Why religion doesn’t work

Mark 10.17-31

Sunday 10th October 2021

©Suzanne Grimmett

Nobody can argue that pleasure doesn’t feel good- that, after all, is pretty much the definition of the word. But how does getting what we want or what makes us feel good stand up in terms of lasting value? Today in the Gospel we encounter a rich man who likes what he has and has what he likes. He is also keen to have a bit of what Jesus has, approaching him with some pretty obsequious flattery requesting assurance of eternal life. ‘Good teacher’ is apparently a pretty rare form of address in Jewish literature, and could be described in contemporary language as “laying it on thick.” If he hoped to receive a lofty title from Jesus in return, he was sadly disappointed. Disappointed is apparently how this rich landowner is left at the end of the conversation when, after claiming to be already righteous in the requirements of the law, the answer he receives is that he needs yet one more thing- to sell what he owns, give the money to the poor and come and follow Jesus.

Probably most of us can’t read this story without hearing the challenge to our own lives. This is, as Jesus says, a hard teaching. It is so terribly hard to enter the realm of God when we have so much to lose in the way we are living now. Jesus is telling this man to divest himself of all that holds him back and let go of all that gives him security so he can find lasting treasure. In this way it is not too far different from Jesus calling the fishermen to leave their nets and therefore their livelihood behind and find a new vocation with him. The fact that the man went away grieving shows that he does have a sense of what he is losing by clinging to his possessions. Paradoxically, his abundance of material wealth has created a lack in him, and Jesus is lovingly prompting him to dream bigger than the ultimately cold comforts of security, status and social position.

I wonder if what we dream for ourselves could be so much less than what God would dream for us? C.S Lewis expresses this well;

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[1]

Some of the ways we can become far too easily pleased show up in our theology. Prosperity gospels would promise that if we believe the right things we will be promised more of the earthly pleasures we desire, whether that be wealth, or health or relationships. This turns God into a kind of cosmic Santa Claus and ourselves into perpetual infants, never able to grow up and see that some of the objects of our desires are only a tiny taste of the joy and freedom possible in a life surrendered to God. The rich man has settled for the best he can grab for himself, but his worldly possessions have become a hindrance to his real freedom.

Another who lived a century or so later and who wrestled with the same such questions was Roman emperor and stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. He speaks about a higher pleasure, writing in around 170 CE;

Yes, getting your wish would have been so nice. But isn’t that exactly why pleasure trips us up? Instead, see if these things might be even nicer- a great soul, freedom, honesty, kindness, saintliness. For there is nothing so pleasing as wisdom itself….[2]

Such struggles with pleasure and reward over greater virtue and meaning are not confined to the ancient world, however. We, too, have to face the truth that the dopamine hit we get from pleasures of various kinds are momentary. The approval of others or applause of the crowd can give us a glow of pride, but it will wear off and leave us wanting more. The assurance of a large bank balance or expensive property will not mean much when we die. Like the rich man, such things can become a hindrance if they prevent us seeing the different kind of abundance offered in the economy of God. Our goods become good not for their own sake, but by being circulated for the good they do one another and ourselves. We are called to be both givers and receivers, for which we need to grow in generosity and humility, living into an ethic of abundance and becoming co-creators of the kingdom of God.

But I wonder if our religion can actually get in the way of a vision where we release attachments and live more deeply into love? We seem to talk a lot about saving souls- generally in the sense of saving our souls from death that we may have life in heaven- but we don’t talk very much about making or enriching our souls. The problem with talking about saving our souls is that it can become only interested in a transcendent heavenly future and is profoundly individualistic, leading to an unhealthy self-obsession. It taps all too readily into our culture’s ethic of achievement and success which must needs come at the expense of others. This is a reason why religious people can be ethically and morally no better and sometimes more deficient than their non-religious counterparts. Like the rich landowner who in first century Palestine could only have made such wealth at the expense of the poor, we too easily lose the vision of God’s peace and justice when our religious culture and teaching keeps our attention on what we need to do in order to receive heavenly rewards for ourselves.

The rich man seeks to assure himself of eternal life, and likely would have been prepared to make some sacrifices if Jesus had asked it of him. I am fairly sure, for instance, that if Jesus had asked him to pray a personal prayer of commitment asking Christ into his life, maybe suggested he go to church weekly and tithe a portion of his income, that rich man would have been happy to comply, and gone home with a sense that he had done everything that could be expected of him and looked forward to his eternal reward- and yet remain fundamentally unchanged! However, the text tells us that Jesus loved him and sought to call him into his truest self; someone who could become so much more than the man himself, with his commitment to prosperity and religious practice, could ever envision. Today, religion is still effective at keeping our gaze fixed on small changes and small rewards when God calls us to transformation.

How much does our religion comfort and shield us from the joyful invitation of the Spirit, keeping us distracted by small pleasures- making the kind of mud pies in a slum, as Lewis says – when we could be running free along the seashore? With a vision stuck on our small dreams, we can ignore the expansive possibilities of the surrendered life that begins here and now and yet is eternal. To do this, we need to focus less on saving our individual souls and more on that which expands our souls through aligning our will with God’s will and our lives with love. We need to listen to the voice of Jesus who would lift our gaze from our wealth and possessions, releasing our attachment to whatever else sits hauntingly on our list of unmet wants and needs, so that the Spirit can reveal to us a new horizon of hope and abundant life; a life intimately caught up in the good of one another.

May we never allow our attachment to anything- whether it be our private religion or personal prosperity, our desire for pleasure, approval or our anxious fears, to shrink our soul and keep us from desiring that love, goodness and freedom God would dream for us.

+Amen


[1] 1. C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 3–4.

[2] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations , 5.9

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