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Rich as a King

Condensed from Home, David Owen, in Reader's Digest, July, 1996, p. 193

William I, who conquered England some 930 years ago, had wealth, power, and a ruthless army. Yet although William was stupefyingly rich by the standard of his time, he had nothing remotely resembling a flush toilet. No paper towels, no riding lawn mower. How did he get by?

History books are filled with wealthy people who were practically destitute compared to me. I have triple-tracked storm windows; Croesus did not. Entire nations trembled before Alexander the Great, but he couldn't buy cat food in bulk. Czar Nicholas II lacked a compound-miter saw.

Given how much better off I am than so many famous dead people, you'd think I'd be content. The trouble is that, like most people, I compare my prosperity with that of living persons: neighbors, high-school classmates, TV personalities. The covetousness I feel toward my friend Howard's new kitchen is not mitigated by the fact that no French monarch ever had a refrigerator with glass doors.

There is really no rising or falling standard of living. Over the centuries people simply find different stuff to feel grumpy about. You'd think that merely not having bubonic plague would put us in a good mood. But no, we want a hot tub too.

Of course, one way to achieve happiness would be to realize that even by contemporary standards the things I own are pretty nice. My house is smaller than the houses of many investment bankers, but even so it has a lot more rooms than my wife and I can keep clean.

Besides, to people looking back at our era from a century or two in the future, those bankers' fancy counter tops and my own worn Formica will seem equally shabby. I can't keep up with my neighbor right now. But just wait.