Once upon a time, there was a man who set out to be happy.
First, he had to figure out what it meant to be happy. His parents told him the best way to be happy was to get ahead. “Get an education,” they said. So he went to one of the finest colleges in the land, got a graduate degree, and became an expert in an area of knowledge. People wrote him from all over the world to find out what he thought. He was famous – but it didn’t really make him happy.
He was talking this over with a colleague one night. His friend said, “You need to get off this academic treadmill and go make some real money.” So he left the university and went off to parlay his academic expertise into something lucrative. He formed a company, got some customers, hired some people, and soon had the cash rolling in. Before long he was buying another house, upgrading his transportation, having clothes custom made. He enjoyed the money, but it took a lot of his time. Business meetings, getting with his accountant, doing lunch with his broker – all took hours out of his schedule. The money and the means to make it crowded out the rest of life. He wasn’t really happy.
Someone told him he needed a family. He never swam in dating pool before, but being rich increased his physical attractiveness. He had plenty of opportunities. It wasn’t long before he met someone and things clicked. She was beautiful, smart, and seemed to really love him, not just for his money (she said). It wasn’t long before a couple of little ones were running around. The kids did bring him some smiles, but still, he wasn’t really happy.
He was a moral man. He didn’t cheat on his wife; he was straight forward in his business; he didn’t cheat on his taxes. People thought of him as a man of character. He had heard “Virtue is its own reward, but still, he wasn’t really happy.
One day he heard about a teacher – someone who had it all together. The restlessness stirred his heart one more time and off he went in search of the answer to emptiness. He thought about how he would phrase his question and decided he didn’t want to be too vulnerable. Since this particular teacher was religious, he’d frame his question in religious terms: How could he find eternal life?
When the man arrived at the teaching venue, it was already packed – a positive sign. Using his charm, and occasionally offering money to someone, he worked his way to the front of the crowd.
The teacher noticed his arrival and gave him a head nod. Maybe, the man thought, he recognizes me from the university, or maybe from my company.
The teacher paused for Q and A. Before anyone else could start a sentence, the man launched into his question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The teacher looked surprised. “Why are you calling me good?,” said the teacher. “Only God is good. You know the right things to do – its obvious.”
The man smiled and said, “Yes, I’ve been doing the right thing as long as I can remember.” He wasn’t smug when he said it, but wistful.
The teacher recognized what was behind the wistfulness, and he knew that something was off balance. And he knew what it was. The teacher did not say, “Your emptiness is because you have done the right things, but you don’t have the right heart.” Instead, the teacher went right to what needed to change: “Go, sell what you have, give it to the poor. Then come and follow me.”
In the man’s soul, there was a flicker of hope in the dark emptiness. In that moment he knew this was the way to filling full. It would take this radical step to drive the emptiness out of his heart. For three beats of his heart, he could see a different life. He could see life not based on more, but filled with peace.
Then the hope was snuffed out by other voices: “What will your parents think? How will you liquidate your company? The market is down right now; you’ll never get what’s it’s worth. What about your wife? Would she be willing to stay married to you if you’re poor and off on some religious calling? What about the kids? Don’t they deserve the best your money can buy?”
Hope was driven out by fear.
The man looked at the teacher, shook his head three times, and walked away, head down, heart still empty.
Over the years, he kept hearing about the teacher. People said he didn’t just teach, but he also did miracles. The man heard the teacher was killed by the Romans one Passover, crucified. Some of his followers came through town and said he had been raised from the dead, and the teacher was really the Messiah, the chosen one of God.
Most days, however, he seldom thought about the teacher. It was easier to push down the thoughts of “What if…” Decades later, he was on his deathbed, in his beautiful house. His wife was there, still beautiful in old age. His sons and their wives, his grandchildren, were all gathered. He had everything a man could want. He had achieved everything a man could achieve.
Still the emptiness remained. The peace that could fill the emptiness never came. He died. After a few decades, no one remembered his name. People just remembered that he loved his money, his success, more than he wanted to follow Jesus.