seemed to have the effect of strengthening faith. No. As life went on it seemed that Jesus simply wasn’t in fact that important after all.

But recently I read an article in a Christian paper which suggested another problem, where perhaps the church does have to shoulder a fair amount of responsibility: situations where a person’s faith collapses under the weight of slowly built-up inner doubts and questionings.

There are churches (I hope yours isn’t like this!) where doubt is treated almost as a sin, and where questioning is not encouraged. There is a strong doctrinal “party-line” which you are expected to toe. Members accordingly become very docile and passive, and when they are struggling, for whatever reason, they are afraid to be honest about what’s going on in their hearts.

And so one day, possibly after many years, they find themselves suddenly thinking “I just don’t believe this any more!” And in no time at all word is going round: “Had you heard that Geoff has lost his faith!”

I find this kind of situation far, far sadder than the one where somebody just lets their faith peter out. The Geoffs of this world may simply be being honest, and a point comes when they can no longer endure wearing what has come to seem a mask. If only they had found a wise, mature Christian friend to talk to…!

It’s a healthy church that takes doubt seriously, that not only allows but even encourages questioning. A tree that can’t bend in the wind is likely to snap; and a faith which has no “give” in it is in danger of collapsing.

Please don’t get me wrong. A robust faith in Jesus crucified, risen, ascended and one day returning in glory is absolutely vital. This is the gospel.

But for the rest, let’s be open to doubts and sympathetic to honest questionings. When the man I’ve called Geoff comes back to God, as I trust he will, his faith will very likely be ten times stronger than that of those who (let’s be blunt about it) have never really thought at all.

Lord Jesus, thank you for being so patient with me in times of fear, doubt and questioning. Help me always to be honest about what’s going on in my heart, and to be sympathetic and sensitive to others who are feeling the rough winds of uncertainty. Amen.

Are you in danger of falling away?

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Hebrews 6:4-6

Mmm… this sounds a bit grim.

Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews seems to be saying that if you have come to faith in Christ but then “fallen away”, there’s no way back: “It is impossible… to be brought back to repentance.” It’s that word “impossible” (not just “very difficult” or “very unlikely”) that seems so hard.

Why should it be impossible?

Is it because God has made it so? – as if he has said: “Sorry, but I’m afraid you’ve blown it. You had your chance, you took it, but then you went back on it. Now it’s too late…” Is God washing his hands of a person in this position?

That is hard to believe – it simply doesn’t chime in with the nature of God as we see it in the Bible as a whole, and above all in the love and mercy of Jesus.

All right. So is it impossible, then, in the sense that the person in question has, him or herself, made it impossible – that they have hardened their own heart to the point of no return, so that repentance is simply ruled out? As far as salvation goes, God has no Plan B – it’s either Jesus or nothing. So given that the person in question is, in effect, “crucifying the son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace”, what hope can there be?

That seems rather more plausible – and it could be borne out by Hebrews 10:26-27, where a similar point is made: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left…”. There is no Jesus Mark 2, no second Calvary.

But even there the question “Why so final?” won’t quite go away. However “far gone” a person may be, why shouldn’t a change of heart still be possible?

It’s a tricky one, and if you look up the various commentaries you find that the experts struggle to make sense of it, and to agree with one another. So it’s unwise, I think, to be too dogmatic.

One thing is clear, though. The writer isn’t talking about somebody who has had, if I can put it this way, just a brief, shallow flirtation with Christianity. No; they have “been enlightened”, they have “tasted the heavenly gift”, they have “shared in the Holy Spirit”, they have “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age”. It isn’t like when people turn up at our churches for, say, a few weeks, show a bit of interest, but then disappear again. No. The person in question has been pretty deeply into Christianity – so their “falling away” is all the more grave.

For many of us today the question of deciding to follow Jesus can seem terribly casual, even trivial – if, after a bit, you decide to change your mind, well, what’s the problem? Against that, bear in mind that the writer to the Hebrews was writing against a background of persecution, where many Christian people had paid a heavy price – even including death – in order to remain loyal to Jesus. (See, for example, Hebrews 10:32-35.)

