I expect that some of you are feeling relieved that I’ve come today with evidence to disprove the old adage that money can’t buy you happiness. What a relief to know that whether you have it or you’ve been striving for it, you’re on the right track.
I saw this Ted Talk a few of back, by a Harvard Business professor entitled Money Can Buy You Happiness. It was convincing. One small part of his major research project included giving an envelope of money to students at UBC, accompanied by one of two instructions: you were to spend the money that day on yourself or on someone else. Part of the experiment included rating your happiness at the beginning of the day and then after the money had been spent as directed. Turns out those who spent the money on others, universally reported an increase in their feelings of happiness. Those who spent it on themselves reported no change in their feelings. Proving that money can indeed buy you happiness, if you give it away.
Jesus wouldn’t have said that money can buy you happiness but he may have said, if you give it away it will bring you eternal life. As the story goes, a rich man approached Jesus, kneeled at his feet and pleaded “what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He had everything his heart desired. But something wasn’t right something was missing. There was a hunger deep inside of him that all his nice things couldn’t satiate; like that dis-ease you feel when all the signs tell you things are okay but you can’t shake that feeling that something is missing, you can’t quite put your finger on why. It was like what Harry Kushner describes in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted is Not Enough, “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power,” he writes. “Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through.”
The rich man followed all the rules. The commandments he’s followed since childhood are the ones about how we are to treat one another, the relational commands. Jesus says, that’s all good but there’s more, give all your riches to the poor. He says unequivocally that money gets in the way of living from this place of meaning, gets in the way of staying tuned in and tapped in to the love that connects us. No wonder the man walks away in shock and grief. Here’s someone who’s lived a good upstanding life and it’s not enough. When did good enough become not enough? People have tried to soften the blow of this scripture for our First world affluent ears, saying this man was to give up money but you may need to give up something different. I’d be cautious about silencing Jesus’ directive too quickly. There is a message here about how we use our money and about the hold it has on our lives. It’s as true today as it ever was.
We never hear what becomes of the rich man. He leaves the scene in shock and grief because he had many possessions. But there is a hint. He walked away in grief. If he was in grief he must have experienced a loss. Grief happens when something has been stripped away: someone we love, a dream we held dear. It arises from the void. If the rich man was in grief, I dare say, something died in him that day. Maybe he was already letting go of the power his money had held for so long. Maybe he was letting go of a need to do it all himself, to be utterly self reliant, to cling to things he thought would make him happy and fulfilled, but kept disappointing him. Maybe he walked away taking his first steps on the long journey through grief to resurrection. Maybe he was beginning to let go of the money that was only serving to close off his heart, impeding his ability to rely on others and to see others for they really are. Maybe his grief was a sign of the gift of eternal life he was finally beginning to inherit.
Grief is one thing but eternal life, what is that? It reads like a synonym for heaven, the kind of place where you get to go if you’re good enough and enjoy more of all the good things of life. I like the way Father Richard Rohr defines it. He says that “if life, as we know it, is always change and growth then eternal life must be infinite possibility and growth!” Eternal life is not a destination but a way of living, and you can’t buy it, earn it, barter for it or steal it. You inherit it. It’s is real and gracious and makes hard choices. It is life that asks not how much better off I am but how much better off is my neighbour?
To inherit anything you must, in a sense, belong to someone, to some family. The rich man asked ‘what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?’ You only inherit something when someone has died. Plus you only inherit something if you belong to a family, whether by birth, marriage or choice. Inheriting eternal life must have something to do with the way Peter and the boys left their fishing nets behind to follow Jesus. It must have something to do with being part of a community that orients itself to the common good, to the neighbour, money and all.
Journalist Chris Hedges who spent years imbedded in war torn regions, sleeping on the coaches of families who graciously took him in suggests that it is this sense of belonging that is the core of our human existence. He says that
…the isolated human individual can never be fully human. And for those cut off from others, for those alienated from the world around them, the false covenants of race, nationalism, the glorious cause, class and gender compete, with great seduction, against the covenant of love. These sham covenants — and we see them dangled before us daily — are based on exclusion and hatred rather than universality. These sham covenants do not call us to humility and compassion, to an acknowledgement of our own imperfections, but to a form of self-exaltation disguised as love.”
Hedges insists that “those most able to defy these sham covenants are those who are grounded in love, those who find their meaning and worth in intimate relationships that cut through the loneliness and isolation of the human condition.”
I wonder if maybe Jesus is saying that money as an end in itself is a sham, money when used for any purpose beyond ensuring my neighbour is alright, is a sham covenant. I wonder if Jesus said follow me so that the rich man might be held in the embrace of a community that roots itself in love and stands up to all the sham covenants that bit by bit tear away at the fabric of eternal life. Isn’t that what our hearts long for? None of us expects an easy ride but a bit of honesty would be nice, community in which we can be real.
Please know that I know that money cannot in fact buy any of us happiness and if you don’t have enough it can bring real struggle. Jesus is saying that the hold money has on our lives is a sham. It can’t protect us from the highs and lows of living. Maybe part of the problem is that our world doesn’t just tell us lies about money it tells us lies about life. It tells us that we can protect ourselves from whatever it is we most fear, with money or might or with pulling the wool over our own eyes.
There are moments, sometimes hours, now and then there are even days when I wonder to what end? Why do I dedicate 15 hours of my week to the process of weaving these words together to present to all of you? How in the world can I keep saying that it’s about love and communities that trust in love? How dare I keep saying there is eternal life here and now when not one of us is immune to pain and grief? How can I trust in a different story when the sham covenants appear mostly to have won? When I was first discerning my call to ministry I was asked by a committee interviewing me, why do you want to do this work? I’m not sure how I really answered but I remember thinking “because if I don’t I may lose my connection to the divine, I need the discipline of putting this covenant of love in front of me every single week.
When I’m sure the sham covenants have won, when God seems so powerless that I wonder why bother and my fear starts telling me I should hoard a bit more, I find my way back in places like this. Jesus invited the rich man to follow because he know that we all need community where we can ask again and again to be reminded – how is it I inherit eternal life again? In my experience, when you dare to ask the question the way forward will arise.
This week we’ve been thrown again into a one-day global experience of mourning with the death of Aretha Franklin. It seems odd how we do this now for our celebrity royalty; take a day to mourn, to play the music incessantly. It’s like a global wake but without the tears because let’s be honest, we didn’t know her. In spite of the risk of hollow grief what does come from these times is a digging up and a pulling together of all we might learn from the one who’s passed. Writing about the death of Aretha Franklin one journalist suggests that:
the eternal challenge is to answer grief with something that resembles love. To choose not just to sit around decrying hardship and injustice but instead to uncurl your fists and approach sorrow with grace, power, and, most incredibly, gratitude-not for the hurt itself but for the whole miraculous mess of being alive, this strange endowment of breath and blood.
She goes on to say that, “Most days, I believe that Aretha Franklin did this work better than anyone.”
Another journalist writes that “What we have lost with Aretha Franklin is technical mastery, yes, but also an ancestral instinct. She was in a heady and guttural conversation with the struggle that made her… She knew her God… intensely, almost physically.”
There’s this sham about how life needs to be happy all the time, to avoid conflict and certainly heart break but really eternal life is more about learning to walk through it all, make sense of it all in community oriented to love. Eternal life is more about a promise that the pain won’t consume you. After all, “Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through.”
 See more about inheriting eternal life here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2640