Losing and Saving One’s Life
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
“Where’s the profit in gaining the world and losing your soul?” — Mark 8:36
Dorothy Parker the sardonic wit of the Algonquin circle in New York in the 20’s of last century said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and rich is better.” That is a correction of the bit of folk wisdom that piously goes, ” I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and I know that happiness does not depend on the balance in your bank account.” I think Dorothy Parker spoke more honestly, while the folk wisdom spoke more truly, but that in the end they are both right. It is better to be rich than poor but it’s a big mistake to think that riches automatically bring happiness. Why, just last week Brooke Astor’s son was convicted of defrauding his aged mother, – and he was turned in to the authorities by his own son. Not a happy family! I used to preach in a local wealthy community that a real estate lawyer once told me is notorious for its many lawsuits. Only the rich can afford lawsuits, and lawsuits do not normally bring happiness. Think of Jardyce and Jardyce.
These days the talking heads and savant scribblers are telling us that the recent setbacks of the financial system, only the first stage of more to come, have changed the way we think about life. Fewer of us think shopping is the cure for mental illness, building many vulgar mansions a cure for claustrophobia, conspicuously consuming ineffable food in uncomfortable restaurants with uncouth people a cure for loneliness, and talking money the only interesting conversation. We are staying home in our mansions and eating modest food – too much of it alas – and saving rather than squandering our money. Furthermore, we are told, this change is good for the soul, returning us to more sustainable relationships. The downside of this return to modesty, however, is that it is terrible for the economy. We have developed an economy that runs well only on the squandering of money, which is really “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame (Shakespeare).” We are a culture that encourages, almost compels, us to surrender our souls for the sake of our bodies.
I think it is Madonna who is called the “material girl” and she might indeed be a more glaring example than most, of our general North American attitude that the purpose of life is to prosper materially and then to enjoy our prosperity. I have no problem with that; indeed, in our more religious times we believed that prosperity was a sign of God’s favor, and that sharing our goods and especially sharing the opportunity to make oneself prosperous by ones own ingenuity and hard work is according to God’s will and purpose. The Republicans who once believed this, are the ones I long to see again, the Republicans who against the landed ( Democrat) gentry of the Virginian aristocracy founded banks to lend to small entrepreneurs, and gave every man who took up the challenge of the West forty acres and a mule.
The rich young man could not follow Jesus because he could not part with his riches. How hard it is for the rich! Hard, but not impossible, for with God all things are possible; nevertheless it requires a special providence of God. How hard it is! As far as I know there were only two suicides as a result of Bernie Madoff, but I bet there are many ruined relationships, many bitter souls and a huge stew of hatred and anger. The rich were forced to give up there riches and hell hath no fury like the rich man robbed.
The middle class and the poor are robbed all the time in a system of governance of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, in this our faux democracy, where money is power and wealthy oligarchs buy and sell congresspersons, and lobby to death any law that threatens their priority of access to the public trough. Now more than ever, Will Rogers is right, “We have the best congress money can buy.” Think of Charlie Rangell, think of the drug makers and the insurance companies lobbying night and day to make sure a public option for health care does not come about. Think of the windfall it will be to the insurance interests when the government forces people to buy their product. Think of how many of these bulging oligarchs, fat on the flesh of the 95% of us who are forced by the tax system to stuff them with money, will make it through the eye of a needle.
Yes, Jesus is a radical and he asks you and me, in the very language of our commercial dealings, “Where’s the profit if you gain the world and lose your soul?” It is of course a rhetorical question. There is no profit long term and short term, well let’s enjoy what God gives us for as long as He does, without surrendering one iota of our prior commitment to Him, first, foremost and forever, that is, without trading soul for body.
We can surely appreciate more now than we did perhaps ten years ago how money really is the root of evil. This is chiefly because it is the slippery slope to greed and greed is the slope to fear and fear to fraud and fraud to frenzy and then…soulless, selfless, friendless and fading in Hell.
Jesus says: “Don’t be a fool! Where’s the profit in trading self for security? Come, take up your cross and follow me, because if you seek only to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life, not for wealth and popularity but for my sake, you will save it (Mark 8:35-my paraphrase).” I think that means, take the risk of living for your own truth and not for the sake of the “bottom line.”