In the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” Mitch, played by comedian Billy Crystal, is a 40-ish radio ad salesman in midlife crisis, whose friends have brought him on a Western cattle drive “vacation,” hoping to reignite some inspiration in their lives. The movie’s pivotal scene comes when Mitch is helping Curly, a grizzled old cowboy played by Jack Palance, round up some missing cows. Curly turns to Mitch and says, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger. “This.”
“Your finger?” says Mitch, perplexed.
“One thing. Just one thing,” Curly says….
Mystified, Mitch asks, “But, what is the ‘one thing?’”
With an enigmatic smile, Curly responds, “That’s what you have to find out.”
One thing. Just one thing. A man interrupts Jesus’ journey, kneeling before him to ask a burning question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The text says Jesus looks at him, loves him, and—I’m imagining this part, but can’t you just see him holding up a Curly-esque finger?—says to the man, “You lack one thing.”
One thing. You lack one thing. How ironic, since, by any of the world’s standards for measuring abundance or blessing, this man seems to lack nothing. Wealth then, as now, was understood as a sign of God’s blessing upon individuals or nations. To have many possessions is to lack nothing necessary for the comfort of oneself and one’s family, but also for achieving status as a societal patron with the power to influence culture and politics; and how much more likely is one whose needs are not only met but exceeded to be able to rigorously keep the commandments!
But Jesus looks at this man and sees differently. Mark’s words are simple but moving: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
Yet Jesus’ loving focus on the man also brings to mind today’s Hebrews text, about the living, active, piercing word of God: sharper than any sword, judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart, so that “no creature is hidden but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Jesus’ sharp gaze sees not only the man’s status, but also his sincere longing to be faithful, his deep yearning to participate ever more fully in the goodness of God. It is from such love that Jesus issues the man an invitation: “Go, sell, what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
These words were shocking and grieving to that man, as they are no less shocking and grieving to those who today have many possessions. And while Jesus issues this particular invitation to a specific individual, so that we are hopeful it doesn’t apply to us, just after the rich man sadly walks away, Jesus turns his keen eyes on all his disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
Christians over the centuries, desiring to be both faithful and prosperous, have wrestled long and hard with this text. There are two classic ways interpreters have tried to wriggle out from under Christ’s loving but pointed gaze by making its message too simple. On one hand, we reduce what Jesus is saying to “Poor people good, rich people bad.” This gives us permission to do what we do so often, compare our wealth to those who have more than us. Clearly, Jesus isn’t talking to us, because we have so little compared to the 1%. And if we believe we are on the poorer end of the scale, we get to feel a little virtuous, feeling entitled to tell people who hoard their riches, “Good luck getting through the eye of a needle!” whilst we secretly envy them.
On the other hand, we try to tame Jesus’ hyperbole. There was a time when church scholars regularly taught that there had been a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which it was difficult, but not entirely impossible for camels—and therefore wealthy people—to pass through. Often the preacher would then suggest that if said wealthy people put a bit more in the church’s coffers, they’d be assured safe passage through the tight gate to eternal life.
Of course, there never was such a gate, and both reductions of Jesus’ message reveal that we are just as misunderstanding about the God’s kingdom as that poor little rich man.
“Good teacher,” the man says of Jesus, and we, like him, think we know what is “good.” Surely it is “good” to purchase every comfort or influence events with our monetary power. But Jesus says only God is good. The things we have and the power we exercise are only “good” to the extent that they partake of the God who alone is good.
We also, like the rich man, tend to think we are capable of assuring for ourselves ultimate security and abundance, both in this age and the age to come. “What must I do,” he asks, unable to see that eternal life might not be something he can procure for himself, even in his prosperity and lawful obedience.
Finally, we, like the man, misunderstand the kind of inheritance God gives us in Jesus Christ. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks. The word “inherit” suggests the experience of waiting and receiving from someone with whom there is a history of relationship, a kinship. To the extent that we honor the one from whom we inherit, we assume a responsibility for stewardship. In an inheritance, the relationship is key.
