Thursday, 3 October 2013

Libra (2): Distractions



Mark 10:17-31

When he’d gone back on to the road, a man came running towards him. He fell on his knees before him and said, ‘Good teacher, what should I do in order to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t tell lies, don’t defraud, honour your father and your mother.’ He replied, ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all these from my youth.’ Jesus, gazing at him, warmed towards him, and said, ‘There’s only one thing you need: sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me!’

            But the young man was upset by what Jesus said, and he went away sorrowfully because he was a man of great wealth. Looking round, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘How difficult it is for a very wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God!’ His disciples were astonished at his words, but Jesus told them again, ‘Children, how difficult it is to go into the kingdom of God! It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’ They were extremely shocked and said to one another, ‘Who can be saved then?’ Looking intently at them, Jesus said, ‘With men it’s impossible, but not with God. Everything is possible with God.’ Peter began to say to him, ‘Look. We left everything and have followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘I’m telling you the truth, there’s no one who has left a house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news who won’t now receive a hundred times more houses, brothers, sisters, mothers and children and fields (with persecution) and in the coming age, eternal life! Many who are first will be last, and the last first.’

Story: The Diamond


One night, Hemendra had a dream in which a voice told him that if he were to go into the park the next day he would meet a man who would give him a treasure so great that it would change his life.
            When he awoke, Hemendra could not get the dream out of his head. He didn’t normally pay much attention to his dreams, and anyway, he generally couldn’t remember them, but this one had been so vivid that he could remember all the details even after he had eaten his breakfast. He had nothing else to do that day so, a little sceptical but with nothing to lose, he decided he’d walk in the park and see what he could see.
            No sooner had he passed through the park gates than he saw an old man sitting on a bench. ‘Perhaps that could be the man who is going to change my life,’ he thought to himself. He approached the man and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but could it be possible that you have something precious to give me? I had a dream last night in which I was told to come into the park and seek a man who would give me something of great value.’
            The old man said, ‘Well, all I possess is in this little bag. I’ll have a look. Maybe there’s something I can give you.’ He emptied out his bag on the grass, and along with a few inconsequential items there was a huge diamond! It was bigger than Hemendra’s fist!  ‘Perhaps that’s it,’ stammered Hemendra, pointing at the diamond.
            ‘Oh, the stone! I’d forgotten about the stone! I picked it up in the forest a few days ago. You can certainly have it. It’s no good to me.’ With that he handed over the diamond to Hemendra, who thanked him profusely and then rushed off before the old man had a chance to change his mind.
            All the way home Hemendra thought about what he would do with the money that the diamond would bring him. He’d buy a big house, hire servants, eat the best food, drink the finest wine, travel to exotic places. He was so excited! It was too late for him to go to the big city to sell his treasure, so he put it under his pillow just to keep it safe, and tried to go to sleep. But he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned in bed, and, at the first light of dawn, he got up and went back into the park. There, sitting on the same bench, was the old man.  Hemendra handed him the diamond. ‘Please take this back,’ he said, ‘and give me instead the wealth that makes it possible for you to give away such a precious diamond.’

**********************
 
 


'Tis little I could care for pearls
Who own the ample sea;
Or brooches, when the Emperor
With rubies pelteth me.

Or gold, who am the Prince of Mines
Or diamonds, when I see
A diadem to fit a dome
Continual crowning me.
(Emily Dickinson)


Victoria Coren
Victoria Coren is a very talented and versatile English woman. She writes a column in the Observer, presents Balderdash and Piffle, a programme on BBC 2 about words and their origins, commentates on and writes about poker, in addition to being a world-renowned poker player. A few months ago Victoria won $1 million (£500,000) in a poker tournament, and in a recent Observer column she made the following honest and very perceptive comment about how this win has affected her:

Do I feel rich? Quite the opposite. Having never had real money in the bank before, its existence has created a sudden nervousness in me about not having it. I worry about how long it will last, and what I will do when it has gone. I never wanted or needed half a million pounds; now I've got it, I wish it was a million. Or five million. I suddenly understand how footballers, the moment they can afford to fly everywhere first class, start worrying that they can't afford a private jet.


