The late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, tells a story of thieves who broke into a jewelry store and didn’t steal anything; they simply rearranged the price tags. The next morning, the expensive jewelry was sold as junk, a Rolex for a Timex. And the junk was sold as expensive jewelry. In the morning they watched with delight as people walked out with a Rolex for the price of a Timex. The point is clear: someone is constantly rearranging value. We rush to the cashier with the things that won’t stand the test of time—a sweater that will wear down after a season’s use. Meanwhile, the most beautiful life remains unsold, covered in dust on the back of the shelf.
Discipleship, or following Jesus, might be described as the enterprise of putting the price tags back in their rightful places. To follow is to have a particular set of desires that are worth pursuing at the expense of others; it’s to have a destination, a place of human flourishing, at the expense of other destinations. Can we learn to lay up treasures where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal?
The Gospel of John relays the time Jesus landed at this well in the heat of the day with a Samaritan woman, whom he had no business conversing with her. To paraphrase the conversation, Jesus tells her, “You’re looking for water in all the wrong places. No wonder you’re still thirsty.” We know that we’re thirsty. It’s hot and water is necessary to survive, but we’d rather have the soda with zero calories than the ice-cold water.
To be a human is to love, often incorrectly, or in the wrong order. The greatest commandment, to love God and love neighbor, sounds easy enough to many Christians. The task gets harder when we’re also asked to love money. Some days I also love being right. I love comfort at the expense of another’s oppression. I love manipulating people to get what I want. Many days I love those things more than God. Too often, my love of God is shaped by my love of power, instead of having my understanding of power become crucified by the love of God.
Saint Augustine calls this ‘disordered love.’ Here’s Augustine’s take on the matter:
But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
Who are the chiefs in the night that rearrange the price tags? One thing is clear: everyone is jostling for the power to define value. If you have control over a person’s desires, then you control the person. But we rarely take enough time to reflect on the stories that are forming our desires. We’re constantly being subjected to the formation of our desires—the narratives, the advertisements, the media, the politics that form our hearts, shape our imaginations, and assumptions about the ‘good life.’ These are the stories that have worked their way into our subconscious, replacing and shaping the stories that we know are most beautiful and valuable.
The difficulty is that the stories that shape our identity and desires aren’t usually obvious. They aren’t read from a book or proclaimed from a podium. They are subtly flashed across a screen before your feet meet the carpet in the morning—images inviting our hearts to envy as we compare ourselves to another’s highlight reel. It’s the smile or frown of your parents after you’ve made a life changing decision. The products that can be attained cheaply and immediately with the click of a button, divorcing products from people and places, all the while training us to desire consumption. Think of the enacted rituals or behaviors you must engage in order to ‘belong’ to a certain group.
The stories we are told are more powerful than we can imagine and they speak decisively into our lives—relentlessly—and we don’t even realize it. How often do we stop and challenge the story tellers that are constantly inundating us with desires? Is this really the good life?
James K.A. Smith advocates for the need of “cultural exegesis,” or paying attention to the ways that the story tellers are training our hearts to occupy space in the world in particular ways. The cultural exegesis is another way of asking about discipleship, or who we are following, and rival modes of worship. Implicit in every story is a worldview or understanding of the world telling you exactly what is most valuable. Here’s the pitch: pay attention to the stories shaping your heart—yes, the ones telling you what to desire. When you look in the mirror what story do you see?
Smith gives a practice audit to help us think about the ways we are being shaped:
Smith operates on the assumption that we are first and foremost lovers and our desires, which originate in the heart, always precede the intellect. The good news is that Jesus thinks he can transform this—and he aims for the heart. Well, it isn’t literally ‘the heart’—it’s the ‘lev.’ The Hebrew word, lev, is less about the organ, and more about a sense of identity. Your lev is the part of you that knows, but it’s also the part of you that discerns. The lev is the part of you that desires and wills, but it’s also the part of you that grieves and delights. In other words, it’s all of you. The heart is the center of your being. What comes out of you proceeds from the heart—all of your actions and intentions. Want to rearrange your desires? Pay attention to the heart. You are what your heart desires.
To be human is to love. Yet, it takes mindfulness and practice to reorder love. So think about your heart. And then, think about the story tellers. What will form you, mold you, to be a peculiar kind of person who hungers and thirsts for God and God’s kingdom come? Or will you drink from the well that continues to leave us parched and restless?
Jesus and his friends gather in Gethsemane to pray. He asked them to stay awake and pray with him. Ten minutes later, he finds them asleep. It’s not that his friends didn’t love him. Rather, in that moment, they loved sleep more. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter.
The price tag is always up for grabs.