And that, of course, is exactly how it still is for many Christians in many parts of the world.

So while perhaps we have to live with uncertainty about the precise interpretation of these verses, we can draw from them a clear lesson we still need to learn at regular intervals…

Putting it bluntly: Don’t trifle with God! He is to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and the decision we make to obey, serve and love him is the most important we will make throughout our lives. To call ourselves “Christians”, and to proclaim “Jesus is Lord”, is a big, big thing. Christianity isn’t a pastime or hobby; it’s the very guiding star of our lives.

Is that how we see it? Or is it something we have “fallen away” from?

When Jesus was asked by some of the religious leaders of his day “which is the greatest commandment?” he went straight to the Old Testament and replied, first, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (that, more or less, is Deuteronomy 6:5), and then, second, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (that’s part of Leviticus 19:18). See Mark 12:28-31.

There can be no half-measures in following Jesus. The people who received the Letter to the Hebrews needed to be reminded of that. Many Christians today, suffering appalling hardship, need no reminder.

So… What about us?

Lord God, please save me from becoming casual or shallow in my attitude to the gospel. Help me to grasp its seriousness and its sheer wonder, and so bring me to that day when the veil is torn aside and I will see Jesus, crucified, risen and ascended, and worship him as I should. Amen.

(This concern about “falling away” that we find several times in this letter prompts the question: Why does it happen? Why do Christians so often tend to fall away?

There’s no room now to tackle that. But I hope to come back to it next time – so, watch this space…)

Taking yourself in hand

I beat my body and make it my slave… 1 Corinthians 9:27

So here we are in Lent.

Had you noticed? Does Lent mean anything to you?

I must admit it’s not something I’ve ever taken very seriously – this period of forty days leading up to the Easter weekend, when many Christians make sacrifices or take on special times of prayer and devotion. There’s no mention of it in the New Testament, although it is of course derived from the forty days of fasting that Jesus endured before the start of his earthly ministry.

I think my luke-warm attitude probably comes from the idea that it’s a very “churchy” thing that can easily become an empty tradition, a token gesture (like “giving up chocolate for Lent”?), rather than a serious attempt to get to grips with God in a deeper way.

But who am I to say? I don’t know what other Christians make of Lent, do I, so it’s hardly for me to judge. And there are some people I know who find it extremely helpful.

Whatever. What I do know is that the apostle Paul was entirely serious about the business of “taking himself in hand”, as we might put it: “I beat my body and make it my slave…” (1 Corinthians 9:27). That’s pretty strong stuff, wouldn’t you say?

I’ve never understood the appeal of boxing (I leave that to my elder son – I’ve no idea where he got that enthusiasm from!). Why you might want to stand in a ring while someone else does their best to whack the living daylights out of you (an expression of my father) I really can’t imagine. Not my idea of fun. But, then again, what do I know?

But Paul seems to have had an even stranger habit: he didn’t just allow other people to beat him, but he “beat his own body”. How literally he meant that I don’t know; perhaps it was his metaphorical way of describing that “taking yourself in hand” process I mentioned. Clearly he was determined that his body should be his servant and not his master: “I make it my slave”.

Does this mean that the human body is, of itself, evil or wicked? No, not at all. It was, after all, designed by God, and God doesn’t make anything but what is good.

But it has potential for evil. If we let it become our master rather than our servant it will eventually run out of control and destroy us – think of people who allow themselves to become obese (I don’t of course mean people who have a medical condition), or addicted to various substances, or sexually unrestrained. The body is not evil in itself, but it can become an instrument of evil.

The universe is full of things like that. Fire is an obvious example: it’s a wonderful thing to warm us, or for us to cook with, or to destroy rubbish with. But think what it does when it gets out of control. The same with nuclear energy. Or even an everyday object like the car – a great way of getting from A to B, but a frightening thing when driven irresponsibly.

Was Paul a bit of a fanatic? It might seem so. But remember again the experience of Jesus himself – the horrendously harsh discipline of those forty days and nights in the desert. If Paul was “fanatical”, how much more Jesus? (Why not spend a few minutes reflecting again on Matthew 4:1-11?)

