Dev and Arnold are friends in a Netflix series I enjoy called Master of None. In an early episode, the two friends are shown wondering what to do next. Tacos, they decide. They’re going to go eat tacos for lunch. But there’s a big problem. An exasperated Dev explains the situation: “There’re so many taco places, we’ve gotta make sure we go to the best one! Let’s research.”
“Great,” says Arnold. “I’ll sit here and do nothing.”
Hours pass in a dramatic, condensed time-lapse scene in which we see a series of images from the “research”: Yelp reviews, Instagram posts, photos and hashtags, desperate texts to friends, “Yo! Where the best tacos at?” The agony is palpable and real. Dez cannot imagine not eating the best taco for lunch. Finally, satisfied that he’s found it, Dev wakes his napping friend to announce the verdict.
“Great, let’s do it,” says Arnold.
But tragically, by the time the friends arrive, the taco truck is closed.
Dev protests to the food cart owner who is in the process of closing up shop: “What are we supposed to do, huh? Eat the second best tacos in New York?
The struggle is real.
And not just for Arnold and Dev.
It’s seemingly part and parcel of the information age: that you and I can see and know and potentially have the best, like never before in history. There’s an app for everything, true, and, more specifically, most of the apps exist to help us purchase different aspects of our lives more efficiently. There are even websites that allow students to scope out and rate the best professors, maximizing experience, living your best life, your perfect life. Because what else are you supposed to do? Enjoy the second best taco? And if you can’t enjoy the second best taco, if you can’t be sure there’s not a better taco truck than the one you’re at, how can you be expected to be present, really present, to anything at all?
Poor Dev and Arnold. Poor us. But also, poor rich man today in Mark’s gospel; rich man who is in a lot of ways a prototype of our ourselves; rich man who is our forbearer in following and all its difficulties; rich man who is our ancestor in acquisition and all its attending anxieties. He’s asking Jesus about eternal life, but from the get go we sense that something about the conversation is off. He’s asking about eternal life, but the conversation reads like a checklist confirmation, like he’s providing appropriate documentation at the DMV in order to receive a license he plans to pick up on the way home from work or proving his qualifications to the bank, in order to secure the mortgage to finance his next venture, operating under the assumption that there is some combination of deeds or depository of reputation and respectability that would make him deserving of eternal life. That is, he’s bringing his righteousness with the expectation of a successful transaction. Now, he’s open to the possibility that he might not have enough (yet), but he is also confident that there’s nothing out there that Jesus might add that he can’t yet acquire and later contribute to the equation. But what combination of deeds is equal to life with God? It’s not just that the math won’t square, but also that the rich man’s attempts to solve the puzzle this way reveal that he can’t imagine eternal life as anything other than yet another material good to add to the ones he already has. Conceiving of life with God this way, as a prize to win from God for behavior, rather than a life to live with God, and – God forbid – supposing he’s denied this transaction, what’s the man supposed to do? Live his second best life now?
But what if eternal life, life with God, is not something acquired by grasping?
Jesus looks at the man, loves him in the midst of all that’s rattling on inside him, and invites him to acquire the one thing he doesn’t have: awareness of his own lacking or, put better, a sense of God’s overwhelming goodness. Trust this, Jesus says, and live your trust in God toward your neighbor by a generosity that is a kind of grateful echo of God’s own. Let your gratitude be manifest in generosity and so make space in yourself, in your soul, for the possibility of a living trust of the Kingdom of God.
Give away what you have. Not just the things, but with them the admiration and affirmation of others who conflate your wealth with your deserving. Give up your standing. Hold nothing tightly. Forsake false guarantees that isolate you from other members and other parts of the Body of Christ. Be generous, and be open. Risk needing help and risk being helped, both by God and those around you in the community of faith. Make room to be loved, even on the days you are sure you are a fraud. Do not be afraid to celebrate the riches and gifts of others, for they do not condemn you. Eternal life is not a game to win or lose but a gift to be received.
“You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “Namely, you don’t lack anything yet. There’s no room for gifts or grace or surprises of God in you. But wait, I have an idea: go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
The rich man’s response is uncomfortably predictable. All silence. “How terribly shocking,” observes Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “to discover that, after all, you love [something] more than you love eternal life.”
How difficult to discover that the thing you lack is all you have.
The man is crestfallen, and the disciples are terrified. Once they’ve gotten out of earshot of the rich man they ask Jesus, “If not this dude, Lord, who can be saved?” Jesus’ answer gives hope, but it’s not a hope that backs away from the difficulty presented by wealth and his earlier invitation to leave it: “With God all things are possible.” Trust God, then, and not these other things. Trust God, then, and live your trust in God toward your neighbor by a generosity that is a kind of grateful echo of God’s own. Let your gratitude be manifest in generosity. Let your love be sourced in God’s. Rest in the love of him who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself. Breathe this love. Receive this love. Let it be your balm and greatest confidence, that this love is for you. Walk in this love. St. Paul puts the invitation this way, in words so familiar you know them by heart: Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard liked to tell the story of a man who owned a shop, like a general store. One day, it’s late, and the shopkeeper puts things in order and calls it a day. He closes shop and goes home. But sometime that evening, or maybe even deeper into the night, some thieves break into the shopkeeper’s store. Bizarrely, the thieves don’t steal anything. Instead, they meticulously rearrange all the labels, the price labels, on every item in the store. So cheap things now have four digit tags. And really precious things are made to look cheap. The next day, the shopkeeper arrives at the store and doesn’t notice the hoax. Nothing appears any less in order than it had the night before. From the shopkeeper’s perspective, protected from critical reflection by the mundaneness, the ordinariness, of the rhythms of life, it’s just another day. Then the customers start arriving. They, too, don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Instead, all of them begin interacting, shopping, purchasing, exactly as they had on the previous day, but with the labels as they now are, as if the mislabeled labels reflect the true values of things. And they’re still doing this thing, misjudging the true worth of things, to this very day, still shopping in the store not knowing that none of the labels are true.
“You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”