Jesus’ Teaching on Wealth and Position
Mark 10 : 17 - 31
This is part of Jesus’ teaching on wealth and social position. Jesus was leaving the house in Capernaum when a young man ran up to him and fell at his feet. The young man had been afraid he would miss Jesus and was thankful just to catch him as he was leaving. A lot of people leave it late to meet Jesus and a lot more leave it too late to meet Jesus.
You see on your TV screens the histrionics of middle eastern people. They are always gesticulating and shouting and marching and weeping. This young man was like that - prone to excessive temporary emotions. 'Good teacher' he says to Jesus 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' and Jesus stops him there and then. But why? This young man was looking too much at Jesus and not enough at God in Jesus. Christian ministry in our tradition is preaching through personality. In Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican worship the liturgy and the ritual are more prominent. Many Roman Catholic priests suffer much psychologically and physically from their enforced celibacy. Many take more alcohol than they know they should. Many are stressed out and wrecked by early middle age. But the liturgy of the Mass is not affected. It goes on. It just needs to be read out. Anglican priests come over mostly as rather wet creatures like the one in Dad’s Army. In Jane Austen’s novels they are insipid and pitiable. In today’s TV soaps they never have good character or strong Christian confession. But Anglican services don’t depend on a good sermon or good children’s address. In the Orthodox Church the priests are disguised by large beards and heavy black clerical robes. The liturgy is all powerful, Biblical, sacramental and being written out, is not dependent on any human personality at all. In American TV evangelism, it is the opposite - all personality centred, unashamedly and with personal appeals for conversions and money. It is handsome well groomed expensively suited tele-evangelists who are the spiritual leaders of large congregations and who rule and manage as autocrats following the American business company model.
In the Church of Scotland, ministers used always to wear black to hide the person and the personality. But of course, it is what the minister says that declares the personality and that cannot be hidden by what he or she wears. Church of Scotland preaching is through personality and so if people like their minister they will like what they hear. If they don’t like the minister they won’t like what they hear. If we ministers attract too much attention to ourselves and do not point people to God, we fail in our vocations. When I came here I said in an early sermon that it would be my choice to allow people to have psychological freedom, spiritual freedom to have their own relationship with God. I would not seek to intrude or obtrude. You come to worship God. There are many churches in which the minister is a very dominant and even a domineering presence. Some rule with an iron hand. Women ministers are notoriously bossy. This may have been a noble strategy of mine but it has not built a strong Church. We have survived together, to be sure, and maybe an independent person would suggest that we have done much good and many worthwhile things over the years and that may indeed be true. But this congregation has not advanced far along the road of spiritual discovery towards mature Christian faith and spirituality. Is the space that is left for you to have your own relationship with God still unoccupied because you have not made your home there? Have you visited and enjoyed your visits and always come back but not made that new place your spiritual home?
Jesus didn’t want false flattery. He saw through this public protestation. He quoted some of the 10 Commandments to the young man, 'Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t defraud, honour your father and mother'. This - a summary of being an Orthodox Jew. The young man had had a good upbringing - he had kept all these commandments since boyhood. Yet he knew he was missing something and he knew that Jesus had what he was looking for. His had been a life of respectable synagogue going family worshipping Judaism in a rich family with a prominent social position. Wealth and success were signs of God’s favour in Judaism. There remains in America the same kind of prosperity theology today. In Jesus’ time it was thought that if you were rich it was because God had blessed you. There was a corollary - if you were poor - it was because God had not. Yet this young man knew that Jesus was not rich or socially prominent. He wanted to know about eternal life - not just comfortable life on earth. He asked a good question. But he was not ready for the answer he received. 'One thing you lack…Go. Sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me'.
