Dazed and Confused and a Little Mediocre
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, January 24, 2021
Reading: Mark 10:17-31
Albert Einstein had a very famous quote. He said, “Try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value.” Einstein was writing, because he believed that human beings become a bit confused about their values are and what really matters. He also suggested that at times we follow mediocrity, and we don’t rise to the challenges of our time and look at the values that we need to embrace.
I like a phrase that comes from the 1993 movie, Dazed and Confused. In many ways, I think Einstein was pointing to the fact that human beings become dazed and confused at times. We lose sight of the real values that we should have and become overwhelmed by things that don’t really matter. We’re driven, as Einstein was suggesting, by a desire for success, power and wealth, rather than focusing on the important things, the real things that make us a person of value.
I think it’s fair to say that right now in our society, we are a little dazed and confused because of COVID, among other things. I think we have an identity crisis, and we’re not quite sure what our values are. For example, we often think that our value, our way of describing ourselves, is based on what we do, rather than who we are; that who we are is defined by what we do. I don’t just mean our work and our vocation, I also mean the things that we do that give us pleasure, wealth, or success. When we can't have those things, or use those things, we’re not doing what we think we should be doing. We have a crisis of identity when we define ourselves by what we own, what we have, and when you cannot enjoy or use the things that you have.
“I’ve got all this” we say to ourselves, but we can't have the pleasure all the time, or the freedom to use it. Sometimes we define ourselves by how productive we are, what we produce, our work ethic. But what happens when you can't work? What happens when the place where you were employed no long exists? How do you define yourself as a productive person if you're not producing anything? We’re dazed and confused at times; not quite sure where our values are.
Likewise, in relationships. If you look at the self-other typology, as psychologists call it, where we define ourselves in relationship to others, and we’re not around others, how do we define ourselves? How do you know if you're successful if you're not around other people with whom you can compare yourself? We might define ourselves by the amount of love and compassion we have in our lives. What happens when we cannot have relationships that are based on love and compassion, when we can't reach out and touch the people that we love? Then who are we? We become dazed and we become confused, and we’re not quite sure where our real values are; what’s really important.
Well, in our text – in fact, it’s a series of four different texts, put together by Mark – when Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem with the disciples, on the way to the cross, he encountered disciples who were dazed and confused. They were unsure of their values and what really mattered. He also turns their values on their head, things that they’d thought were a given and were important, and now no longer seemed as important as they had once thought. Jesus, in these encounters, challenges people who are dazed and confused.
I see Jesus doing a few things for people who are dazed and confused. The first thing he does is tell us to stop being self-absorbed. You see this in the man who runs up to Jesus – he’s eager – and falls on his knees – he’s humble and challenges him with the question that Helmut Thielicke, the theologian, says we should all ask ourselves at some point. He says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The first thing Jesus does is debunk this good teacher reference, maybe because he thought that he was overselling Jesus’s importance. Maybe he was trying to flatter Jesus, but I think Jesus was trying to make a distinction between himself and his Father. “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”
Throughout the Bible there are moments when Jesus identifies absolutely with God. “The Father and I are One. Who has seen me has seen the Father.” But there are other times he differentiates himself from God the Father. He makes a distinction, and we have to keep that distinction in mind, as well as their unity in mind. They’re not mutually unavailable to us. They both can be what Jesus was in relation to his Father. That wasn’t the main point. He wants to talk about God, and so he says this to this man, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Then Jesus repeats those wonderful phrases from the law, and outlines it to him, knowing that this young Jewish man whom he loved – remember that –had a knowledge of the law.
Then the young man gets a bit self-righteous and says, “Ever since childhood, I’ve obeyed all of these laws, but still I'm coming to you with this question.” Then Jesus challenges him. He knows that he is wealthy, and so he says, “What you must do is go and sell everything that you have, you must give it to the poor. You will then have treasures in heaven and then come and follow me.” He went right to the heart of what was holding the young man back: Wealth. What was tying him down was his wealth, and Jesus challenged him to get rid of his wealth, that was blocking him from following Jesus and inheriting the kingdom.
What was the response of the young man? He was dazed and he was confused, sad and grieving, because the one thing he had was his wealth, and he knew he would have to let it go. In his self-absorption, his desire to both protect who he was, while at the same time letting go for God, he held back. We do not know what happens to this young man after this event, but having been challenged like this, this wealthy person walked away.
It doesn’t stop there. Jesus also starts something by suggesting that we should be dependent upon the grace of God. The disciples are confused by what Jesus has said to this man. After all, in their own minds, they had lived with the belief that if you were prosperous, it was a sign that maybe you’d been pious, that you would inherit eternal life, that you were holy and acceptable to God. Now, with this young man being told to sell everything that he has and to follow Jesus, they're confused, and Jesus knew this. So, he reiterates the main point, that it is hard for a person with wealth to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He describes it as a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle. Over the years there have been countless attempts to describe what Jesus was talking about. Everything from the needle being the entrance to the wall of Jerusalem, and camels ducking and going under. I’ve read these theories about camels and needles.
The point is: it is impossible for a person of wealth, based on their wealth alone, to enter the Kingdom of God. It’s not wealth that brings you into the kingdom. In fact, wealth can be an impediment because wealth makes us feel that we are in control. The wealthy think they have power, and that this is a result of success in something. But those very things can tie us down and prevent us from truly following Jesus Christ. Some have said the wealth talked about could be a relative wealth; wealth in this, wealth in that. No, Jesus is talking about money here. The word that he uses in Greek is: chremata, which is, as Aristotle said, about coins, it’s about money. So, it is about money and the wealth that ties us down.
I love a story by Ron Meredith, where one night he was looking out his window and there was a very bright moon, showing some Canada geese flying by, and their massive wingspan and so on. Down in the lake below were several mallards and they were looking up in awe at these incredible Canada geese. Even though God had given them the ability to fly, these mallards had become fat, because they’d spent all their time eating in the barn, and they couldn’t fly like these Canada geese, because they were weighed down by their own gluttony and things that had tempted them. I love what Meredith said: “Sometimes our temptations and the things of this world bring us down, and we’re simply not able to fly as God wants us to.”
That rich young man was tied down by his wealth, and he left his encounter with Jesus, feeling that his wealth had become a problem. It weighed him down.
Why does wealth weigh us down? It weighs us down because it makes us focus on worldly things. We think that by acquiring worldly things we’re going to have security and people become obsessed with these things. When they do, they lose, as Einstein said, their sense of value. Also, our obsession with wealth causes us to lose the value of things. If wealth is the most important thing, that’s what’s holding us back from truly living a life in faithful response to God, both now and eternally, and we have to reassess our values. You can't put a price on everything. There are some things that are priceless, and that is what Jesus is saying.
It also becomes a test. Wealth can test us. The great economist, philosopher, and thinker, Edmund Burke, once said (and he was very much in favour of people getting to a point of wealth): “If we command our wealth, we shall be rich and free. If our wealth commands us, we are poor indeed.”
Burke’s right. It’s not wealth per se that’s a problem. Jesus is not against wealth, he’s against it when it becomes a point of weighing us down and keeping us from being faithful to God. So, the disciples responded – they're even more dazed and confused now – this camel, this needle, wealthy people not getting into heaven, surely that can't be the case, they say. Surely that can't be right. Then Jesus says the key words of this text: “What is impossible with mortals is possible with God.” It’s not about us and the accumulation of wealth or power. That’s not what gives us eternal life. It’s not the things of this world that we hoard. You know the old saying, “You can’t take it with you.” It’s true, but sometimes those things prevent us even from being truly faithful, holding us back from being true followers of Jesus Christ.
So, if you’re holding on to something, and it doesn’t just have to be wealth – it can be anything – and your identify is based on those worldly things rather than on your faith in God, your obedience to Christ, your call to help the needy and the poor, or committing your life to Jesus Christ, then start to rely on God’s grace.
He also suggests here that maybe there’s a time to rest in that grace. We can get all worked up about these things. The disciples were worked up about it. They continued to prod, and push Jesus and I love it. They say, “But, we have given up everything to follow you.” In other words, is this now of any use? But Jesus is kind and says that anyone who has given up houses, work, or family, to follow me, will get 100 times more returned than what they left behind. You will get eternal life. “You will be able to follow me fully.” He honours that commitment but the disciples are still driven by that self righteousness that says it must be something that we have done to earn the grace of God, something we’ve acquired or something we’ve given up.
The apostle Paul has a wonderful way, I think, of being able to wrap into a phrase, the essential things that Jesus said. In the Book of Ephesians, he says this and it’s glorious: “For it is by grace you have been saved. Through faith, and this, not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.”
It’s not what you own. It’s not what you do. It’s not how productive you are. It’s not how successful you are that gives you the grace and the love and the wonder of God. It is God who gives you those things. When you think that you are tied down, and that you’re dazed and confused, just remember this: as Jesus loved that young man and commanded him to let go of things, so Christ says to us, “I love you too. Let go of anything that stands in the way of truly being a faithful follower of me.” There you find your value, and there you find eternal life. Amen.