How curious that her reaction to winning an enormous amount of money is exactly the opposite of what we would expect. Instead of exulting in her good fortune, she’s lamenting the fact that she didn’t win more. Now that she’s rich, she feels the urge to become richer. It’s no doubt the same feeling that lottery winners have when they share a prize: ‘I may have won two million, but if I’d been the only winner this week, it would have been eight million. Just my luck!’ And it’s probably something similar which drives the super-rich to compromise their integrity by advertising products they never use for sums of money they’ll never need. The late, lamented Bill Hicks, said that anyone who ever endorses any commercial product, automatically forfeits his or her rights to an opinion on any subject whatsoever, and when I see millionaire film actors and pop stars extolling the virtues of Tesco or Marks and Spencer, I am inclined to agree with him. What possibly motivates someone who is already rich beyond the dreams of avarice to earn a few measly hundred thousand in this way?

Yesterday’s Guardian carried this little gem about the actress Liz Hurley:


The multi-millionaire model, clothing designer, producer, and greatest spangly knickers wearer this country has ever produced was this week accused by Gloucestershire parishioners of breaking a promise to make a cash donation to the chapel in which her forty-two part marriage to Arun Nayar was blessed. Rev. John Partington, apparently waived the standard thousand pound fee in the hope that the couple would disburse a sum more commensurate with their exceptional wealth. Chapel members were hoping for enough to replace the boiler. This, they think, will prove difficult to do with the twelve hand-embroidered cassocks La Hurley sent in return for the service rendered. ‘It strikes me as rather mean,’ said Chapel treasurer, Sue Williams, ‘especially as I understand that most of the wedding was paid for by a magazine,’ proving that the art of understatement is alive and well and living in Winchcombe.


And the film producer Eli Roth is quoted in the same paper as saying that his pet hates are the greed and envy he has found among actors: ‘You meet with actors,’ he says, ‘and they’re so excited to get involved in a project, then all they start worrying about is that their trailer is not big enough.’

The plain fact is that, for most of us, enough is never enough. We get used to things so quickly that today’s exciting novelty is tomorrow’s boring commonplace. Ten years ago I would have willingly waited an hour to download an email from the other side of the world; now, if it takes twenty seconds I’m drumming my fingers with impatience. It’s also true that today’s privilege becomes tomorrow’s entitlement. As someone has so wisely observed, ‘When a man first borrows from you, he’ll kiss your hand; the second time he’ll doff his cap; the third time he’ll nod, and the fourth time he’ll chide you for being late with the payment, and the fifth time he’ll ask you for twice as much’. When I was undergoing treatment in St. James’ hospital in Leeds, I had to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy every Monday. There was invariably a queue, and sometimes a wait of an hour or so while the hard pressed pharmacists sorted out the drugs. But Morag and I would wait patiently, maybe get a coffee from the machine, or go for a stroll round the hospital grounds. After all, we were getting extremely expensive drugs for nothing. There was a little sign which told you how long you could expect to wait before picking up your completed prescription. On one occasion, a young woman – no more than about 19 – was sitting with her boyfriend. They had a child in a push-chair, and another child on the way. She took one look at the expected completion time and said, ‘They needn’t think I’m waiting for fifty minutes,’ and with that she stormed out of the hospital.

This woman’s grandparents would have thought the National Health Service in Britain just about the twentieth century’s greatest achievement; I know my parents did. But she had been raised on free consultations, free operations, and free medicine. Now she wanted them immediately.

I’m not blaming her. She simply exemplifies a pretty consistent human characteristic. We have no real perspective on things. We in the developed West are fabulously rich compared with our pretty recent ancestors. When Ernest Savell Hicks, the minister here from 1910 to 1962, first came to Dublin, he and his wife nearly caught the next boat back to England because they were horrified to see children in bare feet on a winter’s day. There are no bare feet now. Poverty has changed its face. Morag and I cleared the church doorway one day last week while Kevin our caretaker was away, and in addition to the usual sheets of cardboard and blankets that had been left there by the rough sleepers, we found some unopened packets of sandwiches, and about three euros in loose change. These particular beggars didn’t want change and they didn’t want food. I have seen two of the people who regularly come here for money using mobile phones in the street. No money for food or rent, but money enough to make frivolous phone calls while on the move.

All of which demonstrates what we all know: poverty is relative. And because it is relative, it can never be eliminated. Once poverty meant no shoes; now it means no flat screen T.V., or no ipod. Poor people are those who want more than they have – which covers just about all of us. In fact, some of the poorest people I know, people who feel that their lives are blighted because of lack of money, are really extraordinarily well off. They have money, but they can’t bring themselves to spend it.


