Texts: St Mark 10. 17-30, Wisdom 7. 7-11, Hebrews 4. 12-13
“The Word of God is something alive and active. It cuts like any double-edged sword, but more finely… Everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves.”
(Hebrews 4. 12, 13, NJB)
All the readings this morning are about the reality of God interrupting, disturbing and re-ordering our lives, often in some pretty uncomfortable ways. In the Hebrew Scriptures we hear of divine counter-intuitive wisdom (sophia, the feminine principle). In the Epistle we are reminded that ‘the Word’ is first and foremost alive in a person rather than a text. And in Mark’s Gospel narrative we are confronted with an encounter which challenges our basic assumptions about life.
The story about someone we usually (but rather misleadingly) know as the rich young ruler is an example of the world and Word made awkward and strange for people who think they already know what true religion means. It is one of a series of interventions that Jesus makes concerning status, money, power and land. It is designed to show just how wholly different the domain of God is from human principalities and kingdoms.
Remember that immediately beforehand Jesus rebukes his followers for trying to turn away some little children, who apparently were getting in the way of the priests and scholars with whom he was debating. He tells them that children — the ultimate seen-but-not-heard servant class of First Century Palestine — are precisely those in whom God’s special care is exemplified. (We were reminded last week, after the Gospel had been read by a child, that the Latin Church permits its reading only by a priest. This illustrates rather effectively the way in which the Church too stands in need of correction by the message it proclaims.)
Then straight after this unnerving encounter with the rich man we learn of the plot among those same priests and scholars to kill Jesus off; of the argument among the disciples about who is greatest (to which they receive the surprising answer ‘the least’); and of Jesus’ adamant refusal to be held accountable to a religious law which would have prevented him restoring a blind man’s sight. Not long after he is in Jerusalem being acclaimed by the crowds and condemned by the authorities.
We need to understand then, as we turn to this story from Mark, that we cannot expect a mere confirmation of our regular worldly or spiritual outlook. The Gospel is, from beginning to end, a counter-story, an account of the way things stand in relation to God and humankind which runs entirely against the grain of received wisdom.
So we see this unknown man running up to Jesus and saying, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Note that it is ‘teacher’ not ‘master’ (cf. the New Jerusalem translation). He recognises Jesus as a rabbi, so he is certainly a religious adherent of some kind.
The man’s question appears devoted, but it is actually about himself and about his property standing – ‘what must I do to inherit?’ That is, what rules are needed to ensure that I’m in standing with the appropriate family — the one that has God’s favour as of right? ‘Eternal life’ in this case means ‘God’s special blessing’, since we know, don’t we, that with God some are in and some are out?
Jesus interjects, ‘Why do you call me good?’ God alone is the sole good. This is the first and biggest clue to the fact that the answer to the man’s question does not revolve around conventional human piety. It concerns the true nature and purpose of God-with-us.
However Jesus does not push too far too soon. He proceeds to give the expected answer – almost. He goes, as any faithful Jew would, to the Commandments as the basis for a just life, but he highlights the ones governing social relationships: the ones that warn us against violence, deceit, robbery enmity and disloyalty. To emphasise this he sticks something in which isn’t actually in the Law. Can you spot where? It’s the instruction that says ‘do not defraud’. And here is the giveaway concerning the identity of this man kneeling before him. Because fraud had a primary meaning in the Palestine of Jesus’ day – it usually referred to someone who had acquired land at the expense of others or who had cheated land labourers of their wages. Jesus recognises, probably by his dress and demeanour, that this person is a landowner. Then, as now in this part of the world, the poorest felt that the land had been stolen from them. Land, of course, was the main basis of wealth and power — the crunch issue in society, if you like.
On with the story. The man immediately puts his foot in it again. ‘Teacher, I have kept all these commands from my earliest days,’ he says. He seems to have thoroughly missed the point of Jesus’ first statement (God alone is good). And he hasn’t spotted that additional requirement directed particularly to someone of his social class (‘do not defraud’). The other commandments would be reasonably easy for a wealthy person to keep, but this one is the rub. ‘Stop your economic exploitation’, Jesus is saying.
