There is no permanence to things.
However things often pass for meaning. By any sane standard, I am fabulously wealthy. I can get up from where I am sitting now, walk into my kitchen, and choose between coffee from Kenya or Hawaii, tea from Ceylon, or wine from Argentina or Australia to go with a cheese from Denmark or Wisconsin, as my fancy suits me. So can almost anyone in America, or the Western world. Yet I feel it is necessary to buy more things, more objects stamped out of plastic or titanium or carbon fiber, whatever is the flavor of the week.
I read once that Andy Warhol's apartment was full of bags of groceries when he died, that he bought things merely to fill the void. The story may be false, but the essence rings true. Our lives lack meaning or permanence, so we buy things to fill them. Consumption is the order of the day. What are we doing? What are we looking for? Or is it to avoid looking that we consume? Why is it so difficult to give up the material security I have?
When the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
I call myself a Christian, but I see more of the rich man in me than I'm sure Jesus would approve of. I've grown tired of attempting to rationalize, of saying that since I tithe or hand out food to the homeless on the street corners, or even that I've chosen a profession tradtionally allied with selfless service that I've somehow fulfilled my obligation. I think Jesus was cutting to my heart of hearts with that simple phrase. And his words mean I can't compare myself to others, I can't say I'm not Bill Gates, or even "I'm not choosing a lucrative medical specialty" and give myself a pass.
There is (and here my rationalization starts) a point to which I cannot go here. If I were truly to sell everything I own, it would necessarily include the accoutrements I require to practise medicine. Fine, keep those. It would include my car, without which I would be unable to reach the hospital. Fine, keep that. It would include my clothes, including those of the nicer variety I am expected to wear to maintain a "professional image". Where does it end? Are the rationalizations continued with validity to the point where I can say "keep the iPod, because music feeds ones soul" or "because G-d wants us to enjoy His creations"?
Peter Kreeft, in his ethical work "Making Choices" outlines a theory that usually, the correct, godly choice is somewhere between extremes. As humans we tend to extremes, and being made in the image of God, those extremes are at least shadows of Him. Similarly here, there must be a third way between consumerism and asceticism. But finding that third way seems to necessitate compromise, and worse, a compromise on absolute principles.
The point I'm taking away from all this is that G-d must be foremost in our thoughts, and any time possessions or the drive to possessions come between Him and us, we are wrong. That much is obvious, but as Calvin said, our hearts are "idol factories". Therefore this will always be a danger, even if we possess only a roof over our heads. So we must go farther, circumcising our hearts, and though it pains me to say this, because I realize how far I am from fulfilling it, I think we must limit our consumption to the point that we notice it. Even as in fasting we are to use our awareness of hunger to spur contemplation, so in material asceticism, we must have an awareness of lack so that we can use that awareness to drive us to our Maker. In doing so, we avoid the error of the rich man, in valuing our possesssions more than our salvation. Additionally, we restore the abilty to recieve gifts that mean something, allowing our fellows to be blessed in the giving.