The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslov published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation. In this paper he outlined what has become known as a “hierarchy of needs.” Maslov recognized that when our most basic needs are met, such as food, sex, shelter, and health, we are then able to fulfill our higher needs such as intimacy, ethics, creativity, and meaning.
This kind of thinking had already been a foundational assumption of much of Western society for a long time. People have always striven to move from brutishness to culture and civilization.
But we live in a strange time. Since the late 20th century, we’ve been experimenting with a different hierarchy of need, driven by consumerism. With consumerism, we still start with the basics: safety, health, work, and family.
But instead of then moving into the world of ideas, creativity, and the social good, we short-circuit the process. We remain stuck at the lowest level of human need, only seeking better versions of the same basic things: the best food and lots of it, more sophisticated security systems for our homes and our nation, better clothes and a snappy gym for our healthy workouts, and more sexy sex.
Perhaps this is what people mean by the “dumbing down” of modern consumer culture: being stuck at the lowest level of the hierarchy of human need.
What social psychology and consumerism have in common is the assumption that it’s all about fulfilling our needs and desires. It’s about serving ourselves. We may remain stuck at the level of finding the best coffee or we may rise to level of attending the Santa Fe Opera, but both are about the fulfillment of personal needs and desires.
This assumption has found its way into the field of spirituality as well. We go to a church that will meet our needs. We practice meditation to achieve a desired state of mind. We pursue classes and read books that will help us feel more fulfilled.
But religion, at its traditional core, concerns itself with something different. Traditional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not teach us how to fulfill our own desire and purpose. They teach us to fulfill God’s desire and purpose.
Once I was attending a conference at a synagogue when the rabbi was asked to distill the essence of Judaism. Faced with this daunting question, he paused for a moment, and then said “it is to seek God’s will and then to do it.”
The very word “Islam” means submission or surrender, and so the believer’s purpose is to submit to God’s will.
And Jesus taught us to pray “Thy will be done, thy kingdom come.” When asked about his family, he said “my brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God.”
All religions, and ours in particular, teach us that the highest point is to leave our need behind and serve God’s need. This is when we are most fulfilled.
Today’s gospel is a good example of this. Jesus begins with talk about using money to fulfill God’s will. He says that by being generous with our money, by not just thinking about what we want and need, we will discover something more valuable than that which money can buy: the kingdom of God. It is God’s good pleasure, Jesus says, to give us the kingdom.
Then he tells a parable that drives the point home. He speaks of servants who are waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet. Whether it is the middle of the night or just before dawn, they are to be dressed for action, lamps lit, so that when they see their master coming, they are ready to serve him.
But then the story takes an astonishing turn, which I’ve never really paid much attention to; and it’s the heart of the matter. Amazing how that works.
Here’s what happens in the parable: when the master walks in the door and sees that his servants are ready to serve him, he fastens his belt, has the servants sit down to eat, and he serves them. In the middle of the night. What’s going on here?
Jesus is teaching us a wonderful paradox. We run around trying to fulfill our needs, but when we leave ourselves behind and seek to fulfill God’s needs, we find that God serves us. Through self-denial we discover the elusive thing we’ve been chasing all along: self-fulfillment. Serving God, God serves us.
But what is it, really, to serve God? Let’s drop, for a minute, our romantic and guilt-ridden fantasies of how we should all be Mother Teresas of Calcutta, cheerfully washing the wounds of the little leper children, instead of living the way we do.
Instead, let’s consider more mundane experiences, things that we might actually deal with later today or tomorrow.
Serving God might mean that when we pray for those things that weigh on our hearts, we move through the hierarchy of need, like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemene, from “Father, let this cup pass from me” – in other words, here’s what I want and think you should do - to “nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
Serving God might mean that we ask ourselves at work each day how we might serve God’s purposes of love, kindness, and generosity of spirit.
Serving God might mean that when we are worried and anxious, we stop and breathe, considering the lilies of the field, choosing the better part, like Mary of Bethany, by setting our mind on the one thing that is needful.
Serving God might mean that we examine our monthly budget in a state of prayer, and ask God whether we’re spending our money in ways that God wants us to.
Serving God might mean that we take courage and walk towards the conflict we would prefer to avoid, calling someone we care about to accountability so that they, and we, might be happier, healthier.
The paradox of all this serving is that in doing it, God serves us. When we surrender our desire in prayer, God fills us with his desire for us, which is always good. When we cultivate a spirit of kindness in service to those around us at work, God gives us joy. When we let go of the things that cause us worry, God opens us to much more important things. When we give generously, God gives us a generous consciousness.
God is abundant with us. As Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” God comes to us at an unexpected hour, fastens his belt, has us sit down, and serves us.
But we are only able to receive God’s service to the extent that we are willing to serve God. Then there is an attunement, an alignment of our desire and God’s desire, out of which all abundance comes. And this, it turns out, is what will serve our highest need.