Sunday, October 11, 2015

What is the One Thing You Lack?

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing.’”

What do you lack?  It is a great question to ponder.  Type it into Google, click to search, and you will find a plethora of articles about lacking energy, motivation, direction, self-confidence, sleep, Vitamin B… the list goes on and on.  What is the one thing you lack, the one thing that would make your life complete?  Maybe you doubt such a thing even exists.  Sure, there is stuff you may want and outcomes you may desire, but some magic elixir to address the one thing you lack?  What could that even be?

I enjoy reading Mark’s gospel while keeping in mind it was the earliest to be written.  I try to block out everything I know about the bible and read as if it is the first time I have heard the story.  I try to allow the narrative to unfold before me.  It is a particularly helpful way to approach today’s lesson, which is so often referred to as being Jesus’ encounter with the ‘rich, young ruler.’  Mark does not use any of these words and it is only at the end of the encounter we are told the man has “many possessions”, which is a far cry from being rich.

Look at the passage with fresh eyes and notice Jesus has set out on a journey.  Other translations say he in “on the way.”  If you remember last week’s reading (which takes place just before this one), you will recall Jesus was in a house.  He was stationary, but now he is moving, he is going somewhere, he has a purpose, he is on a mission.  Notice too that unlike the Pharisees who came to Jesus to ‘test’ him, this man runs up to Jesus to ask a deeply personal question.  His is not a technical concern about various interpretations of laws, but something he must have answered for his own personal sense of well being and peace: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

The most obvious response is no one earns an inheritance.  Either you are in the family or you are not.  Jesus seems to pick up on this because he tells the man he must demonstrate he belongs to God’s covenant people by adhering to God’s commandments.  The man confesses to following all of them since the age of accountability.  With this, he might reasonably expect Jesus to assure him he has eternal life.  We, the readers, hearing the story for the first time, might expect it too. 

What happens next no one expects.  The text says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  At this, the man is “shocked” and leaves “grieving”, because, we are now told, he has many possessions.  Imagine how you would react to this if you had never heard the story before.  And imagine how you would react to what Jesus says next:

“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 

Did you catch how Jesus switched the focus?  The man wanted to know about eternal life, but Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God.  The first is something that happens only at the end of this life, the second is a possibility here and now.  But being a part of the here and now kingdom of God is an impossible task, especially for the rich. 

You may be familiar with a couple of ways commentators have tried to soften this teaching.  Some point to a low gate in the wall of the old city of Jerusalem known “The Eye of a Needle.”  The only way to get a camel through this gate was to unload it and make it crawl – a difficult and arduous task.  Another suggestion is to change one letter in the Hebrew word for ‘camel’ so that it becomes the word for ‘rope’.  Again, getting a rope through the eye of a needle is no easy undertaking.  Each variation makes it difficult to be a part of the kingdom of God, but neither seems to fit well with the text because the disciples are “greatly astonished” when they hear Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus himself says of our own doing it is impossible for us to be a part of God’s kingdom.

What is the one thing you lack?

Based on his question to Jesus, this man – if we could ask him – would say he lacked assurance he would gain eternal life.  Jesus sees something different.  He sees a person who can gain the kingdom of God by following him on the way.  The only thing holding back the man is his possessions.  They present a logistical challenge: how do you carry all that stuff with you on a journey?  But even more, they present an emotional and perhaps spiritual challenge: they matter too much to him.

Social theorists are divided as to why human beings are materialistic.  One school holds having more stuff provided an evolutionary advantage and thus, over time, we have been hard-wired with the need to acquire things.  Skeptics point out for much of our evolutionary life humans have been hunter/gatherers – a lifestyle not helped, but hindered by excessive possessions.  Another school proposes our hunger for material things results in the evolutionary advantage of alertness.  It keeps us constantly on the lookout for ways to improve our chances of survival.  Again, skeptics point out many specious have done quite well while being at peace within their environment.

The psychologist Steve Taylor suggests a third possibility.  He holds that within each one of us there is something he calls “psychological discord.”  It is a phrase he uses to describe our inner discontent.   We deal with this internal lacking through external acquisition.  If this is the root of our materialistic urge, the question needs to be asked is it effective?  Do more things equal greater contentment?

Research across the board has been clear and consistent.  People focused on materialistic values actually have a lower sense of personal well-being than those who hold it as relatively unimportant.  In fact, people focused on material pursuits are more prone than those who are not to unhappiness, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, anti-social behavior, and health concerns.

Researchers studying how the brain functions have established that thinking about purchasing a new item – say a car – increases electrical activity in the brain’s pleasure center, releasing large amounts of dopamine and other ‘feel-good’ chemicals into the body.  The study also found that the same brain activity decreases shortly after a purchase, thus leading to all the negative experiences chronicled in earlier studies.

If researchers have found that materialism does not lead to happiness, can they point us toward what does?  According to Taylor, findings indicate “that true well-being does not come from wealth but from other factors such as good relationships, meaningful and challenging jobs or hobbies, and a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves (such as a religion, a political or social cause, or a sense of mission)”.

All of this ought to give us reason to pause.  Might Jesus say to you what he said to the man in today’s reading?  What is the one thing you lack? 

I like Taylor’s image of psychological discord or inner discontent.  At some level it resonates with who we are and how we live.  There is a void in us.  We feel there is something we are lacking.  The questions are these: “What is it?” and “What do we need to do to fill it?”  The world may give us a newly shaped toaster and more powerful pickup truck, but Jesus says what researchers now demonstrate: the pursuit and preservation of possessions is a hindrance to happiness.

A particular phrase in today’s text keeps coming back to me: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  It suggests another question to ponder: Who looks at you and loves you?  I am not talking about romantic love and I am certainly not talking about lust.  I am talking about the deep love another can have for us that is absolutely unconditional.  I am talking about the kind of love that, even if you receive it from only one or two people, it assures you of your own value and worth and place in this world. 

What is the one thing you lack?  My hunch is if we pondered this question long enough and if we thought about all the implications and benefits, many of us – perhaps most of us – maybe even all of us – would say the one thing we lack is people who look at us and love us.

Sappy religious sentiment bellows that Jesus loves us, this we know, for the bible tells us so.  It is such a common expression that most often the words float out of our mouths and into our ears.  But, if we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge the message never actually makes it to in that deep place of psychological discontent.  For those of you with a good memory, it is the same reality I explored this summer in the sermon about “Did you get communion?”  It seems to me that the genuine and desperate religious pursuit is a desire to experience Jesus looking at us and loving us.  It is to be a part of a community of faith where people look at one another and love one another. 

I think Jesus was right.  It would be easier to get a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for us to find the kingdom of God, primarily because, as the old country song says, we are looking for love in all the wrong places.  But never forget that Jesus also said what is impossible for us is not for God.  May God look on you and love you.  And in that moment, may you have the grace to let go of every thing that gets in the way and holds you back.  May God’s loving gaze let you know your own value and worth and place in the world.  And may you carry this with you as the kingdom of God for the rest of your life, even to the life to come.