With “abstract wealth,” however, those ties are severed; we claim ownership of our possessions detached from relationships and unaccountable to anyone but ourselves. As one scholar notes, “The rich man thinks he wants inheritance, but what he wants is an eternal form of abstract wealth. He soon discovers that God does not give gifts that are detached from God’s own self…”
Jesus invites us, like the rich man, to consider how our abundant “goods” have become an obstacle to inheriting and receiving what we really yearn for, not abstract “goods” but the Good which God alone can give. How does our wealth distort our relationships with God and to others? How have we sought to provide for ourselves, by means of monetary power and accumulation of things, the abundant life that God alone can provide?
What is the one thing, just one thing, which makes our lives here and now and forever abundant with joy? I know how many of us here are all too aware how our possessions can begin to possess us! Our home is no exception to the clutter conundrum, a pandemic unleashed on the earth by consumer capitalism. So recently I tried out a de-cluttering method from an international bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Kondo helps people in her native Japan shape the life they long for by teaching them how to discard and store their stuff.
Her method is pretty simple: go through your stuff, category by category, hauling out everything into a big pile, and then taking each piece in your hands, asking yourself, “Does it spark joy?” If you feel a thrill of joy holding the item, keep it. Otherwise, thank it for its service to you and let it go.
I began, as Kondo recommends, with my clothes. Now, I am by no means a clothes horse, but just as Kondo predicted, I was stunned to see the heap of clothing I actually had. I managed to cull four large garbage bags of clothing from my collection, though I was a bit worried seeing how much I was letting go: “What will I wear? If I rely only on joy, will there really be enough?”
That right there is more than a purely practical question, isn’t it? Somehow de-cluttering my clothing became a practice that got right at my fears of scarcity, revealing my lack of trust in the true source of joy. Waking up to my fear, I chose to trust and let go, giving thanks for the abundance I had received; and sure enough, a new and joyful freedom in dressing emerged.
It’s a pretty simple example, but I think Kondo’s method is effective because, beyond the desire to have a tidy home, it taps into our greater longing for joy and gratitude, without which the most luxurious things become nothing more than clutter collecting dust.
Gratitude and joy go together. As Benedictine Brother David-Steindl-Rast writes, “We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy. But the reverse is true: their joy springs from gratefulness. If one has all the good luck in the world, but takes it for granted, it will not give one joy. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it…”
My friends, what is the one thing you lack, the deepest yearning of your hearts? And what in your life has become clutter, standing between you and the truly abundant life? Maybe it’s a pile of things collecting dust, but maybe it’s also your fears and insecurities, your distrust of anything but what you can count in your pocketbook, your home, or your heart. Maybe it’s a long-burning anger or grudge, or maybe there’s grief that’s never been experienced and released.
Today is the day to look at your life with the sharp and loving gaze of Christ, to see the things, habits, attachments and attitudes, holding you back from full reliance on God, to let go with gratitude, trusting you will inherit the one thing necessary a life of joy that comes only from the Giver of all Good things, not only in the eternal future but starting here and now, as we lean deeply into Christ’s love, and we receive with gratitude the grace and mercy of our God of impossible possibilities.
“You lack one thing,” Jesus says, pointing the man and us toward liberating generosity which restores relationship with God and others, rooted in gratitude and fruiting in joy. My friends, let us practice gratitude that we own nothing, not even ourselves. We belong to the God who created us, who invites us to receive a joy we can scarcely imagine, as we follow Jesus the Christ and we partner with the Spirit in sharing ourselves generously with a world profoundly in need of God’s love. Amen.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101587/quotes, with obscenity removed for church consumption.
Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3699
Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective,” in, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 310.
David Steindl-Rast, quoted from Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast by Brene Brown at http://brenebrown.com/2012/05/24/2012523it-is-gratitude-that-makes-us-joyful-html/