Jesus and the Rich Young Man (Beijing, 1879)
Which brings us to today’s gospel passage, the story of the Rich Young Man. ‘What can I do to inherit eternal life?’ the young man asks Jesus. ‘You know the commandments,’ replies Jesus. ‘Keep them.’ ‘I have kept them all my life,’ says the young man. ‘You lack only one thing,’ says Jesus. ‘Sell all you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Then come follow me.’ But the young man can’t do it.

This particular passage is appropriately placed here, in the Libra section of the Gospel of Mark, because, as I said last week, Libra is associated with charm, style, attractiveness and flair, all characteristics of this young man. The man is loveable and Jesus ‘warms towards him’. What’s more, he is a law abiding citizen who has tried to do his duty to God and to his fellows, and Libra concerns the law and our legal obligations. His one failing, according to Jesus, is that he cannot relinquish his wealth, and this is keeping him from taking the next step in his development as a human being, called in the Gospel ‘entry into the kingdom of God’. Real wealth is reaching a state of consciousness in which we are no longer slaves to the things we own. Remember the last line of the story I told the children: ‘Give me the wealth that enables you to give away such a precious diamond.’

Last week I also said that the Egyptians associated Libra with the goddess Ma’at, who weighed the souls of the dead in the balance: those who passed her test were ‘light hearted’, those who failed it ‘heavy hearted’. This rich young man leaves Jesus sorrowful, ‘heavy hearted’; he has just been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Ma'at weighing a soul against a feather




And to confirm the Libran signature of this passage, we might note that the young man's declaration to Jesus that he has kept the commandments ('Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal' etc.) bears a striking resemblance to Chapter 125 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, in which an individual makes a declaration to Ma'at (Libra) about the sins he has avoided in his lifetime on earth. There are 42 of these, and here are a few relevant ones, as given in the translation by A. Wallis Budge:

·  I have not stolen
·  I have not slain me men and women.
·  I have not uttered lies.  
·  I have not committed adultery
·  I have not debauched the wife of any man.
·  I have not shut my ears to the words of truth.
·  I have not blasphemed.


Why does Jesus tell the man to give everything to the poor? Not, I think, because Jesus was on this occasion particularly concerned about the poor. He was concerned about the state of the rich man’s soul. It’s harder for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, says Jesus in a wonderfully arresting image, but these are not the words of an early Che Guevara. Jesus was no politician. Of course, Jesus was not advocating living in penury. Abject poverty leaves us no time or inclination to pursue the interior life of the spirit. But Jesus knew, as all the spiritual luminaries know, that wealth keeps us from this, too. For a start, it gives us enormous headaches, as Victoria Coren is finding. How can I protect it? Why don’t I have more? Why has he got more than me? What would happen to me if I lost it? To whom can I leave it? In addition, it gives us ample opportunity to squander our time in shallow and frivolous entertainment, of which we soon tire, and which ultimately proves unsatisfying. ‘Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,’ says William Wordsworth. Consuming, accumulating, protecting, displaying take us away from more spiritually productive activities. ‘The more you possess, the greater the tedium,’ says St. Teresa of Avila. Possessions and money are not wicked, but, if we are not careful, they can distract us from the things that matter. Teresa goes on:

 

It’s as if a person were to enter a place where the sun is shining but be hardly able to open his eyes because of the mud in them. ....So, I think, must be the condition of the soul. Even though it may not be in a bad state, it is so involved in worldly affairs and so absorbed with its possessions, honour, or business affairs, that even though as a matter of fact it would want to see and enjoy its beauty, these things do not allow it to; nor does it seem that it can slip free from so many impediments. If a person is to enter the second dwelling place, it is important that he strive to give up unnecessary things and business affairs. Each one should do this in conformity with his state of life.


One day last week, I happened to catch an item on GMTV, ITV’s morning magazine show. The presenter, Fiona Phillips, was in Tanzania, meeting up with a young girl called Neema, whom she has been sponsoring for the past few years. After showing us the one room mud hut that the family of six had been sleeping in, and introducing us to the members of the family, Fiona said something like, ‘These people have nothing. Just happiness, respect, and love.’ And she wasn’t trying to be smart or ironic. It made me wonder who should be sponsoring whom.


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