Saturday, October 13, 2012

Staying on Message

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow Me.” (Mark 10.21)

Understanding and Internalizing

As a marketing consultant, I constantly remind clients effective communication is all about staying on message. Not only must the message remain consistent across time. It must also stay the same on a vertical plane, until everyone at every level of the company is marching to the same beat. In time, the message morphs from strategic imperative into personal commitment that alters how employees think and work. I’ve been at this a very long time and can tell you that staying on message works. I’ll also admit it’s not easy to do. By nature, we’re more attracted to novelty than consistency. Repetition reduces our curiosity with each retelling. After we get a sense of what’s supposed to change and why it’s needed, we’re eager to move on. Yet there’s a huge gap between hearing and internalizing a message, knowing and understanding. Hearing and knowing may inform behavior, but they rarely alter it. To change behavior, a message must lodge so pervasively in the hearers’ minds that it becomes first nature to them.

Check out any business school and you’ll find entire curricula and volumes of theory and case studies expounding this principle. Still, no expert I’ve found matches Jesus’s brilliance for consistently communicating change, and no book I’ve read outclasses Mark’s gospel as a case study in effective communications strategy. Mark documents the pivotal moment in Jewish and, by extension, human history. It is the culmination of Israel’s longing for change and the start of something far greater than anyone expected: the revelation of God’s kingdom in the person and teachings of Christ. Jesus arrives, declaring change: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.15) From there, He takes every opportunity to reinforce His message—consistently emphasizing a New Order that disrupts tradition and overturns conventional wisdom: the last are first, the poor preferred, children lead adults, outcasts are welcomed, and so on.

After following the readings from Mark, hearing the same thing—often the same words—week after week, we open Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 10.17-31) to discover yet another iteration of Jesus’s message, It’s all we can do not groan, “Enough already! We get it!” And that’s probably true. We know full well what Jesus is saying. But do we understand it? Have we internalized Jesus’s good news to the point that we are changed? That’s why Jesus stays on message.

Life to the Fullest

There is something new in this weekend’s lesson, though. Previously, we’ve heard Jesus deliver His message to groups of people—often changing the subject to do so. In this case, He models vertical communication, delivering the same message to a “higher-up.” We watch a wealthy man kneel before Him and ask, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v17) We’re not sure what’s on the man’s mind. We know what he means by “eternal life,” however. In Jesus’s time, the concept of eternal life transcends life after death; to live eternally is to experience life to the fullest now and always. The man asks about inheriting eternal life, recognizing it’s a gift (not a reward) God wills to us. He senses there’s more to life than all he possesses. Until he identifies what’s missing, he’ll be incomplete. To use a financial term often found in the gospels, this rich man wants to be made whole.

Jesus answers with a somewhat pat response: keep the commandments. “I’ve done that since my youth,” the man says, once again addressing Jesus as “Teacher.” With that a superb teaching moment arises. Jesus sees the man’s sincerity and loves him. “You lack one thing,” He says, instructing the man to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow Me.” (v21) Once the man is relieved of his burdensome riches, he’ll access the enormity of God’s wealth and discover fullness of life. He’ll be free to follow Jesus. Mark tells us Jesus’s answer shocks the man. He leaves sorrowfully. He gives up finding the missing piece of his life because he can’t (or won’t) give up what he already has to make room for it.

This is one of the gospels’ saddest moments—one of very few episodes that end unhappily. And the disciples’ reaction gives us a taste of how rare it is. They’re stunned. But Jesus stays on message, saying, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” This only confuses His followers more. They’re culturally predisposed to believe those with the greatest means have the best chances of winning divine favor. After all, they cut the most prominent profiles in the Temple; they’re the movers and shakers—elite philanthropists and entrepreneurs and job creators. How can entering God’s kingdom be so difficult for them that Jesus says it’s easier to shove a camel through a tiny door by comparison? But Jesus is adamant. Entering God’s kingdom isn’t based on what we own. It’s decided by how easily we can surrender everything we rely on: possessions, people, and even prospects. This passage ends with Jesus telling us again: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (v31)

Divesting Every Encumbrance

In an election season fraught with cries of economic injustice and a fetishistic obsession with percentiles, how simple it would be for us to filter this text through a political lens! How smug we’d feel if all of this actually boiled down to accusing the infamous 1% of flouting Christ’s instructions! Yet Jesus stays on message to teach us—rich or poor, high or low—the life-changing power of His good news. The kingdom of God has come near. The door to eternal life is flung open. And none of us, regardless of status, can enter without first divesting every encumbrance that prevents us from following Jesus. Wealth is the rich man’s burden. But there are many burdens that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. We carry pride and intellect and relationships and popularity and sophistication and religion and advantages of every kind—including moral superiority we assume as casualties of injustice—with such ferocity that we can’t perceive life without them. We rely on them to put us ahead. But they don’t provide fullness of life. Something’s lacking. And if we’re to be made whole, we must first be willing to sacrifice everything we cherish to find it.

Let’s be real: Jesus’s message quickly loses its novelty. It’s the same thing, over and over: let go everything you think you know and understand what’s truly essential. Stop hearing and start internalizing. Once we learn to do that, we will be changed.

Jesus stays on message so that we can progress from hearing His words to internalizing them, from knowing what He says to understanding what He means.


Sherry Peyton said...

such a good telling of such a good story. You have captured, I am convinced the essence of what is meant here. It's what stands in our way to recognizing what is truly important that prevents us from attaining the kingdom. One can but imagine how difficult this was to the listeners, since wealth was considered a sign of God's grace. I too felt so sorry for the young man, unable to get beyond what he had been told all his life were the signs of a God directed life. Yet he sensed that he had not attained it. But sadly he could not accept that all that he had worked for was not part of the answer, but the impediment to the answer. Thank you dear Tim for saying this so very well. Blessings.

Tim said...

Sherry, this story always moves me because of the divide that isn't bridged. I think of how often that I (and I assume most everyone else) has got close enough to see what comes between me and the kingdom, yet can't plow through it to reach the place Christ calls us to be. There are myriad reasons we find to rationalize our resistance--many of them seemingly good. Yet they're in the way and we must move them aside. It is a hard lesson today, and a sad one indeed.

Thanks for dropping by. You always bring added truth to the conversation!

Many blessings,