Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 8 August 2010
8 August 2010 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon of Westminster
When I read or rather re-read the readings for today last Monday or Tuesday in preparation for speaking this morning there was one phrase from the gospel passage that stood out for me and which I have been thinking about on and off ever since, Jesus’ words ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. And the question I have been pondering since reading it is ‘Where is my treasure?’ I do not mean by that where are my possessions? I obviously know the answer to that, such as they are. But rather by that question I mean ‘what do I most value? What do I most want? Where, in that sense, is my treasure and hence my heart?’
Now in the verses that precedes that verse in St Luke’s Gospel Jesus is suggesting that those who are serious about following him should sell all that they have and give to the poor, and he is suggesting that locating your treasure in your possessions is the problem, and your treasure should not actually be in your possessions, but rather in your generosity to the poor. That is, of course, a very challenging suggestion, but I suspect in the more complex society we live in today, one after all dramatically different from first century Palestine, it would be almost impossible to take that completely literally. It is, of course, good to be generous, but we all need some basic possessions simply to live. But still that question disturbed me: Where is my treasure?
Now in 1954 an American psychologist Abraham Maslow published his very influential book Motivation and Personality, in which he developed his theory of what he called a ‘hierarchy of needs’, in other words the needs that ideally each human being should have fulfilled. At the most basic level there was what he called Physiological needs, food, shelter, sleep, etc. Above those in the hierarchy, Maslow said, were safety needs, protection, security and a reasonably ordered life. I imagine in fact almost everyone in this Abbey church this morning has those two most basic levels of need reasonably fulfilled, although we should of course recognise that there are many in some of the poorer and more dangerous parts of the world that certainly do not have them met, so getting those things may well be where their treasure is located, and who can blame them?.
Above those basic levels Maslow then thought there was the need for love and belonging, the sort of qualities that are provided by families and friends, by relationships with colleagues at work or in shared activities like sport, or even within a church community. We all need somewhere where we can relax, just be and feel accepted and welcomed, and certainly I and I suspect many of you must locate at least part of our treasure in our friendships.
But it is when we get to the next, final two higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid that things begin to get complicated. The next level he described as esteem needs, the need to have some sort of reputation and status, acquired by having responsibility and achievements. Well yes, in my case it is quite nice having the responsibilities that go with my role here in the Abbey and I suppose even in these more secular days a Canon here has some sort of status; I am not complaining on that score. But while I value that very much is that what I most treasure? I am not sure, and in any case I shall not have it for ever.
And then, at the very top of the pile Maslow put the need for what he called self-actualisation, the personal growth and fulfilment that comes from feeling yourself able to be completely yourself, fully realising your potential. Some in this Abbey this morning may well feel they have been fortunate enough to have got even that need met, but there will probably also be many who may well feel that they still have some way to go before achieving that. But even if I do have some measure of that, is that what I most treasure? Again I am not sure.
Now Maslow’s theory has been quite influential, not least of all in those responsible for running organisations. The good manager is the one who enables those who work for him or her to have those needs met, so in good organisations jobs have often been arranged in such a way that human happiness according to those needs can be provided; a person who is contented in their job probably does the job better than if they are not. In the context of running an organisation I can see his structure is very helpful.
But there have also been some significant criticisms of Maslow’s theory.
First of all, are our needs quite so hierarchical, or to use the image used by Jesus, is our highest treasure always located in the same place? Is it not the case that we are often quite muddled in what we treasure, with maybe a bit of all the levels operating at any one time, sometimes we urgently need to feel that we belong somewhere, at other times equally firmly we feel the need to be fulfilled, and it is not so much a hierarchy of needs as a whole bundle of needs being felt in different ways in different circumstances. Our treasure can feel diffused.
But even more fundamentally there is a criticism of the theory that says by putting at the highest level truly being fulfilled by being yourself Maslow was simply expressing the individualism of his native America. And we know how one person’s complete self-fulfilment may well lead to another person’s lack of it, and sometimes even of their self-esteem. Go-getting individuals fulfilling themselves right, left and centre can sometimes be quite difficult and intimidating neighbours or colleagues or friends.
So, where do I put my highest treasure? Where do you think you put yours? Well in my case if I think in Maslow’s terms it is somewhere in a matrix that certainly involves friendship, certainly involves a measure of job satisfaction, and certainly means at the very least that I can be true to myself and not just true to what someone else expects me to be, although I hope being generous is part of being true to myself.
But then is my treasure just about what I can be, or what I can create for myself? Is it is not also about what I am able to receive. I treasure a gift that comes from beyond me, and maybe, if I am feeling particularly generous, it is not just a gift for me but one I share with others in a healthy and receptive community. I do not think it is just a pious platitude to say that perhaps the greatest gift, and hence the greatest treasure, is to be able to receive the goodness of God. To experience God as that which gives us the good, that is also a source of treasure.
In fact, come to think of it, maybe sharing this Eucharist with others symbolises the greatest treasure there is. And where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.