We aren’t interested in anything we cannot exploit. It could be that all of our problems stem from this one. The profit motive is the only sin. Sin is being wrong about what’s important. Sin is wanting what we want and not what we ought to want. Sin is wanting what we have no business having.
The interesting thing about this is that it goes to the heart of who we are. Every living organism seeks its own advantage—making exploitation the Original Sin! You might think of this as the organizing principle of life. We’re always looking for the advantage—as if any of us knows what that might be! Once you get past the basics of life over death, and food, clothing, and shelter, we are pretty much at a loss. We don’t know what is in our best interest, or where we are better off. Yet, we keep working the angles, trying to turn everything to our good, as though we are here for our good, and know what that is!
Here’s the paradox: We cannot ask, “What’s in it for me?” Or, “What am I getting out of all of this?” Or, “When it is going to be my turn?” We cannot live with an eye out for the benefits and advantages. And yet, we have to live toward the light, toward the joy, toward the gladness, and the delight, and the raw pleasure of being alive. We have to live toward life, toward what is life for us, toward the deep goodness of living. We are here to enjoy ourselves, and the wonder and majesty of life. We are not born for boredom, for drudgery, for enslavement to duty, obligation and responsibility—for a life that has no connection with being alive.
We are here to be fully, completely, joyfully alive—without making ourselves the center and focus of our lives, without living toward what’s in it for us. This is the tension within which we live. We have to be aware of the tension, and maintain it. Relaxing the tension, denying it, disappearing it—refusing to bear the cross that is ours to bear—is at the heart of all that is wrong with the world. We live, it seems, so as to pay no attention to how we are living.
All of the old stories about the root cause of evil identify the problem as our drift toward what’s in it for us. These stories generally take one of two forms. There is the theme of The One Forbidden Thing, which is reflected in the stories of Pandora’s Box and the Garden of Eden. And, there is the theme of The Promise Broken, which is reflected in the stories of The Frog King and King Minos (who substitutes a bull from his own herd for the divine bull from the sea, the sacrifice of which would have signified his submission to the god of his culture and opened the way for everlasting good).
The problem from the start is that we will not surrender what we consider to be to our ultimate advantage. We are the monkey with its fist around the marble in the hollowed out coconut. We will not die to what we perceive to be our own best interest. The foundational thesis of all these old stories is that things are just fine as they are until someone gets the idea of how it could be better for them, personally, then everything is sacrificed in the service of their, obsession with their, own good. Yet, it is not about our personal, private good!
And, this gets us to the heart of the matter, because the major thrust of the Holy Scriptures, which was taken up by the Enlightenment and the Reformation, and offered as the Christian foundation of life as we know it, is about our own personal salvation. The basis of Christianity is that it is to our personal advantage to throw in with God.
Abraham is promised a land and progeny. Moses is promised a land flowing with milk and honey. The first five books of the Bible are grounded upon the Doctrine of The Two Ways (the right way and the wrong way, the good way and the evil way) to live our lives. To choose the right way, the good way, the righteous way, is to be rewarded with abundant crops and lots of children, and to choose the wrong way, the evil way, is to be embraced by misery and suffering, and come to a very bad end.
The Doctrine of the Two Ways sets the stage for the unfolding of Biblical theology. The rest of the Bible is spent affirming, or denying this basic premise. There are two covenants with David, for instance. One is conditional upon David living righteously before God (choosing the right path), or else. The other is unconditional, a gift and not an investment, wherein God blesses David for nothing, as an act of pure grace. Which way is it, do you think? We are all left hanging between the dialectic.
The Book of Job is written in opposition to the Doctrine of the Two Ways. Jonah is miffed because evil does not befall those who do evil. The prophets take up the cause of the poor and marginalized, and do not see their plight as the result of sin. Baruch is told not to be concerned for his own good. The Suffering Servant is offered as a model for the people to emulate. And the Christ is born in obscurity, and dies in humiliation.
In the service of what do we live? That is the question the Bible wrestles with from start to finish. And, the matter of our personal advantage is at the center of the debate. What truly constitutes our personal advantage.? Where are we better off? How do we live in order to truly maximize profits and minimize losses? Can we integrate our desire to have it made with our ability to live out of, in alignment with, that which is deepest, truest, and best about us? Can we understand having it made in terms of living to exhibit, express, and enjoy our particular gift, our peculiar genius, upon the earth, and live in the service of our destiny, no matter what? Can we understand the purpose of our lives as being that of sharing the blessing that we bring into the world with all the world? That we “come not to be served, but to serve,” to give the gift that is ours to give to the world as a pure act of grace, whether that works out to our personal advantage or not?
We cannot work the blessing for our own benefit. We cannot take who we are, and turn it into a boon for ourselves. The boon belongs to the world—to everyone. We all are here to serve the good of all. When we betray the whole, and begin to skim a little off the top for ourselves, to hold a little back for ourselves, to take care of ourselves first and let everyone else have the crumbs, we have lost the way, and are lost. When we try to milk our talent, our gift—which is given to us for the benefit of all—for our own ends, we have lost the way, and are lost. We are not here for our own benefit, to serve for our own good.
We can’t squeeze money out of the talent that is our gift to the world, out of the gift that is ours to give away. The talent, the gift, the genius, the art, is its own reward. We serve the talent, the gift, the genius, the art. We are here to work for it, not to make it work for us. As if we know what we need—as if meeting our needs is what we are about! We are here to learn what we are about.
As we serve the talent, the gift, the genius, we become ourselves, and discover who we are, what we are about. These aren’t things we think up and apply. These are things we uncover through the process of being alive, maintaining the tension, bearing our cross—doing what is ours to do without exploiting the gift for our own advantage and benefit. We live our way into the realization of who we are, and what we are to be about. We are here to learn to be who we are, to find out what we are capable of. We make our way slowly, over time, to the realization of who we have always been, and who we will be. The way is illumined by following our talent, our genius, our art, and allowing it to lead us to the emerging self we are becoming—within the context and circumstances of our lives.
The Philippian Hymn, which was probably a part of baptism ceremonies in the early church, speaks to the Christ-ness of Jesus, and underscores what we are to be about: “Have this mind among you that you find in Christ Jesus, who did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, and being found in human form, he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” That’s it. When we get that, we have it. There is nothing beyond that to seek or strive for.
Obedience is to the talent, the gift, the genius, the art at the heart of each of us. At the level of the talent, the gift, the genius, the art, we have equality with God. There “the Father and I are one.” The test is whether we can live in the service of the talent, the gift, the genius, the art, without exploiting it. The other test is whether we can believe we have talent, gift, genius and art.
The opposite sin from exploitation is denigration. We can refuse the gifts that are ours. We can reject the path with our name on it. We can fail to believe that the angel is addressing us. “I am only a child,” we can say; “I’m not good with words,” we can say; “Take Aaron,” we can say; “I am a person of unclean lips,” we can say; “Not me,” we can say. “Surely, you can’t mean me. Don’t you know nothing good comes from Nazareth?”
If we are going to believe in anything, we need to believe in ourselves, in the talent, gift, genius and art that each of us possess. We, each of us individually and all of us collectively, have the power to save the world. We, each of us individually and all of us collectively, are a gift to the world. Our talent, our genius, is exactly what the world needs. When we bury the talent, when we withhold the genius, we die a little at a time, and the world dies along with us.