The season of Lent is intended to encourage us to examine ourselves for ingrained sin, ungodly habits and compromises in our way of living. However we may choose to observe it – giving up chocolate, giving our bodies a buffeting, or anything in between – can that be bad? Honest self-examination leading to determined change can, surely, only be good.

The playwright Oscar Wilder raised a laugh by declaring “I can resist anything but temptation!” In its way that’s not a bad joke. But in reality temptation is a deeply serious thing. We need to give thought to the state of our bodies – but even more to the state of our souls. If we take seriously the word of scripture – that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19) – we will want to do that. Yes, God himself lives within us!

Here’s a question for us to put to ourselves: Am I in control of my life (under God, of course), or is my life in control of me? If “observing Lent” helps us to get this right, why not go for it?

What’s not to like?

Father, as I head now towards Easter, please help me to get to grips with any sin, any bad habits, any laziness or carelessness in my walk with you. As I think of Jesus fasting in the wilderness, teach me the value of discipline, and so help me to become more like him. Amen.

Cruel to be kind?

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. Proverbs 27:6

If someone says to you “Can I be completely candid with you?” what’s your immediate thought? If you’re anything like me, it’s probably something like “Uh-oh, what’s coming now? I’m not sure I want to hear this!” For the candid person, even if a friend, is probably about to tell us something we prefer not to be told about, thank you very much.

I like the word “candour”, though. It means frankness, honesty, openness, but without a nasty, aggressive edge, as in angry bluntness or “calling a spade a spade”.

Proverbs 27:6 – the first line at least – is all about candour: “wounds from a friend can be trusted”. That is, the candid friend is a true friend.

There’s a twofold challenge here.

First, how willing am I to inflict on somebody else “the wounds of a friend”?

Again, if you’re anything like me you will probably shrink from it as much as possible. Who wants to cause a friend hurt or embarrassment? Most of us probably tend to be cowardly, even though a bit of candour might be what’s needed.

In the New Testament James the brother of Jesus has some wise words: “If one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

“Turning a sinner from the error of their ways” is never likely to be an easy or pleasant task: it requires courage and faith – but, most of all, true love. It could just be a life-changing act for that wayward friend, as long as it is done with humility and a recognition that we too are prone to wander: no hint of condemnation or “talking down”. Just humble candour.

The second challenge is: how willing am I to receive the wounds of a friend?

You sometimes hear it said of someone, “Oh, he can give it but he can’t take it.” That may be a fair criticism. And when it comes to the need for candour it’s especially important, for if friendly wounds are hard to give, how much harder are they to take! None of us likes to be “put right”, however lovingly.

But it’s an important part of humility and growth in the Christian life. To be able to say to a candid friend “All right, thank you for saying this – I know it hasn’t been easy. But I’ll go away and pray about it” is a great thing. Even if you’re fuming inside, honesty demands that you at least chew it over.

I personally have rarely experienced this. But on one memorable occasion when it did happen I quite quickly came to see that what the other person had said was right, and (I hope, anyway!) their candour did me good. In fact, looking back over my whole life I can’t help feeling that if friends had done it to me more often I would hopefully have become a better person, and a better Christian.

The New Testament gives us a perfect example of what it means to lovingly wound a friend…

According to Matthew 16:13-28, Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him – “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And Simon Peter blurted out his great confession of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” Jesus is delighted with this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…” Simon must have felt wonderful.

But Jesus then goes on to predict his own suffering and death. Whereupon Simon protests: “Never, Lord!… This shall never happen to you!”

And now, instead of blessing Simon, Jesus virtually curses him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me”.

That seems appallingly cruel. Not “Wait a minute, Simon – you haven’t really understood…” But “Simon, you are Satan! Get away from me!”

Did Simon Peter sleep that night? I doubt it. He must have been shaken to the core: “I’ve been with him right from the start! No-one has been more loyal than me! I’ve given my very life to him. And he calls me Satan! How can I ever get over this…?”

Well, of course, we know that by God’s grace he did get over it. The wound did heal – though no doubt the scar never went completely away. (Proverbs 28:23 tells us that “whoever rebukes a friend will in the end gain favour” – it can take time!)

