For the object of Careers is to "succeed" by collecting fame, fortune and happiness points. The winner is thus the first player to reach or exceed their own success formula, or ‘victory conditions’ (as the modern versions put it): a specific combination of fame, money and happiness points which thus provide everything the player has aimed for in life. Each player pursues such ‘success’ through a number of different "occupation paths". All these paths have some prerequisite for entry, such as gaining a degree, and benefits also come from going through any of the paths more than once. The different occupations are designed to be suited to different lifestyles: for instance taking the ‘Hollywood’ pathway is good for fame points, while ‘Going to Sea used to be good for happiness. There are also hazards on every pathway: a scandal in ‘Hollywood’, or in Politics’, will, for example, cost points, and, in ‘Big Business’ a slump will cut your salary in half. Most seriously, you can end up in ‘Hospital,’ or, worst still, stuck on ‘Park Bench’. Over the years, some names and paths have also changed with the altered priorities of modern society: ‘Farming’, ‘Going to Sea’ and ‘Expedition to the Moon’ have now disappeared for example, replaced by ‘Ecology’, ‘Teaching’ and ‘Sports’, whilst ‘Unemployment’ has replaced ‘Park Bench’.
Can you see why this has made such a popular game?
Can you also see why, as more than a game – as an approach to life as a whole – it is deeply flawed?
If we are honest, most of us have a tendency to approach our lives as if we were playing Careers, don’t we? I certainly do. Some of this is natural and sensible. If we feel called to be a doctor or a lawyer for instance, it is helpful to work out pathways. Similarly, if we are drawn to be entertainers, there are some things and places which will help more than others. If we have a gift of making money we might also concentrate on what helps. For none of the principal concerns of Careers – fame, fortune and happiness – are unhealthy per se. Rather they may indeed be pathways to building good lives for ourselves and others, so long as they are not seen as ends in themselves.
What however matters most in life? This is the key issue in our Gospel today. The rich young man who comes to Jesus is not really asking this question as he is approaching life as if it were a game of Careers. He wants to know what he has to do to succeed in life. He is effectively asking, for example: how many points do I need to collect to be one of life’s winners? what things do I need to do to collect them? what will help me avoid failure? Of course, to be fair to this earnest young man, he is not seeking mere worldly success. He is seeking to succeed with God. But that is the heart of the problem. As Jesus points out, it is not possible to have ‘success’ with God. For God is simply not interested in success, of any kind, even moral and religious success, in themselves: not in the slightest. There are simply no moral or religious points we can ever collect to win God’s game of success. For God doesn’t play games. God is only interested in living and loving: in living lives of self-transcending love. God is all about grace.
Careers is a great game, but it is ultimately a rubbish way of approaching life. Whilst we try to succeed in the game of life, we have missed the point. Hard as it is for us to hear in our highly individualistic, commercialised and competitive world, life is not about being worldly winners and losers. That is the message we hear every day from so much of our media and wider world. It reinforces the idea that we, like the rich young man, all tend to have: that there must be something we can do to succeed – to find security, to be saved, to avoid ending up, as a down-and-out, and a failure, on Park Bench. No wonder the message of Jesus is so hard to hear.
As he did with the rich young man, Jesus turns all our life games upside down and asks us to approach life in a very different way. Forget, he says, all your personal salvation schemes. Forget looking for success formulas. Let go of them all. That is why he tells the rich young man to sell all he has and give to the poor. It was not because sharing wealth with the poor is a good and godly thing – which it is – but because, in the rich young man’s case, his wealth was his security, and until he let go of his security, and seeking security, he could never find salvation, which is the only real and lasting security. In other words, what he was saying to the rich young man was ‘forget the game and trying to collect success points. Go straight to Park Bench. Be a worldly failure. For it is only when you give up your life that you will actually find it.’
So what will we choose, from our ‘optional goals’? Will we choose security or salvation? Will we choose a mere success formula or will we simply be faithful to God in Jesus even if it leads to failure? Will we choose to pursue our own ‘victory conditions’, or take up the cross? It is not a once and for all question to ponder. For, in our Gospel today, Jesus’ closest disciples also failed to get the message, didn’t they? They still kept thinking that what they did for Jesus was a salvation path, winning them points in the Kingdom of God. They still felt that success, of some sort, is what ultimately matters. It simply does not, says Jesus. What matters is that we give all of ourselves to God and let God do the rest. Maybe God will then give us fame, or fortune, or happiness, or a mixture of them all, as a blessing to us and to others. Or maybe God will not and will literally accompany us to the cross. Either way, it is only in losing our lives that we can ever truly gain: it is only in failing that we conquer.
In the Name of the One who died a failure on a cross, bereft of fame, fortune and happiness, but through whose love we are all raised by grace to glory, Amen.
by Jon Inkpin, for Pentecost 20 year B, 11 October 2015