What is the meaning of life?
What does it all mean? This continual torrent of experiences, good, bad and indifferent? This world with so much beauty and terror? This sense that there is something more, something which will take everything and somehow harmonise it into something moving, powerful, and life-giving?
Sometimes we can hide from the question. Sometimes it presents itself in all its starkn
For me, at least, the removal of much of my normal day-to-day life by COVID-19 in general, and lockdown in particular, has made me focus on it more than usual. If I’m not delivering in-person worship experiences and hanging around in cafes writing my sermon – then what, exactly, is my life about?
And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Having our ordinary rhythm of life disrupted like this – our round of outings and work and time with friends and family and holidays, or whatever gave a sense of fullness to life, is stripped back. Normal life is on hold, leaving a sort of waiting space behind it.
Of course, for a lot of people, there are concrete problems. How am I going to make a living? Will I get sick? What will become of me, and those I love? We are plunged into a dark, stormy sea, and some people are struggling to stay afloat. And some people soon will be. That raises big questions about life, though the daily struggle to just get through the day can obscure them.
Into this situation, Jesus comes. He has some pretty surprising things to say. And, once you understand, he will totally transform your life.
For nerdy teenagers of my generation, the meaning of life was well known. We got our answer from our favourite source of meaning, the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.
The story goes that a race of pan-dimensional super-geniuses built themselves a great computer, named Deep Thought. When it was finished, two representatives ceremonially asked the big question: what is the meaning of life? Deep Thought confirmed that it could discover the answer, but it would need some time to think about it.
Seven and a half million years later, when the computer had finished thinking, the distant descendants of those two representatives returned to Deep Thought, who confirmed that yes, it had discovered the answer. Which was….
Needless to say, the representatives weren’t delighted. However, somewhat surprisingly, they were mollified by the computer’s explanation that they didn’t actually know what the question was, and that another, even more amazing, computer would be required to calculate that problem.
More seriously, when we think about the meaning of life, what might give life a sense of purpose, even transcendence, we tend to think of lives of great moral heroism, or artistic genius. Mozart, for instance, who seemed to be able to hear heaven directly. Or Mother Teresa, who transformed the lives of so many people, and at such personal cost. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, brilliant musician and theologian, and hero executed for getting very close to killing Adolf Hitler. Or Nelson Mandela, bringing so much more healing to South Africa than anyone thought possible. I’m sure you can think of a dozen other people whose great love, moral integrity, genius, or leadership demonstrate an ideal of a life worth living.
However, Jesus, no stranger to a life of creativity, great love, integrity, and leadership, has some very surprising, even unwelcome, news. The one who, in a sense, is the meaning of life wants to let you in on the secret. And, as Deep Thought said to the philosophers in the Hitchhikers’ Guide: You may not like it.
Like the inventors of Deep Thought, the problem is that we aren’t really sure what the question is exactly. When you think about it, what would it mean for life to have a “meaning”? The way we frame the question makes us expect that we could say a sentence, or even write it in a book, which would… what? Make everything OK? Make us feel OK about everything? Provide that transformation which would finally give us a sense of peace and completion?
It seems unlikely that a bunch of words, no matter how persuasively argued and fluently put could do that all by itself.
But if we aren’t looking for the perfect set of words, then what are we looking for? What is that transformation and fullness which we long for, which sometimes seems so close we could reach out and touch it, and other times vanishes like a Melbourne morning fog.
The thing about this meaning, this fullness, this… whatever it is, is that it is very hard to talk about directly. Jesus calls it The Kingdom. The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven – same thing. And, because experiencing The Kingdom is not at all the same as hearing a bunch of words spoken about it, Jesus tries to show us what it’s like. Primarily he does this by his whole life – how he lives, what he says, who he hangs out with, how he dies, and how he is raised again.
He teaches in parables. Little, striking stories. Instead of explaining The Kingdom in philosophical, political, or psychological terms, they give us the experience. The Kingdom is tiny seed which, completely contrary to nature, explodes into a huge tree! The Kingdom is a tiny bit of yeast which enables a woman to miraculously make enough bread for a hundred people! The Kingdom is like a pearl which a merchant sells all he has in order to possess it – like a millionaire who trades his mansion for a Maserati. It seems unbalanced, but there it is: totally worth it, says the, now homeless, millionaire.
The Kingdom is super-sized, astonishing, and gives the middle finger to prudence.
And it is surprisingly uninterested in how worthy or unworthy you are.
The guy who found a treasure in a field and then bought the field – well, the ethics of the situation are a little troubling. Surely the treasure belongs to the person who owns the field? That’s a bit shocking, surely. Buying the field is a wholehearted response, that’s for sure. But it’s not exactly high minded is it? He is a bit of a dodgy geezer, a mild crook.
That’s so different from a life of ethical striving isn’t it? He didn’t create or bury the treasure – it was just there, and he stumbled upon it. He isn’t a particularly ethically impressive person – no Mother Teresa. He is just someone who knows a good thing when he sees it, and throws himself into it.
And that, apparently, is the Good News. That, Jesus tells us, is the meaning of life. It isn’t earned by good behaviour. You don’t need to persuade God to love you by your moral heroism – in fact, too great a concern with how holy you are can blind you to it, or make you unable to seize it. What if the guy had gone off to the owner of the field like he should have done? He would have missed out!
It’s actually pretty shocking. If the meaning of life is a whole way of living, rather than a form of words, then surely it would be the reward of a life well lived?
What I would prefer, really, is that I become so morally impressive, so very learned, and generally admirable that God himself would say to me, in effect, congratulations! I am delighted to award you this degree in the Meaning of Life: Now see that you don’t let me down. Perhaps it might happen in some impressive ceremony, with saints, scholars, and my honoured ancestors looking down and murmuring approvingly.
But, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Someone completely undeserving. Not a distinguished scholar, but a spiv, down on his luck, stuck working in the field in the heat of the day. Not a moral paragon like Nelson Mandela, who would spurn dishonest wealth, but a chancer who knows a good thing when he sees it.
Someone, frankly, like me. How I really am – not my fantasy self, but with all my inadequacy, all my Human Propensity to Stuff Things Up.
And all that is required is to embrace it, all questions of deserving and undeserving are utterly beside the point, compared to the transcendent, fundamental, all-embracing fact of God’s love for you: personally and specifically. We don’t deserve it. We don’t have anything to offer – except our whole lives.
Martin Luther’s last words cut to the heart of this surprising attitude: we are beggars. This is true.
So that, it seems to me, is what Jesus thinks the meaning of life is. It isn’t quite as exalted as I might have expected. It is humble. It seems surprisingly uninterested in lecturing people about their good behaviour. It is scandalous to the good people who like to think of themselves as disinterested seekers after truth.
But it is light and water to those of us who know that we are lost in a desert with night closing in. Those of us whose lives have been turned upside down by COVID19, or by more personal circumstances. God loves us, and wants us to respond – to be caught up into God’s own life. Do we pick up the treasure and make a run for it? Or do we turn up our noses, looking for something more impressive and fitting to our self-image as modern, self-sufficient, self-realising people?
A sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 for the 8th week after Pentecost Year C, preached 22/7/20 at Preston High Street Uniting Church
 A slightly bowdlerised version of Francis Spufford’s HPTFTU from Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense