Bit late but here is my sermon from yesterday on the grounds of “better late than never”!
When I think about the man in today’s gospel reading I imagine a rather earnest, conscientious person who worries about doing what’s right.
He’s a good Jew who not only knows what he’s supposed to do but strives hard to actually live out his faith.
And as a good 1st century Jew he would’ve been firmly of the opinion that being rich was a sign of God’s blessing.
His friends and neighbours would’ve agreed with him, as well, for everyone knew that if you were a righteous person God would bless you with money and possessions.
This of course also meant that if you were poor you were not so blessed by God and were probably not so righteous.
This is not very far from those who preach the so-called prosperity gospel today, claiming that if only you do what God commands you’ll be blessed with incredible wealth.
But, going back to the rich man in our reading, for all his wealth and his confidence that he keeps God’s law, he seems to feel that there’s something lacking, something that Jesus can supply, so he comes to ask, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’.
And Jesus looks at him and loves him.
This is the only time in Mark’s gospel when Jesus is said to have loved someone.
Jesus showed his love for many people but in this direct statement Mark is, I think, drawing our attention to the fact that everything Jesus says to the rich man next is out of loving concern for him.
And what Jesus says next is hard and challenging.
He tells the man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.
There’s no well, how about if you spend less on luxuries, give some money away, increase your offerings to the Temple.
It’s an uncompromising command that seems to cut to the heart of the rich man because he goes away in a state of shock and grief, and we don’t know if he eventually does what Jesus says or not.
Then, Jesus also confuses and shocks his disciples by telling them that it’s as impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
They, don’t forget, also believe that righteousness and wealth go together, hence their shocked exclamation ‘Then who can be saved?’.
This may also be uncomfortable for us, as the link between being a good person and being wealthy hasn’t disappeared from our society.
Just think about how people on benefits are sometimes portrayed as lazy scroungers who waste their money on cigarettes and big TVs.
We also might be aware that, despite all the years of austerity and recession that we’ve had in this country, most of us are in fact incredibly rich compared to much of the world.
The temptation here throughout the centuries has been to try to soften Jesus’s words.
So, for example, in the 9th century someone came up with the idea that the eye of the needle was in fact a gate in Jerusalem that camels could only get through if they were unloaded first.
But sadly there never was such a gate.
Jesus is clear: just as large animals can’t get through tiny gaps, the rich don’t fit in the kingdom of God.
But why is this?
Is it because wealth leads to the temptation to believe that we’re self-sufficient, with no need to depend on anyone else, and by extension no need of God?
Wealth can lead to arrogance and a feeling of entitlement, and the temptation to think that anyone less wealthy just isn’t trying hard enough, replacing love for our neighbour with a feeling of superiority.
And wealth can cause us to cut ourselves off from other people, becoming cynical about their motives and thinking we don’t need anyone else, and making us hard and closed to human relationships.
This reminds me of a recent storyline in the soap Neighbours, where a long-lost sister of the doctor turned up who was very rich and was constantly pushing people away, including her children.
This was because she’d become so caught up in her wealth and suspicious of other people’s motives that she thought everyone was only after her money – even her 4-year-old grandchild.
Or do the rich not fit in God’s kingdom because they hold on to what they have at the expense of others?
Is it that a focus on always having more and better ignores the need to feed and clothe those in need, to ensure justice for the powerless, to protect the weak and vulnerable, to strive to make sure that everyone has enough to live on?
I suspect that it’s a combination of these things: the way wealth cuts us off from those around us, and the way it makes us focused on ourselves at the expense of others.
Yet, don’t forget, Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him.
Yes, the man was called to a costly discipleship in which he was to give up what he held most dear.
And he had his ideas about righteousness and blessing turned upside down – but it wasn’t some cruel whim.
Rather, Jesus was aiming to reset his priorities and get him into the kingdom.
And if the rich man had stayed long enough he might’ve been encouraged by Jesus saying that even though in human terms a rich person can’t get into God’s kingdom, for God all things are possible.
For Jesus isn’t in the business of making us feel bad about ourselves and just leaving us to it.
In fact, in the Bible making people feel guilty and doing nothing to help is the devil’s job.
Jesus is instead in the business of rescuing people who can’t save themselves.
We often think of this in terms of obvious sins, and bringing justice and help for the poor and vulnerable, because these are strong themes in the Bible.
But Jesus also loves the rich person who’s trapped by wealth in ways they might not even realise, and he comes to save them, and us, as well.
For Jesus looks at all of us and loves all of us enough to challenge us to our core.
Thanks be to God.
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