A Higher Bar--July 14, 2020
"[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?'" [Mark 8:34-37]
There were a lot of voices when I was a kid who held up the vision of having it all. There still are a lot of those voices all around us in the world, all prodding us to dream of having more, acquiring more, buying newer, piling it all up, and then leaving the piles behind to your kids as a measure of your success and greatness (and the unspoken directive to those kids that their success would depend on making the piles bigger still to be handed on indefinitely).
All those piles they were offering us made for too small a vision.
It is simply not enough to want more forever, and it is not even enough to get it all.
Jesus has said all along that those voices have been lying to us and making empty promises. The life that really is life, it turns out, is centered on giving yourself away. And learning to deal with the disconnect between the loud voices always pushing us to get and get and get on the one hand, and the minority report of the homeless rabbi Jesus on the other, well, that's been the task of disciples for the last two millennia. We have to decide whose voice we will listen to, and whose we will turn down the volume on. We have to decide which vision to follow, and which to leave behind. We have to decide if a life spent acquiring and piling up really will satisfy the empty places in our souls... or if we will live out our days with open hands. But we will have to choose between those options, because they point in opposite directions.
I grew up in a time when Gordon Gekko's famous monologue from the movie Wall Street was taken by some to be the gospel truth. (If you don't know that famous movie speech, go and watch it on a screen of your choosing--it takes about four minutes, and you can find it all over the internet. Go ahead, I'll wait. All right?) "Greed is good," Michael Douglas' tycoon character says in a speech to stockholders. "Greed, in all its forms, for money, for love, for knowledge, for power will save us." Now, at the time in a movie like that, a big speech like that was supposed to be shocking. Gekko's character isn't the hero of the movie, of course, but in a way, he was presented as a voice of refreshing clarity. Here was someone who "told it like it is." Here was a character who wasn't beholden to the old ways of doing business, didn't have allegiances to establishment types, and wasn't hung up on old assumptions about morality, either. He was a character who, in his own words, saw greed as a clarifying force that made everything else less important. All that mattered was getting more, controlling more, and having more, and the only relevant measure of a life is how successfully you acquired it--not what you had to do to get it, whether your work was noble or not, and not even what you were going to use your "more" for. He was a character who said out loud the parts that everyone else thought were supposed to stay quiet. And that was what made him such an interesting character in a movie: his motivations had a certain terrible logic to them, in that once you granted his premise that getting more was all that mattered, his cutthroat, unapologetically self-centered, amoral quest for his skewed kind of "greatness" made perfect sense.
Whether you've seen the movie or not (or even just watched the speech), the vital question becomes, "Is he right?" That greed-is-good mentality is either the right way to spend your lifetime, or it's not. So, now that it's out there, what will we do with those words and that mindset? Because even if we are smart enough to recognize that the slicked-back reptilian demeanor of the tycoon character from the movie isn't supposed to be heroic, it is terribly easy still to accept his mindset, if it dresses up in more folksy attire. In fact, it is terrifying to me just how easily even Respectable Religious Folks will adopt that whole worldview, without qualification, and even let it be dressed up with a cross in the background and a Bible in hand, to boot.
For a lot of us, we have heard the "Greed is good" speech, no longer as the scandal it was supposed to be in the movies, but made to look respectable, for a very long time... and it is simply too much. We have seen the Christian life become conflated with the quest for more; we have heard too many voices talk about how to become "great" with very little concern for being "good" as human beings. We have heard one too many talking heads tell us that Jesus' job is just to help us achieve more, earn more, make more, and possess more... and that our biggest prayer concern should be a booming economy and record-breaking stock market. For an awful lot of my life, at least, Respectable Religious folk didn't reject the Gospel according to Gekko that preached "greed is good"--we just baptized it.
And maybe today is the day simply to say it loud and clear: that was never enough. Having more, accumulating more, and then teaching your kids to forever want more, was never enough for the life that really is life. That way of life leaves us dead inside. It stifles the beauty and joy for which we are made, and it leaves us screaming out for rescue and resurrection. And we need a higher bar, a better vision, and a more beautiful purpose than just getting more (while we teach our children that getting and having more is the meaning of their lives, too).
So today is a day to listen to Jesus (really, any day is good for that). And to hear him tell it, Jesus has been clear on this for twenty centuries already: the life that really is life doesn't come from acquiring, or chasing, or getting, or possessing. The life that he has come to give us looks instead, at first blush, like giving yourself away. And so we find in the selfless surrender we call love, we are more truly ourselves and more truly in tune with God's way of being than we ever were when we "had it all."
Today we're going to have to decide whose version of reality we will give ourselves to, because as Jesus also says with unrelenting clarity, "You cannot serve God and wealth." Maybe with that laser-like focus we can learn to see through the ways we've tried to make the "Greed is good, seek your own interests and call it greatness" mentality look good and holy, and instead turn from them to follow after Jesus.
If nothing else, maybe today is the day we can start setting the bar higher than just trying to have it all... because that was never going to be enough.
Lord Jesus, turn us from the empty promises and dressed-up avarice we have been chasing after, and turn us to follow in your way of self-giving love.