It feels to me that this week’s readings demand that we work extra hard to interpret them and what they might mean to us.
Camels and eyes of needles may well be familiar to us and conjure up a ridiculous or impossible image but are we left thinking that if we’ve got any money we may as well give up this Christian lark or if you are feeling hard up this morning should you assume that you can relax?
The thought of a double edged sword representing the word of God and piercing joints from marrow doesn’t exactly leave us sitting comfortably does it.
I can’t promise that I can make sense of all this for us but let’s start with the rich, young, important bloke. We all know someone like him he’s probably really kind and good looking as well, just the sort of guy most mothers hope their daughter will bring home. He’s the typical person lots of people will look at and say he’s got it all. He would have been a pillar of respectability in his community, keeping the commandments and apparently being blessed by God with great wealth. You can imagine that at parties, weddings, functions of all sorts and not least in the temple community he would have been used to being among the first, certainly not among the last.
Like many who to the outside world appear to have it all worked out he sensed that there was still something missing so imagine this man in all his finery plunging to his knees in the dust to ask a humble prophet ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’? Jesus tells him, sell your stuff, give your money to poor people and follow me!
We know how the man responded but how would we respond to such a challenge. Would we say I’ll have it all on eBay by the end of the day, accept the best bid and be with you ASAP? I’m not sure it would be my immediate reaction.
At this stage I admit to thinking I really need to look at the readings rather than just the dates when I select my turn to preach. I find it so much easier talking about all the stuff that leaves us with a warm glow as we head off for Sunday lunch rather than wondering whether I should be going home via the estate agents office.
If you would also find it hard to give up everything if Jesus asked you to why do you think this is. Are some of us simply so comfortable that following a homeless radical preacher holds little appeal?
The fact that the man calls Jesus ‘good teacher’ is important in all this. If he’s hoping flattery will work he’s sorely mistaken. The other possibility is that he is he acknowledging that Jesus is God’s son? If so then why can’t he accept Jesus authority and trust him? After all we know that wealth will be of no use to him if he follows Jesus in the Kingdom of God. But the man may also have known that Jesus journey would lead him to Judea where it would be dangerous for his followers who could be persecuted by those who hated him. Ultimately he was being asked to follow Jesus to the cross.
Jesus was showing us that this is what the commandments to put God first and give up idols means when lived out rather than solely observing the ‘shall nots’ Jesus urges us to be positive in living out our faith knowing that it can be costly, but trusting that we can share with him in the age to come.
If you were asked to consider what defines you what would you come up with? Think of how you might describe yourself. Perhaps if we think of how we introduce ourselves when meeting new people it may help. It may be our academic achievements, professional standing, family responsibilities, community involvement, sporting prowess. These things as much as the trappings of wealth have the potential to become who and what we understand ourselves to be. Without these we may feel our life has lost direction, purpose, or that our identification is eroded.
Would we describe ourselves in the same way if we were trying to explain to God who we are? My hunch is that our description would be shaped more around the person we would like to be and the values we would like to uphold.
It’s important because there must have been the possibility that such things were going through the rich man’s head.
To follow Jesus instructions would have meant losing the standing and identity he had built up over many years. His friends and associates would be puzzled as to why he would give all this up, they may think he has done something wrong or simply lost his marbles.
We know that Jesus wants us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick and that in doing these things for each other we do them for him. To intelligently respond to this we have to consider what gifts we have been given by God, including money, and how we will use them.
In the 1980’s film ‘Wall Street’ Michael Douglas plays the part of a man obsessed with money and the notion that he can never have enough. His distorted values are revealed in his definition of mixed emotions which he describes as being like ‘watching my mother in law driving over the edge of a cliff in my new Maserati’.
A while back I read the biography of Warren Buffet the legendary investor. It’s the most expensive book I’ve ever bought. Not because its 900 plus pages make it costly, its more to do with the fact that, in my own very modest way, I followed his tactic to keep buying when the share price is going down and I’m left waiting for it to come back up some considerable time later.
That aside it’s fascinating to consider his relationship with money as his wealth grew into tens of billions of dollars. In brief rather than leave a family foundation in 2006 he decided that he would give away most of his money with 85% of his long held stock, worth 37 billion at the time, going to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He did so requiring that the money was spent as it was given.
The second richest person on the earth was giving away his money without leaving a trace of himself. No building, no foundation, hospital wing would be named after him. He felt fortunate that he would ultimately let go of his money to people he trusted to spend it wisely in the relief of suffering around the world. Their annual expenditure is now similar to that of the 193 countries which comprise the United Nations World Health Organisation.
Buffet acknowledged that he was lucky in what he described as the ‘ovarian lottery’ born in a place and at a time where his skills paid off disproportionately, acknowledging that in a poorer country and a different time the outcome would have been much less favourable.
This scale of philanthropy was unprecedented and had immediate effect with Jackie Chan the Hong Kong actor announcing he would give away half his 19 billion dollar wealth and many others followed. To date 69 billionaires have taken similar action.
We will not have billions but it’s the action not the scale that matters. If we are motivated to respond positively by our Christian faith but want to wait until we feel we have things worked out with God before acting then we may as well forget it. In amongst all the confusion and failure let’s get on and do the things we feel to be right, otherwise life will pass us by and our belief will have made no difference.
We need to reflect positively about the sharp two edged sword, not seeing it as something that inflicts damage and pain but as the possibility that God’s word can still pierce through things we thought couldn’t be penetrated, revealing a reality where we can truly be ourselves rather than being constrained by the person others think we should be.
God in Jesus knows what it is to be human. He also understands that our devotion to him is often conditional and subject to limits. Few of us are able to assess what we have and who we are and then risk it all for Gods glory.
It has been suggested that ‘the eye of the needle’ was possibly the name given to a small gateway in Jerusalem but this feels like an attempt to find a more palatable explanation for a tough message. I feel happier accepting that it’s simply not possible for the camel to pass through otherwise it implies that a person could enter the kingdom of God on their own terms.
God knows that we find his will for us difficult to fulfill, that we often find it hard to let go and follow him. Hebrews recommends a bold approach, attempts at concealment are farcical, trust in what Jesus has done for us and in God’s love and approach the throne of grace.