About a decade ago, an architect named Sarah Susanka realized that she was being called on again and again to help people who had just bought new houses but were unhappy in them. More likely than not, the house was newly built and large – what you might call a McMansion: lined up in a treeless cul de sac, with a soaring, glaringly white, double-height foyer, a great room with a wall of windows and cathedral ceilings (whatever that might be), and lots of very large rooms. Her clients, thought they had bought their dream houses, and had mortgaged themselves to the hilt to do so, but were having trouble living in these houses, making them comfortable, making them feel like home, but they couldn’t quite figure out why.
Sarah, the architect, thought she knew why: the houses were simply too big. The scale of them was out of proportion to the lives of the people living in them. And rather than feeling at home in these too-big houses, their owners felt lost.
Sarah Susanka published a book addressing these problems in a culture that continues to find status and supposed happiness in bigger and bigger houses. Her book is called The Not So Big House. “We are all searching for a home,” she writes, “but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space.” She goes on to write that “while you might be able to afford a 6,000-sq-ft house, you may find that building a 3,000-sq-ft house that fits your lifestyle actually gives you more space to live in.”
Now, I watch enough HG TV to know that this way of thinking is very dangerous. It is not the American way to opt for less if you can afford more, or to consciously decide for a smaller house when a bigger one is available and within your grasp. For American society, bigger is better, and now that we are being shamed out of humongous cars, we have nowhere else to go but to our houses to realize this American dream of more, and more, and more. There is a property ladder, and you want to be moving up the ladder, not down, any fool knows this.
Unfortunately, the Gospel sometimes forces us to consider what we are doing on a ladder in the first place. Today’s Gospel passage is a perfect example of it, for we hear Jesus tell a crowd of people, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Now, you hardly need me to explain what Jesus means when he says this; his meaning is perfectly clear. But it may be that you need me to encourage you to stop and think about whether Jesus has anything at all to say to you this morning. For you and I do not think we are greedy, but we are kidding ourselves, because we live in a greedy society, and by and large we have been shaped by that society, by that greed. We may have developed our own defenses and prejudices, but still … so I may feel that my Volvo wagon is modest compared to the Hummers and the Lexuses I see, but you might say that a Vovlo wagon is still more than enough, for instance.
The parable that Jesus tells this morning is one of the least often repeated that I can think of:
"The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'”
We don’t teach this parable to our kids, because we don’t really believe in it. We teach our kids the value of compound interest (which I admit sounds quaint today) or of diversifying investment portfolios.
Do you remember the question that prompts Jesus to tell this parable? Someone in the crowd shouts out to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." It seems a perfectly reasonable thing to ask, and the answer we would have liked to hear would be about the importance of sharing, about fairness, and about how nice it is that your parents left you something in the first place. But that is not what we get. You fool! we hear, this very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared – all that allowed you to eat, drink, and be merry – whose will they be?
One of the clever things about Sarah Susanka’s approach in writing her book was that she did not take a polarizing position; she didn’t call it The Small House, or The Smaller House, or The Smallest House. She must have known that no one would buy such a book. No one is looking for a small house; no one believes there is much virtue in a small house; even people looking for a smaller house, generally are not looking for a small one. She was clever to title the book the Not So Big House, because it is possible that people would read such a book.
Jesus is not so clever. He does not tailor his message in a way that makes it easier for us to hear. The man in the parable – who does exactly what you or I would have done, exactly what we think is virtuous and good and wise – this man is called a fool by God. And although you don’t need me to help you understand this passage from the Gospel, you may need me to help you pay attention to it.
And I think one way for us to pay attention to Jesus’ teaching today is to think of the Not So Big House. Saint Luke is clear with us that Jesus is not teaching about the proper ways of storing grain, or the virtues of small-versus-big, or whether or not there is wisdom in saving and planning for the future. Saint Luke tells us that Jesus is warning against greed. And this is a warning we need to hear. It is certainly a warning I need to hear. Because I still suspect that I have problems that would be solved if I just had more money, and I bet you suspect this too. I still hold on to that American prejudice that bigger might actually be better. I would probably trade in my Volvo for an SUV if I thought I could afford to fill the tank with gas, and if I could find some way, any way, to justify it.
But more to the point, I could share my relative wealth more widely than I do, without trying very hard. I could go out to eat less, or at less expensive places, I could spend less on wine, I could give up my membership at the Racquet Club, I could shop less at DiBruno Brothers. As I list these things, I must admit that I am not sure I am ready to do any of them. But I need to get them at least on the radar, because I need to consider whether or not I would be happier living a Not So Big Life, eating Not So Much Food and drinking Not So Much Wine. And I’m guessing that if there are ways I could make my life Not So Big, there might be ways you could make yours Not So Big too.
The question that Jesus never puts to us, but that Sarah Susanka does, is whether or not we mightn’t be happier living with less. And this is such an astonishing proposition that we hardly know what to do with it. We have tended to believe that it is one or the other – that you can be happy or holy, but not both. And we hear this kind of teaching from Jesus, and we think that is what he is telling us: give up, let go, throw away; abandon all that you thought was valuable, and trade it in for a shack, and learn to live with the grim unhappiness that follows.
But the secret of living in the Not So Big House is that you are happier living there. It’s easier to clean, there is still room for everyone, it doesn’t need so much maintenance, and you actually feel like you have a home.
And the secret to the Not So Big Life that Jesus is advocating here, is the same – that you can be happy living a Not So Big Life, and that you might actually be happier than you were before.
Jesus knows that greed, like its cousin anger, traps us. It disguises itself as virtue and makes us think that we are both superior and happier the more we have. But it isn’t just that it traps us in a web of debt and expense that becomes a self-fulfilling requirement of daily life; it traps us in a world of meaninglessness. After your first billion, it’s hard to keep track, after all.
Most of us are not outraged at the greedy society we live in and which continues to reward greed long after Michael Douglas made it a cliché, because most of us are not convinced that we don’t really want or need an investment banker’s bonus. The reason we do not storm Goldman Sachs with pitchforks at outrage over the kind of money people are making there for no apparent reason, is because we are not sure we wouldn’t happily trade places with them for a bonus of a million or two or more.
Jesus knows that we have not yet become uncomfortable in the too-big houses of our lives, so he tells this parable to try to help us see just how uncomfortable we can be.
What if God called you to account, he asks, what if God required your life of you this night? What if to do so means to stand before God and be held accountable for our choices, our debts, our savings, our investments, and what we have been willing to give away? How would we fare, you and I? Would we look like fools before God?
Jesus wants to spare us this unhappy judgment. He wants us to consider building our own Not So Big Life not because smaller is better, but because to do so gives us real freedom: the kind of freedom that comes only when you know that you can and do give away part of what you could easily keep for yourself.
This means packing Not So Many Boxes into a Not So Big Truck, and watching the treeless landscape disappear behind you as you move away from all that was so much bigger, into a Not So Big Life with Not So Many Things, and your find that you are free to do what God has always wanted you to do: you are free to live.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
1 August 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia