Jesus’ formula for success
How would you define success?
A troubled man made an appointment with a rabbi who was known to be wise and gentle. “Rabbi,” said the man, wringing his hands, “I’m a failure. More than half the time I do not succeed in doing what I know I must.” “Oh,” murmured the rabbi. “Please say something wise, rabbi,” pleaded the man. After much pondering, the rabbi replied, “Ah, my son, I give you this bit of wisdom: Go and look on page 930 of The New York Times Almanac for the year 1970, and maybe you will find something.”
Confused by such strange advice, the troubled man went to the library to look up the source. And this is what he found—lifetime batting averages for the world’s greatest baseball players. Ty Cobb, the greatest slugger of them all, had a lifetime average of .367. Not even Babe Ruth beat that record. So the man returned to the rabbi and questioned, “Ty Cobb, .367. That’s it?” “Correct,” the rabbi replied. “Ty Cobb .367. He got a hit once out of every three times at bat. He didn’t even hit .500. So what do you expect already?” “Aha,” said the man, who thought he was such a wretched failure because he succeeded only half the time at what he must do. He thought to himself: Isn’t theology amazing?
I read an article about a gathering of the world’s most successful financiers, nine men who gathered at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel in 1923. These men each had enough money to buy just about anything they wanted. They were truly rich—rich—rich. Now, what’s really interesting is how they ended up: I’ll just give a few examples:
- Charles Schwab, president of the largest steel company at the time, died bankrupt and lived on borrowed money for five years before his death.
- Samuel Insull, president of the largest electric utility company, died a fugitive from justice and penniless in a foreign country.
- The president of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, was released from Sing Sing Penitentiary.
- Albert Fall, Secretary of the Interior, was pardoned from prison so he could die at home—totally broke.
In a sense this is an “old” story, coming from the 1920’s. And yet, it demonstrates a timeless truth: money and the desire for power and riches can change a person, corrupt a person’s character, and lead to terrible consequences.
Now, there is a theme that goes right through all of our readings today, and that is that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s wisdom is different than our own, God’s word penetrates to the very heart of our being and knows us better than we know ourselves.
The man who approached Jesus in today’s gospel was obviously a good person. He says that he had kept God’s commandments from his youth. So he could have stopped there, being an honest, upright, moral individual. But he wanted more. He noticed that Jesus seemed to have amazing insight. His teaching had a powerful authority, as if it came from the very heart of God. And so the man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now, I want to point out that Jesus does not respond in condemnation. The text says that Jesus looked at him, and loved him. What Jesus advises is thus given in love. He wants this man to be successful in every way, to be truly happy. “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
The man’s heart sank. Instead of asking him to build on the foundation he had already created, Jesus asks him, not to build further up, for himself, but to build down by becoming selfless and, instead of living only for himself, to live for others. Jesus had taught that the greatest commandment is to put God in first place in our life; to love God with all our being, above anyone or anything else. Evidently, Jesus sensed that this man’s possessions were in first place—not God. For him, what mattered was treasure in this life, not treasure in heaven for all eternity.
One thing to note: Jesus is asking that there be a right ordering of one’s life. And if we do that, we will not experience it as a loss. He says that, compared to what we have given up out of compassion and charity, we will find that we will then have “a hundred times more now in this present age”—plus “eternal life in the age to come.”
I don't pretend to have attained the level of sacrifice that Jesus asks for, and I don’t think that I have acquired all of God’s wisdom. But I have found one thing, over and over again: God cannot be outdone in generosity. One day I gave a person with many problems the last money I had in my wallet. About an hour later, someone came to the door and handed me an envelope with $100 in it. The person said, “Here, Father, I thought you could use this.” God cannot be outdone in generosity!
The success Jesus calls us to is not easy; it is very challenging because it demands that we not keep ourselves at the center. The wisdom of God asks that we have enough trust that, if we put God at the center, if we put love and compassion at the center, if we put those who are desperately in need at the center—then we will “receive a hundred times more now in this present age…and eternal life in the age to come.”
But what it all comes down to is this: how do you define success?