Message for Sunday October 14th, 2018 Based on Mark 10: 17-31
The story of the rich man is probably one of the more familiar stories from the 3 synoptic gospels. Matthew adds that he is young, and in Luke, he’s a ruler. I’m sure you know it, but let’s do a quick review of the main points anyway:
* have a rich man, and he’s a righteous man-he follows all God’s laws.
*He asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life.
*Jesus tells him to give all his possessions to the poor, and then follow him,
*This is shocking and perplexing: to the rich man and the disciples too! *Then Jesus gives another astounding statement: almost like a piece of country folklore wisdom, easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s Kingdom.
The confounded disciples ask: Well if the rich can’t get there, who can be saved then? And Jesus reassures the disciples that for God all things are possible. Peter, somewhat perturbed reminds Jesus that they have given up everything to follow him! And Jesus reassures them that in so doing they will receive eternal life, which sounds good. The message it seems is to give it up for Jesus—literally! But, then he tells them that many who are first will be last and the last will be first.
At face value, this whole thing makes no sense. In biblical times, to be rich was an indication that God had blessed you. When you were well off, it was and I daresay, still is considered a good thing; you are blessed if you have many possessions. And we still say that don’t we—especially this time of year, we talk of our many blessings. So it would seem those without, are, what? Less blessed? Un-blessed? And if bad times befell you, well, you must have done something wrong to deserve it! We read a snippet from Job in our first reading this morning, and Job’s story illustrates this thinking, doesn’t it?
“In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. 2 He had seven sons and three daughters, 3 and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.” [Job 1: 1-3 NIV]
And if you read further in Job, you’d read that God is so convinced of Job’s strength of faith and goodness, that God allows Satan to challenge Job’s faith by taking everything from him. And please note, this story of Job is kind of like a fable, full of deep meanings, a good book to study, but not to take the story as though it literally happened.
So, back to poor Job. When all is said and done, all the horrors Job goes through, losing his family, his possessions, his health, all the accusations of his friends telling him that he must have deserved these calamities, he must have done something to have this fate befall him, to have lost God’s blessing. But through all of this horror, Job’s faith never wavers. And the Lord restores the fortunes of Job:
10 After Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. 12 The LORD blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys.13 And he also had seven sons and three daughters. Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.16 After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation. 17 And so Job died, an old man and full of years. [Job 42. Selected verses NIV]
The point I am making is that for Jewish thinking, in biblical times, to be blessed by God meant you had many riches, and conversely to be without possessions, to have poor health meant God was punishing you, you had lost God’s blessing.
Lets return to our gospel story. Our rich man is also a righteous man. He has kept all the commandments of the covenant of Moses: do not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or defraud and honour your parents.And Jesus looks him square in the eye and as Mark says, Jesus loved him, meaning Jesus recognized the man’s righteousness. This man is a good man, blessed by God it seems.
So when Jesus tells him there was only one thing he lacked – to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, and then follow him. For all the things this rich man had, and it seems he had everything and more, yet he was still lacking something – the understanding of what all those riches were for, how to handle, to deal with all that he had accumulated.
Well, our rich young man is shocked and dismayed. Why would Jesus tell him to get rid of all the blessings God had given him! After all he deserved them, didn’t he? He was living a righteous and faithful life.
What Jesus is saying goes against the grain, goes against everything they were taught—and if you think about it, we still think that way, that if you live right and work hard, you should get ahead and we deserve all we worked for! Which means that those who are not so well off, are not so deserving—are less blessed.
What Jesus said goes against what society tells us is the way to live, it’s counter-cultural. It was so in biblical times and still is for our time! It’s like Jesus was saying what we’ve earned, all that we have, really isn’t ours, even if we’ve worked for it! It means a new way of looking at wealth, at possessions, not as something that belongs to us, not necessarily what we are deserving of, but that it is ours only to give it away. That those who are in need, the poor or the messed up ones, aren’t less blessed by God, and they are not less deserving. This is not a mindset that is a popular one, not in biblical times and not now. It’s how we’re used to thinking, or trained to think. Besides that, every good business person knows you don’t give away something for nothing. There’s always an angle, always a benefit, even a future favour that should come from handing something over. Even if it’s just a tax credit, or a charitable donation receipt! It’s just not good business to do otherwise, you don’t get anywhere by giving stuff away for nothing! Besides, if you give money or stuff to “those kind of people”, they just waste it or spend it on booze or drugs anyway—everyone knows that!
And the rich young man leaves grieving, for he had many possessions. He ‘grieved’ — an interesting word to use! We grieve when we lose something that is very important to you, that we deeply care about. To give everything away, to lose all one’s riches means not just giving up all your stuff, but it will drastically change your lifestyle, and all the status that goes with a well-to-do lifestyle.
It’s also a change of mindset, changing how you look and think about people. No one is less blessed, less deserving. Even the down and outs, the welfare bums, the drug addicts, street people—God loves all God’s people, regardless of wealth, or lack of it. And calls us to do the same! What Jesus is saying is hard to understand, it turns the whole way of how people live and relate to each other upside down. The first will be last, and the last will be first, Jesus tells them. So, who really are the deserving ones? That’s why Jesus said that it’s almost impossible for wealthy people to enter God’s Kingdom—and gives them an absolutely crazy example—as hard as it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Well, if it’s so impossible, who can be saved, they ask, who can possibly enter God’s Kingdom, if even those who seem to be blessed by God will not have eternal life? Good questions!! And in classic style, Jesus uses such extremes to make his points. Giving everything you have to the poor, riches for the supposedly unblessed ones, camels going through needles, the first are last, the last are first! No wonder his listeners were shocked, this is not easy stuff to hear, is it even possible?And then Jesus tops it off by telling them the impossible is possible, because with God all things are possible. Huh?
I think Jesus was telling his listeners, Look at your lives, what’s driving you? What’s controlling the way you live, how you think, how you behave and act towards others? Is it the desire to live ‘the good life’, the sense of power and satisfaction in ourselves that we feel when we can buy lots of stuff, and all the affluence and status that money brings? Is it the desire for wealth that drives your agenda? Or the desire to follow Jesus? Because if it’s money, then you might as well be that camel. But if it’s God, if you truly want to follow the way of Jesus, then the impossible really becomes possible. Money, wealth, really isn’t the be all and end all. The first will be last and the last first. Because the money, the stuff, the possession really doesn’t matter to God, but caring for those who are in need, does matter. It’s a message that 2000 years later we still need to hear.
And as I was writing this homily, it occurred to me that it’s a message we also need to seriously consider as a Church. What dominates our thinking as a Church? Where do most of our efforts and resources go to? How does our budgeting and the time we spend at and for church events reflect how we, as a Church care for those in need?
Jesus’ counter cultural message is unchanged. God’s blessing don’t come with riches attached. That wealth is for giving away. That those with lots of stuff are not more deserving than those without. We are all loved and deserving of God’s love and blessings, even the ones we have trouble liking, the difficult, the marginalized the addicted, the mentally unwell.
The first will be last, the last will be first.
How can this even be possible? Well, for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for in God, with God, all things are possible.
Rev. JoAnn Todd, Rector The Regional Ministry of Hope