This week’s sermon.
What kind of gift do you get for the person who has everything?
I did some Google research on that very question this week, and here are a few of the ideas I came across:
- A wine rack made out of snow skis.
- A corkscrew that looks like a fish.
- Cufflinks that look like glasses.
- A beer holder for your bike.
- A snowball slingshot.
- A pillow that functions as a working remote control.
- A robotic exoskeleton.
- A hovercraft.
- Contact lenses that project TV directly onto your eyeballs.
- A belly button brush (I don’t want to know).
- Anonymous business cards you can leave on people’s windshields to complain about their parking.
You and I live in a highly consumeristic society. We want everything to be “Bigger! Better! Faster! More!” We are constantly inundated with messages trying to sell us stuff. One study declared that the average American is exposed to 247 advertisements a day. We are told that our spouses will love us more if we buy them diamonds; we will become better basketball players with the right kind of shoes; we will appear sophisticated if we drive the right kind of car; and (my personal favorite) we will become “the most interesting man in the world” if we drink the right kind of beer. We are locked into the ridiculous habit of “spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.”
It’s a ridiculous cycle that all of us are caught up in. We need to be reminded of its ridiculousness from time to time, for the sole reason that no one has ever seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul. You can’t take it with you. There has to be more to the meaning of life than the acquisition of “stuff.”
Unfortunately, we’ve been so shaped by our consumer society that we’ve forgotten how to think outside the box of “getting more stuff.” We’ve even applied the principle to our religious life.
We’ve been trained to think that spirituality, salvation, or enlightenment are all about gaining something for ourselves: knowledge, wisdom, inner peace, mystical experiences, etc. And we think we can earn the rights to this consumer product through religious observance, correct theology, or moral fortitude.
We have been trained to interact with God in the same way that we might interact with a clerk at 7-11: approach the counter, exchange payment, receive desired product. The problem with this is that the kind of relationship that God wants to have with us goes far deeper than the kind of momentary interaction we have with clerks at the store, where neither party is likely to remember the other person’s name by the end of the day. God wants more than that (from us and for us). But in order to get us into that kind of relationship, God has to shake us out of our consumer-capitalist mindset.
That is exactly what Jesus is trying to do with the rich man in today’s gospel.
The story begins with the rich man approaching Jesus with a question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And that’s our first indicator, right there: the little word do. He assumes that there is an exchange that needs to take place. He intends to do something for God, and then receive something else (i.e. eternal life) from God in return for his payment of doing. We soon learn that this particular person is already quite wealthy (he is “the man who has everything”), and as such has learned to interpret his entire life in terms of economic exchange (even his relationship with God). He is approaching God with a proposal for a business transaction and nothing more.
But Jesus responds, not by imparting some new knowledge to this man, but by appealing to what he already knows: “You know the commandments,” he says, and then proceeds to recite several of the Big Ten from the book of Exodus.
The rich man is clearly unimpressed. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “I know all that stuff already. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. But else needs to happen? I feel like there’s something more to life, something I’m missing, so I want to make a deal with you, Jesus, and obtain whatever it is that I am lacking.”
So there it is. Jesus is now faced with the question: What do you get for the man who has everything?
And this is Jesus’ answer: Nothing. Jesus gives him Nothing.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t give him anything; it’s that Jesus gives this man the gift of Nothing.
Jesus says to the man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
In other words, he says, “Take all your possessions and the mindset that comes with them, take all your merit badges and accomplishments, take your experiences, take your trophies and diplomas down from the wall, take your preconceived notions about God, take your politics, your religion, your economics, take it all, and let it all go.” And he says that same thing to us today.
The best those things can do is feed our ego, which is a false conception of who we are. Our true self, the deepest part of us that is made “in the image and likeness of God” lies far deeper than those things. And we can only discover that true self by letting go of these other things in our lives that tempt us to identify with them.
Many of us, including the rich man in this story, are too frightened to embark on this journey of discovery. We are afraid that, if we let go of all these other identifiers, we might discover that there is no true self underneath the piles of “stuff” we have accumulated over the course of a lifetime. We think those “things” are us. We say, “I am the person who does this; I am the person who owns that; I am the person who is this.” We hold onto these false idols and identify with them because we are scared that, deep down, there is no Great “I Am” holding it all together. So we think it’s up to us. And too many of us go to our graves, kicking and screaming, and defending our little patch of earth until our hearts stop beating.
But here’s the thing: We’re wrong about all that. In spite of our deepest fears, there is a Great I Am who is deeper still (“Closer to us than our own hearts,” as St. Augustine says).
The rich man in today’s gospel, for whatever reason, was unable to let go and join Jesus on this journey of discovery. He wasn’t able to accept the gift of Nothing from Jesus. He walked away sad, still identifying himself with the “stuff” that he thought was his. But there have been others along the way who have accepted Jesus’ gift of Nothing.
Most notably, there is St. Paul the Apostle, who wrote much of the New Testament. He, like the rich man, had amassed a great treasury of accomplishments in the name of patriotism and religion. He lists them in his letter to the Philippians:
“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
These are things that Paul used to identify himself and uphold his little false ego-self. But then something happened to him: he had a blinding encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. And this was the result, after his conversion:
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”
St. Paul received Jesus’ gift of Nothing and was transformed by it. He discovered the truth: that there is a Great I Am at the heart of all things. The true self that Paul discovered was not another ego like the one he had constructed, but the Spirit of Christ himself. He writes in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
This is the goal of all Christian spirituality: not a list of religious accomplishments, but a letting go of all these things so that we can receive Jesus’ gift of Nothing and so discover our true identity in Christ.
One of my favorite authors, Fr. Richard Rohr, calls this “the Spirituality of Subtraction.” It’s not about gaining more experiences or accomplishments. It’s about letting go of those objects, experiences, and accomplishments we think we own.
What does this look like when we live it out? How do we measure Nothing? How do we chart our success in the art of letting go?
The only answer I can even begin to imagine for that question is this:
We achieve success by accepting failure. That’s the only way to make spiritual progress in the Christian life. We learn to accept ourselves (maybe even love ourselves) with all of our faults and limitations. When we fail or fall, we laugh at ourselves, rather than beat ourselves up.
The theologian Paul Tillich said it like this:
“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
This is what we call “grace.” This is what it means to receive Jesus’ gift of Nothing. And when we can do this (i.e. achieve success by accepting failure), a most amazing thing happens: our acceptance of ourselves and our failures starts to spill over toward acceptance of other people and their failures. Grace is contagious.
And here’s the really neat thing: in the end, it changes the way we understand God. As we open our hearts to grace, we gradually stop imagining God as the angry judge in the sky who makes impossible demands on us for the sake of religious observance, moral fortitude, or theological accuracy. We begin to see God as Jesus saw God: the Giver of Grace, the Giver of Nothing, the Great I Am beneath and beyond our false little ego.
And with that in mind, we can step back out into this world with full assurance of that which we affirm every Sunday:
That God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it.