By the time we reach the age of two, the cosy little world of our infancy has been torn asunder by a simple pronoun: me. We cannot utter this word unless we have begun to think of ourselves existing apart from the world around us. One of the reasons that the twos are so terrible is that we quickly become embroiled in a test of wills with everyone around us, declaring our independence and establishing boundaries. The fateful “me” is followed in short order by a word that is almost as consequential: mine, as we noisily lay claim to everything we want that is not “me.” Eventually we learn less obstreperous ways of getting what we want, whether by begging, borrowing or buying, but always with the aim of making them mine.
According to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a turning point in human society occurred when the first person set aside a plot of ground and declared it mine. Rousseau did not regard this as a positive development. We can only speculate as to when this occurred, probably at some point after nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes settled in one location to grow crops and graze livestock. None of us came into this world owning anything, yet few stop to ask how the world came into our possession. American school children are taught that the first settlers arrived in the New World seeking freedom and opportunity, without dwelling on the fact that the areas they settled already belonged to others, mostly hunter-gathers. Similarly, the “land flowing with milk and honey” that God promised to the Hebrew people was already occupied when Moses arrived with his followers.
According to our founding myths, the Promised Land was God’s to give because he owned it, and the previous occupants were, in effect, merely tenants to be evicted at will. In fact, the Lord had already laid claim to the entire planet, telling Moses, “All the earth is mine” – on the face of it, a rather presumptuous claim from a God who would have been regarded as a mere tribal deity. But then Yahweh took on the Egyptian pharoah with an impressive display of firepower that included plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, boils, locusts and hail, culminating in the destruction of the pharoah’s army at the Red Sea. The Israelites may have regarded themselves as God’s chosen people but discovered in time that they too were tenants as they were forcibly evicted from Canaan and carried off into captivity in Babylon.
As the Psalmist noted above, the Lord’s dominion extends not just to the earth but also to “the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” In other words, he owns pretty much everything, ourselves included. Accordingly, the ancient Israelites were obliged to give back the “first fruits” of their harvests to the Lord. Jewish parents were required to go to the temple to “redeem” their first-born sons with a token contribution. When the pharaoh refused to allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt, even after all those plagues of frogs, gnats and whatnot, the Lord reclaimed the first-born of the Egyptians, killing them all in a single night.
What then does it mean to call something mine? As Job discovered to his dismay, nearly everything he called his own was taken from him at God’s whim, including his children. Jesus told a story about a rich man who was all set to tear down his barns to build bigger ones so he could store all his goods. The rich man thought he had it made, until God informed him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” As it turns out, our ownership of anything is, at best, provisional.
None of us came into the world owning anything, and we leave in pretty much the same condition. In between, we may prosper or not, as circumstances dictate. The wisest among us learn not to put too much store in what is mine. It is far better, in fact, to regard nothing as truly mine. We must go back to the time before the terrible twos, before we set ourselves apart from the world, before we declared our independence and established boundaries, before we tried to lay claim to everything around us and call it mine. To erase the distinction between mine and not mine – better yet, to eliminate the distinction between me and not me -- is to discover that we have inherited the earth.