A few years ago, business author Tony Schwartz wrote an incisive blog on the number one addiction of corporate executives today-money. When we think of addiction, we probably think of drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography or overeating. Few of us may think of money as an addiction, but it can be/
In his blog, Schwartz shared some stunning moments from Inside Job, a documentary that demystifies the global financial crisis that began in 2008. At the height of the crisis, one CEO from a large bank said to his fellow guests at a party held by then U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, “We can’t control our greed. You should regulate us more.”
Greed is defined as an excessive desire for wealth or goods. At its most rapacious, greed trumps rationality, judgment, perspective and any concern with the collateral damage it may cause. Like cocaine, greed produces a high dopamine level in the brain, giving the individual an experience of incredible pleasure. The trouble is, the more we have, the more we want, and the more we want, the more we need to keep going. If the previous amount didn’t do it, then maybe twice as much will-or three times, or ten. We end up chasing an increasingly elusive high, forever seeking to recreate that initial rush of pleasure and well-being. This is the behaviour of the addict.
Best-selling author and financial journalist Michael Lewis expressed the opinion, “It’s more than a little nuts for a man who has a billion dollars to devote his life to making another billion, but that’s what some of our most exalted citizens do, over and over again.” In other words, they can’t let go of their destructive practices, even if those practices hurt others or even themselves. They think they possess their possessions; in fact, their possessions possess them.
In Mark’s gospel, chapter 10 verses 17 to 30, we meet an up-and-coming junior executive-a rich young man who, in Luke’s version of this story, is also described as a ruler. He comes to Jesus asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus at first gives a rather conventional response: obey all the commandments. Of course, obeying the commandments is no small order. And yet surprisingly, this young man says that he has done just that since the days of his youth.
Jesus looks at him lovingly and says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The young man is shocked. This is not the advice he expected to hear. “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
This particular gospel story is not about wealth. It is about discipleship. Jesus is calling the young man to follow him. Mark’s gospel opens with Jesus calling people to be his disciples. They come and follow him. And yet, when the young man is asked to follow Jesus, he walks away, drooping and depressed. This is the only place in the gospel where someone is directly invited to follow Jesus, but walks away, refusing to be a disciple-and the reason is money.
The young man simply cannot let go of his things long enough to grab hold of what Jesus offers. Jesus is offering him a life of adventure as a disciple, and the young man turns back toward the security of his things. No wonder Jesus comments about how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. It is difficult because we are carrying so many things on our backs, clinging to so much. We have our dope-our drugs, whatever they may be-and they hold us back from following God.
What if the story had ended differently? What if it had ended, not with the young man grieving but with his saying, “Yes!”? What if the young man had heard Jesus’ summons to discipleship, not as a depressing impossibility but as an invigorating possibility?
We like to think of ourselves as free and unattached. In reality, many of us are sacrificing our health, our families and even our souls to material things. We claim to be free and independent, when, in reality, we are enslaved and addicted. From this perspective, when Jesus asks the rich young man to let go of everything he has, is this a burdensome command or a gracious promise? He is giving the young man the possibility of new life. He is showing the young man a different path to walk in life, one in which he can stand up straight and not be stooped over from the heavy burden of desires and ambitions.
Some of us may recall the Heaven’s Gate suicides in Rancho Santa Fe, California, back in 1997. A group of about 30-plus cultists killed themselves, expecting to end up on the tail end of a comet. These cultists were bright, intelligent people, but what they did was absurd. It just didn’t make any sense.
A group of clergy got together to discuss the tragedy. We all agreed that these people had ended their lives for a false faith. How could anyone do such a thing?
One of the clergy observed that, in the media reports about Heaven’s Gate, the reporters seemed either outraged or bemused that someone in contemporary America would die for religion. I’ll never forget how he put it. He said, “A curious thing in my church is that almost nobody has given his or her life for religion. And yet, in the past year, I’ve had a half-dozen people either die or come near death with heart attacks, high blood pressure and other diseases brought on by stress related to work. In our society, you are considered crazy if you give your life for your faith, but you are considered normal if you drop dead for a dollar!”
There’s got to be a better way!
When I studied for my doctorate at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I learned about Dr. Harry Hutchison and his wife, who were Christians committed to the mission field. After Harry Hutchison had finished medical school, the United Presbyterian mission board invited him to work at the hospital in Tanta, Egypt. Off he went, with his wife of course. In Egypt, their daughters were born and grew up.
At regular intervals, they were scheduled to go back home to visit family and friends. On one of those sojourns in the United States, Dr. Hutchison served on the staff of Allegheny Hospital in Pittsburgh. At the end of his nine months with fellow surgeons, he announced that he would be resigning. They asked him why, and he explained, “Oh, back to the Tanta Mission.”
One of his fellow doctors said, “Mission work. They surely can’t pay you what we can. God knows you’re worth more than a mission salary.” Dr. Hutchison replied, “You’re right. God does know, and it is he who is calling us to get back to our work in Tanta.” So they left everything and returned to their post in Egypt.
Crazy, foolish-yes, indeed-except for the fact that Harry Hutchison and his wife were followers of Jesus.
When I was in university, I got acquainted with a middle-aged Jesuit scholastic studying for the priesthood. Jim had been an executive with a prestigious advertising firm on Madison Avenue in New York City. “Why did you leave to study for the priesthood?” I asked him. He replied, “One day, I went to the office and saw everything in proper perspective. My heart skipped a beat. I realized that any day, I could keel over dead. And what did it all mean? I wanted this job because I wanted money, I wanted influence and I wanted to make my mark on the world. And yet, I felt powerless, trapped. I simply walked away from it. I cut a deal with the company and my salary plunged 80 per cent in the first year. The following year I decided to become a Jesuit. And I have never regretted a moment of it. I feel better than I have felt in years. You see, it feels good to be free.”
What would it take for us to be free? What would it take for us to hear this story of Jesus and the rich young ruler, not as an onerous command but as a gracious invitation? I wonder if we can hear this story, not as bad news but as good news.
Last year, my friend and colleague Bishop John Chane of the Diocese of Washington gave his farewell address at the National Cathedral. Like every other diocese in North America, Washington has gone through tough economic times these past several years. And yet, Bishop Chane admonished the delegates not to let “the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression” derail the diocese’s mission of service. He went on to say, “We have got to stop playing the numbers game and live by faith,” defining faith as “that which sustains us when we cannot know something with certainty.”
I like that. None of us have to settle for a “What if?” life when we can go with a “Can do!” faith.
We just have to let go and let God, and then move forward into the future of God’s economy where everyone has enough and no one has too little. Jesus invites us to break free from what whatever holds us back from abundant living, then to follow him as his disciple. To do so is to find meaning and purpose and significance for your life, and blessing upon blessing upon blessing.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.