Noticing his sadness (and perhaps incomprehension) at this challenge, Jesus responds compassionately. He fixes the man in his gaze and sees not a powerful person, but an isolated one — trapped in wealth but out of sorts with those around him. Jesus is filled with love for one who in the eyes of the world is powerful and in the eyes of God very vulnerable indeed. But he does not buck the issue. ‘There is one thing you lack’, he says. Notice the heavy irony. This man surely has everything… and yet he is lacking: ‘Make your move. Sell whatever you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Then you will be rich in God’s sight. And then come, follow me…’ What Jesus is asking is that this wealthy man changes the whole basis of his life, that he begins to find a new communion with the lowly companions of Jesus rather than being stuck with the solitariness of riches. (There is a similarity here with the Gospel story of ‘the rich fool’ who faces death with no relation to anything but his over-stocked barns).
The invitation to community is the Good News, the big opportunity — but Jesus’ disciples cannot see it. And nor will we, if we are also choked by the dominant assumptions of the current age: one epitomised by a lottery economy where wealth is the main criterion of success. Jesus compounds the problem for us by using one of the most famous aphorisms associated with him. ‘It is easier’, he says, ‘for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the domain of God.’ Wealth cuts you off. It substitutes commodities for people, competition for communion. It is the ultimate false allure.
Over the years there have been many attempts to soften this harsh saying. Some modern but misguided interpreters have claimed that the ‘eye’s needle’ was the name of a narrow gate or pass near Jerusalem which a camel would find it difficult but not impossible to go through. But that will not wash. It would count against Jesus’ whole point. What is impossible for human beings is possible in the economy of God, where a whole new ordering of relationships is created.
So Jesus ends up reminding his disciples that their abandonment of worldly success, power and money does not leave them alone. Rather, it puts them in the company of a much larger group of people – new friends, new relations, a land to share rather than expropriate. This is the prophetic community where the differences between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ are being abolished. The social Commandments are a code for just such a company. This, in fact, is the true direction of the story, and it is therefore curious that our Lectionary has separated verse 31 off from the narrative where it very belongs: in the commonwealth of God all share, so many of those who are now first will be last, and many of the last will be first.
What are we to make of this disturbing encounter today? In our country at least — though not in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America — it points to the place where the church is most at variance with the Gospel. Jesus called into being a community of equals, but most of our time and effort goes into preserving assets. To his disciples and to the religious leaders of his time, the Word of God enfleshed in Christ was stubborn and strange — as we noted earlier, it interrupts, disturbs, re-orders. If we let it. As with the wealthy landowner, we have the choice of walking away, of course — returning to the way of wealth which is actually the route to desolation. But again and again God calls people back to the place where companionship and love are central. Amidst all the financial and practical challenges we face at the Church of the Annunciation, this call of Jesus to give, to share what we have, shouldn’t be lost.
I’d like to close with another, hope-filled story about a rich person — one that happened a few years ago. And I do so because there is one further strangeness in this Gospel for today’s world which we shouldn’t allow to pass unnoticed: that is the tension between Jesus’ ethic of giving indiscriminately to those in need, ‘to any who ask’ he says elsewhere, and the latest government (and Brighton Argus) campaign asking us not to give money directly to the single homeless on our streets.
Now this is a complex issue and I do not wish either to simplify or to prescribe, but I think we are in danger of missing out on a critical human dimension of the lives of people who get called (stigmatised?) ‘beggars’. This point comes through powerfully in a tale concerning Sam Amirtham, an Indian theologian of some repute who was at one time the Principal of the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary. Mr Veresamy, a seminary cleaner (who had at one time been homeless himself) had acquired a reputation for drinking too much and neglecting his family. So Sam decided that it would be better if his weekly wage were paid directly to his wife. He called in Mr Veresamy to tell him of his decision. The man understood the reason and couldn’t really argue against it. ‘But I ask in return one thing,’ he said. ‘Please spend just one day doing the job I do every day of my life — cleaning the sewers. Then tell me at the end of your day that you don’t need to drink to forget it all.’
Sam Amirtham thought hard about this. He still paid the weekly wage to Mr Veresamy’s wife. But he also gave Mr Veresamy, out of his own pocket, money for a drink each evening.
Of course it is right to be concerned with the broader social issues behind poverty (in this case the additional burden faced by women). But before we moralise too easily about the waste or damage caused by giving directly to those on the sharp end let us remind ourselves that there is a huge gulf in experience and understanding between those who have and those who do not. And, among other things, it is this community-destroying chasm to which today’s Gospel is addressed in its challenge to the rich. Even so, as Sam Amirtham’s revelation shows, with God’s grace the camel can impossibly squeeze through the eye.
“And the disciples were perplexed, wondering to themselves, ‘Well then, who can be saved?’ Jesus looked them in the eye and said, ‘For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God; after all everything’s possible for God’.”
(St Mark 10. 26,27, Scholars Version).