Amos 5.6-7, 10-15, Hebrews 4.12-16, Mark 10.17-31
I was on a preachers’ discussion forum earlier this week, and noticed that a fellow preacher had asked for a quick yes/no vote on what we were planning to say about this week’s Gospel reading. He’d set up an online poll. The question was quite simple. “Are you going to tell people that they should give up everything and live in radical poverty, as Jesus told the rich man – sell what you have, give everything up? Yes, or no? Last time I looked the poll was running at about 50/50. I’m not telling you what I voted. You’ll have to work it out from what I say!
This is a very tricky passage, one that can make us feel very uncomfortable. Some Christians have heard a simple, literal message here. St Anthony heard this story in the fourth century, and gave up all he had and headed out into the Egyptian desert to live as a hermit. St Francis heard it and abandoned all his wealth, even taking off the clothes his rich father had given him and handing them back to him in the public square at Assisi, so that he ended up standing there stark naked. Jesus’ words to this rich man went straight to Anthony and Francis hearts, and they took them absolutely literally, just as I am sure Jesus intended this rich man to do. But does that mean we should all be doing the same?
The reason my online colleague asked the question was that he knew there is a real temptation for preachers – for all of us – to try to explain away Jesus’ challenge. Perhaps it only applies to the rich, we say – by which we mean “someone richer than I am”. Or perhaps Jesus doesn’t mean us to give away everything, like St Francis? (Actually I do hope you don’t suddenly feel moved to take all your clothes off, if you don’t mind! ) But how rich is too rich, and how poor is poor enough? Perhaps it only applies to those called to be saints or those with a troubled relationship to possessions? We can breathe a sigh of relief if that’s not us. One of the most desperate attempts to remove the sting from this passage is the oft-repeated story that there was a gate in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus called the “eye of the needle” which was so small that camels had to be unloaded in order to pass. Camels could go through eyes of needles, but only if you unloaded them first. Unfortunately there was no such gate. The story was pure wishful thinking. Jesus was simply using an image well-known across the Middle East to describe something that was completely impossible. In India it was an elephant and the eye of needle.
The truth is that we all want to wriggle off the hook of this passage. Most of us know that we have too much stuff, and feel faintly guilty about it. So we try to tame Jesus’ words convincing ourselves that they don’t really mean what they sound as if they mean, or that he didn’t really mean us.
I wonder, though, whether we are actually starting in the wrong place completely with this story. We are so caught up with the second part of what Jesus says to this man, that we miss the first part. Jesus doesn’t just say “go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor…”. He says, “You lack one thing; go sell what you own….” “ You lack one thing.” I don’t think this is a story, primarily, about what we have. I think it’s a story about what we lack, and how we feel about that lack. Get that right and some of our questions about what we have might solve themselves.
What does this man lack, the man who already has so much - wealth, fine clothes, the latest chariot, and a lot of virtues, it seems too, if we take him at his word about all those commandments he’s kept? What does he lack? In his own words, it is “eternal life”. That’s what brings him running to Jesus, throwing himself at his feet – he doesn’t saunter or even walk purposefully. He runs. It’s his longing for eternal life which makes him run. What is he looking for? It sounds as if he wants to know that he is right with God, accepted, secure, but he sees that assurance as something he can “inherit” and that's very interesting. An inheritance is something which is paid out to us after someone dies, something coming to us in the future. It’s a sum of money, or a house, or a collection of original Beatles records. It’s something we can put in a bank or on a mantelpiece. This man, who has so many possessions, assumes that eternal life is just one more, the possession that will complete his collection. It’s the ultimate gift for the person who has everything, something which he can put in a display case, store in a safe deposit box, reassured that it’s there for the ultimate rainy day of his death. It’s a common misunderstanding. Many Christians still see eternal life as just a ticket to heaven, the assurance that when the time comes, St Peter will wave them in through the pearly gates.
But Jesus doesn’t talk about it like that. When, later in the passage he says that “in the age to come” his followers will have eternal life, he isn’t talking about life after death, he’s talking about the Kingdom of God, the time that he is ushering in there and then, a new way of living, a new awareness of the presence of God in this world as well as the next. Eternal life isn’t something you “possess”, like a Rolex watch or a Ferrari. It is something you live. Perhaps it would be better if we called it “eternal living”. It’s a quality of life, a way of life, in which everything is tinged with the divine, in which we find God at every point. Those who live “eternally” assume that they are walking on holy ground all the time – when they go to the shops, meet with a friend, respond to someone in need. they are people who have learned to expect that God will show up in every area of their lives, and learned to welcome him there.
The rich man who comes to Jesus has found that all the wealth in the world and all the virtues he can cultivate don’t bring him the sense of inner peace he craves. But as long as he sees it just as a bolt on to the almost perfect life he has, like the final, rare stamp that will complete his stamp collection, he will never find it . Jesus knows that his whole life needs to change, his whole perception of himself. He will have to learn to acknowledge his lack, to see himself as needy, poor, helpless, powerless, in order to be open to the riches of God, and the only way that can happen is if he gives up the comfort blanket of his possessions, all of them, and comes and follows Jesus, in whom all those riches dwell. The tragedy is that, in the end, he can’t bring himself to do it.
Jesus may call us to give up all our possessions, or he may not, but he certainly calls us all to be at home with our need, at home with the idea of ourselves as beggars, people who, for all our possessions, can never come to a point where we are self-sufficient, people who will always need God and always need one another.
That’s what eternal living looks like.
As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, we need to be “laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account”, which sounds horrible, but is actually the beginning of the good news, because when that happens we are able to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The prophet Amos thunders at his people to stop thinking they can do whatever they want because they happen to have money and power. “Seek God and live” (live -there’s that word again). Dethrone yourself, he says. Accept that you aren’t the great “I am” and put yourself into the hands of the one who is.
So, back to that poll I started with. Was I going to tell people they should live in radical poverty? What did I vote? I voted Yes, but not because I think we should all give up all our possessions. The message of the Bible, taken as a whole, isn’t that there’s anything wrong with material things in themselves. I voted Yes because I think that until we discover and accept that we are all basically poor and helpless, no matter what power and wealth we may seem to have on the surface, we'll never find the treasure we really need, the knowledge of God’s ever present love. If we always live in the bright light of our own strength and capability, we'll never find the God who dwells in the darkness with us. Sadly, it’s usually only when our lives go wrong that we discover that. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus in the Beatitudes. Or, as someone else translated it, “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”
Today you may have much, or you may have little. You may have come here today knowing there is money in the bank, food to put on the table, health and strength to deal with life. Or you may have come here today feeling lost and lonely, at your wits’ ends, racked with doubt or debt. But in God’s eyes we are all the same. We are all people who need his love, whether we know it or not, people whom he longs to lavish his love on, people who have nothing that is truly our own, and yet people who, because of him, have everything we could ever truly need.
If we want to be rich in the things that matter, we first need to recognise what we lack, the thing we can never truly possess, but which is given to us in full measure, packed down and overflowing, the grace of God, his presence, which enables us to live eternally, here and now, right where we are.