But the day came, I’m sure, when Simon Peter was able to say “It was the most horrible moment of my life – but, looking back, I’m glad Jesus hurt me with that wound…”

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, thank God – especially when the friend is the greatest friend of all: Jesus himself.

Loving Father, help me to be a true friend – with the courage and faith to inflict wounds when the Spirit prompts me; and humble enough to receive them when they are for my good. Amen.

So many things we don’t need…

Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15

We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1Timothy 6:8

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in every situation… Philippians 4:12

The Greek philosopher Socrates is reported to have said, as he strolled through the market-place in Athens, “Who would have thought there could be so many things I can do without!”

Well said, Socrates!

Socrates died about 400 years before Jesus, but is a good reminder that while the Bible is full of truth and wisdom, it doesn’t have a monopoly on these things. Truth is God’s truth wherever we may find it!

I wonder what the market-place in ancient Athens was like?

I picture a large open area teeming with people – men and women, buyers and sellers, children and dogs – milling around hundreds of stalls. A place where you could buy all the basic necessities of life: food and clothing, of course, but no doubt also toiletries, kitchen utensils and precious items, not to mention trinkets and ornaments. A busy place; and I imagine that many of the people will have had worried looks on their faces – “Can I afford that? Will it be enough? Can I get it cheaper further down the aisle?…”

And I picture Socrates drifting around, an observer rather than a participant, with a wry smile on his face: “So many things I can do without!”

That scene is vastly different from our modern glitzy shopping malls. Yet very much the same too: so much stuff that we just don’t need!

Jesus told the powerful story of “the rich fool” (Luke 12:13-21). I’ve quoted the words with which he introduced it, but it’s the story itself that’s key: about the successful farmer whose business grew and grew until he decided he was entitled to a life of idleness: “Take life easy! Eat, drink and be merry”. Only too late did he hear the voice of his creator: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Who indeed? You can’t take it with you, Mr Rich Man!

Paul was well aware of this truth. Writing to his young protégé Timothy he spells out one of the great truisms of life, a truism quite independent of religion or philosophy: “For we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6:8). There are echoes there of that great Old Testament figure Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart” (Job 1:21). That’s a fact; let’s get used to it!

But sitting light to worldly possessions goes flat against the grain of human nature. And Paul knew this too. Writing while “in chains” (not a nice place to be) to the Christians of Philippi, he tells them that, whatever his circumstances, he has “learned the secret of being content… whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

There are two vital words in that statement.

First, “secret”… being content with what we have isn’t an obvious and easy thing; no, it’s a hidden thing. And therefore, second, it has to be “learned”… and the great teacher is, of course, experience – often painful, sometimes bitter.

I hardly need spell out the relevance of all this for us. When we think about the dangers of materialism it’s easy to shake our heads at the “filthy rich” – the tycoons, sports stars and film stars with luxury houses dotted around the world, and multi-million pound yachts bobbing in the harbour at Monte Carlo.

But no. This warning is for the rest of us as much as for them. We too need to look at all the wares on offer and ask the question: Do I really need this? Should I really be throwing that away? And when the adverts tell us that something is a “must have” product, to spit right in their eye (so to speak). “Must have”, indeed… Pah!

This is for our own good, of course: God isn’t just out to spoil our fun. An excess of these things will enslave us as they take over our lives. It will engender anxiety and fear, ruining our peace of mind. It will jeapordise our eternal destiny, like the man in Jesus’ story.

God wants us happy. I’m sure he doesn’t begrudge us enjoyment of the good things of life. Not at all. But he sounds the warning bell; and not to heed it is to be – to use Jesus’ word – a fool.

Here’s something else Socrates said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” That remark could have come straight out of the Bible – “examine yourselves,” says Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5. It covers each and every aspect of life.

And that certainly includes our attitude towards worldly goods.

Time for a bit of self-examination?

Save me, Lord God, from being seduced by money and material things. Teach me to be thankful for, and content with, what I have. Teach me, indeed, to be generous with what I have, remembering the words of Jesus: “There is more blessing in giving than receiving”. Amen.