Is there a certain area of your life where you are constantly tempted?
I am listening to an audio book this week. It is called How Much Land Does a Man Need? by famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Tolstoy is famous for his mammoth works like Anna Karenina or War and Peace, as well as for his desire to live out Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But How Much Land Does a Man Need is a very short story. James Joyce called it the greatest short story of all time.
In it Tolstoy tells the tale of a peasant, Pahom, who progressively desires and gets more and more land. Each time he is excited about the new land thinking it will give him the kind of life he yearns for. But as time goes by, even as he does well for himself, each time he gets more land he soon grows discontent with it. He wants more. He finds out about some well-landed people who are willing to sell land cheap. One ruble per acre! So he travels to them, bearing gifts to impress them. They love the gifts, and he says he is interested in purchasing land. They like him and are willing to sell at the very cheap price he heard about, but they offer to sell the land in a most unusual deal.
They give him the opportunity to purchase a parcel of land for a very low price, but the parcel size is based on how far he can walk in one day. It is very simple. He has from sunup to walk as far as he wants, stake out the land, but he has to return to his starting point by sundown. Sounds great, right?
There’s a catch. If he does not return to the spot of departure within a day’s time, he loses his money and the land. Pahom is delighted! So off he goes excited thinking he is going to get a steal. It should be very easy to get more land than he ever dreamed of.
I think about when I have run marathons around the city of Baltimore. I took me about four hours. You can cover a lot of ground in four hours. You’re totally exhausted, but you’ve covered a lot of ground. How broad an area do you think you could cover from sunup to sundown? Ten square miles? More? Less?
How do you think Pahom did? Think he went out too far didn’t make it back? Good guess, close, but you’re wrong. He actually made it back. In time. But that is not the end of the story.
But greed and discontent got in the way. Discontent fueled his heart, his desire. Greed was his temptation. You will be surprised to hear the end of the story.
We are all tempted by many things. What is it about our inner desire that gives temptation its power?
Is temptation so powerful in and of itself? No. Temptation is powerful because of something inside us. Some psychologists call this the empty self. We have an emptiness within us, and we long to fill it. We are discontent. When we are discontent, it is very, very hard to defeat temptation.
Jesus was once at the place in his life where he had every reason to be discontent. Satan knew it. As he knows when we are discontent. In that moment he can strike with a temptation that is nearly impossible to defeat.
In Luke 4:1-15 we see this work out in Jesus’ life. And we’ll hear what happens because of the discontent in Pahom’s life. Join us at Faith Church on Sunday!
3 thoughts on “How much land does a man need? and other temptations and discontentment”
I read this story earlier this week! Great minds… or something like that. The story is an excellent reminder that we are seldom satisfied and that we do not have a working definition for ‘enough’ in our culture. Always more is desired. We are also afflicted with arrogance of ownership–thinking that the land (or anything else, for that matter) belongs to us. The land is God’s, and God stipulated that the land was never to be sold for perpetuity–only for 50 years at most. We connect ownership with freedom, but as Tolstoy reminds us, ownership can quickly become enslavement to idolatry.
That’s amazing timing, Bruce! I can definitely be guilty of forgetting that I am steward of God’s earth. I think what fascinates me, and troubles me, is that inner emptiness which so powerfully motivates us. Why was Pahom so driven for more and more land? Why are we so discontent? How do we become content?