Pentecost 18B, 2003
A Liturgy is also available
GIMME, GIMME, GIMME! OR A SHARING WORLD
In what could be the first recorded act of modern individualism,
the storyteller Mark says
an unnamed rich man asks Jesus
what he could do to have a fully satisfying, authentic life.
Accustomed to paying a price to achieve his desired ends,
this man seems to assume he can attain or buy
the quality of life taught and lived by Jesus.
For him, life was an achievement.
A prize to win.
A commodity to be bought.
And relying on this storyteller we call Mark,
I reckon we can also safely assume this man has been looking all his life
for such personal fulfilment and satisfaction.
So the thing which crosses my mind is:
doesn’t all this sound very familiar and modern?
About 15 years or so ago, American sociologist Robert Bellah
edited a couple of books on the American lifestyle.
They were called Habits of the Heart and The Good Society.
In those books Bellah and his research associates claimed that
the desire to get the most out of one's life
- to be the best or achieve the highest -
was a hallmark of our time.
They also suggested we are so intent
on fulfilling ourselves and our own destiny,
that we put our lives and careers above everything else.
Our individualism matters more to us
than the success of any larger group or institution.
Now we don’t have to go overseas to get similar comments.
It has been suggested to me that over the past 10, 15 years or so
our Federal governments have increasingly
encouraged us... even frightened us,
into making sure we look after me and my family, financially,
because the public purse won’t have the money to do so.
Hence we are told to save and invest and insure...
That is, personal or family financial security
is promoted as a virtue, by
and financial planners.
And we have responded - with what is now being called the ‘trickle up’ effect!
On the other hand, social commentators such as Hugh Mackay in Sydney,
claim the rise in individualism rather than community,
is really driven by the popularist chant: gimme, gimme, gimme!
“Perhaps our desire for more, more, more is a thinly disguised attempt to distract ourselves by constant stimulation, constant change, constant excitement, constant entertainment and the illusion of constant renewal. But distract ourselves from what?” (Mackay/SMH-9/2/02).
Speak to leaders of organisations such as community service groups,
or Girl Guides, or Meals-on-Wheels, or the local school canteen
and they will all say they are suffering today
because the majority of us no longer value service
above personal success and enjoyment.
Maybe this is why it can be so easy for us Christians
in the Western developed world to understand the rich man
and to sympathise with him.
He is one of us!
Like him, we too want to be sure we don't neglect anything
that might improve our personal situation.
Like him, most of us are always looking
for something to give us an edge,
something that will make us more successful,
or more competitive
or more complete
or more secure.
As such, the majority of us live by
the logic of the market place,
and the encouragement (or scare tactics) of the government.
Everything becomes a commodity
to be used and depleted,
hoarded or thrown away.
Maybe some of you (at St James, Canberra) will remember our Social Justice service three years ago,
when we did the ‘ecological lifestyle’ survey
and asked Dr Richard Greene to interpret our answers.
The survey measured the relative amount of the world’s resources
an individual takes up, taking into account how often
we use a car,
whether or not we recycle... that type of thing.
Richard said our individual ‘ecological footprint’
averaged out at about 7.6 hectares (or 19 acres) - per person.
That means, if everyone in the world
lived at the same level of consumption as we do in Curtin,
we would need 4.2 planets to sustain us all!
I don’t know about you but at the time I had never thought
about my personal impact on the world
in those terms before.
His findings came as a bit of a shock to me.
But they have also brought home to me in a new way
that everything I do and you do, impacts on others.
The problem is, some of those ‘others’ have
to protect themselves from the negative impact of my decisions.
Perhaps that is why those who live in the poorer, developing countries,
considers anyone who lives in the Western developed world
as among the earth’s wealthy.
So, in the spirit of Mark’s story, then, let me tell a parallel story.
A story which invites us move beyond the
acquisition of things,
to the sharing of compassion.
A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains
found a precious stone in a creek.
The next day she met another traveller who was hungry,
and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food.
The hungry traveller saw the precious stone
and asked the woman to give it to him.
She did so without hesitation.
The traveller left, rejoicing in his good fortune.
He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.
But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.
“I've been thinking,” he said. “I know how valuable the stone is,
but I give it back in the hope you can give me something even more precious.
“Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
Did Jesus say the words Mark says he did?
Chances are he didn’t.
Although many scholars reckon these words
have a bit of a ‘Jesus echo’ to them.
Chances are also, Mark had heard of a similar story, reshaped it,
and offered it to his small (probably poor peasant) Jesus movement,
as they struggled to define their Christian borders
and live with neighbours across the road
who were different.
And what did Mark have in the back of his mind
when he edited and offered this story some 35 to 40 years after Jesus?
I can only imagine.
But maybe his reasoning went something like this:
“Jesus’ challenge... was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments. Admirable as his effort had been, he had missed the point of the commandments. Jesus’ challenge exposed what was missing: a sense of compassion for the poor” (Bill Loader/web site).