What does it mean to own something? I guess I’ve owned a few things, things that were in my possession for my exclusive use until they had no more life in them, although I have to admit they were few. For instance, right now I’m looking at a clock that I bought at a roadside stand on Kauai twenty or thirty years ago. I think it cost less than $5. I doesn’t run anymore. The clock face has no covering so the hands are bent out of shape. It just sits there telling me it’s 10:17 a.m. or p.m., take your pick. One could probably say that I own it because no other person would have use for it, and there is no word other than ownership that fits.
That seems a very limited definition of ownership, but I can’t think of anything broader that makes sense.
Do you own a house? The other night we were talking about our house. I’ve written about the problematic question of home ownership before, but it bears repeating. I don’t think anyone ever owns a house. We are only stewards of a piece of property for a time. It’s a temporary thing. For instance, we now live in the fifth or sixth house we have owned. We received those other houses from other people, lived in and cared for them for a while, and passed them on to the care of others who will do the same. I like to think that we now live in the last house we will ever own, and have just finished a remodeling project the cost of which would not be recovered if we were to sell. But that’s not the point. We have greatly improved the delight we take in living in here. Someday another family will own this house, and we hope that our improvements bring them joy also. We are owners of this property only in the sense that our names are on the deeds. Of course we paid, and are paying, a substantial amount of money to live here, and we like to think of that money as an asset, but the greatest portion can only be understood as rent paid for the duration of our occupancy. Ownership is a very transient thing. Our estate will eventually be valued at whatever is left after we have frittered away most of it. So even our treasured money is a transient thing passing through our fingers as food through our stomachs. We are merely stewards of it for a very short time.
I thought about that again this morning when I caught a bit of a television show about the sale of certain classic cars at auction. I don’t know why the owners felt a need to sell, but it was clear from the interviews that they identified themselves as owners in almost narcissistic terms. I didn’t watch enough of it to get a feel for what the new owners thought. As for me, I think all they did was transfer stewardship from one to another. Whatever cash was exchanged was little more than water being poured from sieve to sieve. There are other ways of understanding ownership, and since I’m on the subject of cars, not so many years ago I had a friend, now deceased, who owned quite a few antique cars. What made him different was the sheer child like delight he took in them, including his incurable desire to share that delight with anyone who showed even the slightest interest. He seemed to know that he didn’t really own these things, he was the steward of them for a time, and that time would pass.
We don’t own any million dollar classic cars, but we are avid art collectors who have slowly built up a collection of works that might have some modest value if sold at auction. Do we own them? That’s hard to say. We certainly have the legal right to their exclusive use. Is that ownership? They bring joy into our lives each day. If they were destroyed or stolen money would not replace them. Their value is not in dollars but in their existence as expressions of artists’ gifts that have spoken through our eyes into our minds and hearts. We hope that others also can see and hear, each in their own way. (A number of our friends are singularly unimpressed by them, and that’s OK too.) Someday they will hang on walls in other places. In the meantime, we are their keepers. It all adds up to the fact that we really don’t own them, we’ve just rented them for a season, and we have a responsibility to care for them until they are handed into the care of the next steward.
About now I can almost hear the harrumph of someone who says that they worked hard for their money, they earned it, and I’m demeaning the value of hard work and its rewards. Not at all. Hard work, performed with diligence and appropriately rewarded is worthy, commended by scripture and valued in every culture. There is a difference between that and the egotistical, fear driven, defensiveness that seems to be the aura surrounding so much of what we call ownership.
As Christians we are called more to stewardship than ownership. In our society we have the right to the exclusive use of property that we have acquired legally, but as Christians that civil right is mediated by a higher law calling us to stewardship with the understanding that, whatever our exclusive rights might be, they are temporary at best.