Buy High; Sell Low–Ecclesiastes 2:4-8

It’s 1983 and Cabbage Patch Kids are taking over the world. In that first year the toys were available, some 3 million were sold–or rather “adopted” in their clever parlance. In that same year, my father-in-law Bill was driving a truck for TG&Y, a long-disappeared retailer, a position that put him in direct contact with the bulk of the merchandise that flowed into the stores he served.

During the fall and Christmas season of 1983, Bill delivered, among other things, many cases of Cabbage Patch Kids. While most of the dolls made it onto the shelves at the various TG&Y stores, a few were “liberated” by employees who used their access and employee discount to buy dolls for their loved ones. Bill latched on to one and then another and then another. By the end of the season, he had somewhere around 10, despite having only one child in the family who might reasonably be expected to play with them.

It was during that Cabbage-Patch madness in the days before Christmas that some stranger discovered that Bill had just obtained another doll. “I’ll give you $700 for that doll,” the stranger said, displaying a stack of bills to prove his earnestness. While $700 is a good chunk of change today, those 1983 dollars would be worth $1,800 today.

“No sir!” Bill quickly answered. He wasn’t going to part with that doll. He’d somewhere heard that Coleco wouldn’t be making them after that year–because you know that manufacturers frequently stop making things are selling extremely well.

Eventually, over several years, Bill, mostly driven by his wife, hoarded north of 75 Cabbage Patch Kids. The hunks of plastic eventually took over most of a spare bedroom in their home. When they finally tired of the dolls, they could barely give them away. They might have felt like Solomon:

I increased my achievements. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made gardens and parks for myself and planted every kind of fruit tree in them. I constructed reservoirs for myself from which to irrigate a grove of flourishing trees. I acquired male and female servants and had slaves who were born in my house.I also owned livestock—large herds and flocks—more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. I also amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I gathered male and female singers for myself, and many concubines, the delights of men. –Ecclesiastes 2:4-8

My in-laws didn’t learn from the Cabbage-Patch fiasco. They’ve been obsessed with Precious Moments and Hallmark Christmas ornaments. Currently, she has dozens of Longaberger baskets and cannot keep herself from accumulating more. Each time, they buy at the peak of the market and sell when they–and everyone else–has lost interest.

How often do we put our emphasis on the accumulation of money or things? Whether it is frivolous junk or the productive things Solomon claims, when we lean upon our possessions, we will be ultimately disappointed. An increase of fruit trees means an increase of responsibility and an increase in worry along with an increase in fruit.

This is not to say that possessions are bad. But possessions that are not owned to achieve something beyond what they can give will be just as pointless as a small army of Cabbage Patch Kids in a spare bedroom.

Estate Sale

Don’t tell my mother, but our plan, when we clean out her house in the not-to-distant future will involve a dumpster. There’s a good bit of material in her house that just needs to go. Yes, she will say “Somebody might need that!” but nobody is going to need the broken charger to lost batteries for a thirty-year-old nose-hair clipper. Nobody.

On the other hand, she has a good bit of material around that house that is going to find its way into various family members’ homes. I have my eye on her vast collection of Hummel figurines. You just can’t have too many of those.

This idea pops into my mind as I read the last of the seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13.

“Therefore,” he said to them, “every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom treasures new and old.”–Matthew 13:52

It doesn’t take much effort to see that this parable is different from the other six. While it does tell us some things about the kingdom that Matthew 6:33 has us seeking, it also takes a step back from the kingdom to talk about what happens when a “teacher of the law” becomes a disciple.

Much of the accumulation of 90-plus years in my mother’s house is junk, but there’s also a lot that might seem worthless to my grandkids but will actually thrill other people. I’m sure that we’ll one day have an estate sale that witnesses various people finding treasures that we might have discarded. Some of the items in that house mean something to me because of my history with them.

I think that gets at the point Jesus was making in this parable. The “teacher of the law” or “scribe,” grammateus in the Greek, was someone learned in understanding and teaching the law. These people, in Jesus’ time, absolutely knew their Bibles, even though their Bibles were only our Old Testament. So what would happen when these people followed the kingdom? They would be able to bring their prior knowledge and expertise and, in the light of the kingdom, turn it into “treasures old and new.”

An old treasure might be seeing a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice in the story of Abraham and Isaac. A new treasure would be an understanding of Jesus’ teachings deepened by past learning.

So what does this parable add to our understanding of the kingdom of God?

  • The kingdom is not only valuable in its own right; it makes other things more valuable.
  • The kingdom’s value can be made more apparent by knowledgeable students and teachers of the Word.

Like my mother’s house, mine holds a certain number of treasures, but, at the end of the day, I hope that the most glittering things at my estate sale reflect my fidelity to the kingdom.

To Have or Have Not

What does it mean to “have”? I know, this sounds a bit reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s famous confusion over the definition of “is,” but I’m serious.  When I say, “I have a Toyota Corolla,” what precisely does that mean. More specifically, I question this sentence: “I have two pigs.”

Yesterday, Penny and I traveled all the way to Springfield, Missouri to pick up our two pigs. These weren’t just any old pigs. They’re Red Wattle pigs. I could have gone to the local auction house and bought Chester Whites or Yorkshires, but all the Red Wattles seem to live three hours away from Kansas City.

When we got them home, somebody (who will remain nameless but he’s typing right now) thought it would be safe to let the little guys out of their traveling cage to stretch their legs. They paused for somewhere around three seconds before heading across our front yard and disappearing into the woods. Four and a half hours later, after spending all of that time with a revolving cast of characters and two dogs traipsing about and attempting to recapture the due, I collapsed inside the house, defeated by a couple of would-be porkers.

Penny and I left the outside door to our bedroom open for a little while before going to sleep. We hadn’t been in the room more than ten minutes before I heard a very distinct grunting outside. One of the pigs decided to brave the yard and eat the corn we’d put out for him. Clad in pj’s and a robe, I tried to lure him in, but he ignored me, disappearing back into the woods and grunting along with his brother.

This morning, Penny told me that a pig–presumably the same brave one–stood beside her as she hung clothes on the line. I have hope that the boys will decide that we’re not so terrible and return to the more civilized climes.

What, then, does it mean when I say, “I have two pigs.” Do I really possess them? Quite obviously it means more than claiming I have four pigs, but such a statement doesn’t mean as much as we’d like to think it does. I could carefully feed and shelter these two pigs until they’re each tipping the scale at some 250 pounds. Then I could lose them to a disease. They could dive out of the truck as we head for the processor. Coyotes could hold a convention and eat my pork chops. They could get wind of my plans for them and decide to hoof it back to Springfield. In short, saying that “I have” something just means that I have a tentative grasp on it right now.

I’m reminded of the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12:15-21. “You fool!” God seems to be saying to me as I stumble through the briars and brush chasing a snort here and a footprint there. Or maybe I should be worried about storing up treasure here on earth where coyote and H1N1 destroy (Matthew 16:19-21).

As I contemplate this situation, I think of the other things I have: a good job, a marvelous wife, four talented kids, a paid-off car, good health. Any of those things can be plucked out from within my grasp in a moment. They can run off just as quickly as my pigs did yesterday.