This young man had never done anything for anyone. He had passed the poor every day without extending much help to them. He had no vision of anything sacrificial in life for the benefit of others or the glory of God. He had not put his wealth, position and influence into God’s service. Humanity takes Christianity for granted. All the great humanitarian organisations of the world have Christian foundations and Christian roots. The idea of proactively helping others comes from Jesus. It did not come from Buddhism or Hinduism. It is not found in Greek polytheism. Judaism certainly operated a concept of almsgiving and charity to the poor. Islam has taken some of Christianity’s benevolence to itself. But hospitals, schools, caring agencies, large scale international charity and relief operations - these were inspired from and by Christianity and Christians going right back to this teaching and example. Jesus said to this young man, whom he took to warmly, not judgementally, 'put your life and money and social position to some good in the service of those with nothing and next to nothing. You will find yourself immediately spiritually rich. Join us - become one of us and you will find eternal life'.
That was not what the young man wanted to hear. The text says 'At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth'. He met Jesus face to face and had the chance to become a disciple - we don’t know his name - but we would have done if he had followed Jesus. He would have written his Gospel about how Jesus changed his life and it would have been in the New Testament. He didn’t and it isn’t. He turned away from Jesus and walked in the opposite direction. He was the dilettante sort. A bit like Prince Charles turning up in his Bentley to charity events or hiring an private plane to attend a climate conference. Prince Charles has done a lot of god with his Prince’s Trust. He has helped many poor people - many young people. He has used his position and wealth to help others. But - he stays very rich and goes back the same day to his luxury. He is half way there but you cannot say that he has ignored Jesus’ teaching - he has not.
This young man did. He did not want eternal life enough. He wanted it along with everything else. He wanted his eternal cake and to eat it also. He did not want to leave his life of privilege to become one of Jesus’ followers. No way. What? Wander around begging for his evening meal? Being associated with the rebel Rabbi? Losing his respectable place in Jewish society? Risking excommunication from the synagogue? Giving up his friends and prospects of a good marriage? No thanks. He did not want Christianity that much. Do you want Christianity enough? Do you want Jesus in your life that much? Are you not bargaining with Him for a cheap deal - a cut price spiritual deal?
Jesus turned to his disciples and warned them How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus turned the Jewish understanding of wealth upside down. The disciples could not accept this. Jesus had to explain. Putting money and possessions first in your life is a dangerous thing according to Jesus. Wealth changes people and mostly not for the better. There is a saying that for a hundred people who can stand adversity there is only one who can stand prosperity. I knew a chap - he was an elder in Dalserf Church on the Clyde. His wife was the woman who taught the Girls Brigade sign language a couple of years ago. She was here in the Church and sat down there leading the girls. They are strong Christians. He said to me, “I’d like to win the Lottery to prove that it would not do me any harm”. But he said this with a smile. I think it was a joke. William Barclay said that people are judged by how they make their money and how they use their money. Andrew Carnegie the richest man in the world in his day said, 'A man who dies rich dies disgraced'. Life was tough for the workers in Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills. But he gave away all that he made. Bill Gates, the owner of Microsoft was a cut throat businessman who crushed opposition and was often sued in the courts. Today he and his wife are putting their billions into charitable trusts helping especially the poorest of the world. Here in Scotland Tom Farmer, a devout Roman Catholic is generous to his Church and Brian Souter is the same to his evangelical Church. Both men made a lot of money by being sharp edged businessmen. Having succeeded, both share their wealth with others. They did not operate particularly Christian policies towards their staff and workers while they made their money.
John Lewis shops however are based on a different model. The business was founded in 1864 when John Lewis set up a draper's shop in Oxford Street, London. He had been born into a Jewish family and became an autocratic hard nosed businessman who sacked his employees regularly. His son, John Spedan Lewis was of a different character. He was interested in and influenced by Christian Quaker principles. After a riding accident he dreamt up and then pioneered power-sharing policies by sharing the profits the business made among the employees. In 1950 this arrangement became a legal partnership. Today, there are 76,000 employee partners owning the retail businesses. So a Christian can be a hard nosed business person and make a lot of money and then give a lot of it away. Another Christian may build a business in which the workers share in the profits. What model do you think Jesus would approve of?
The saying of Jesus 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God' is one of his most famous. What did he mean? There are two interpretations. The eye of a needle was a phrase to describe the small door within the gate of a property or city through which a camel could not go without being unloaded. So Jesus was saying that the rich man had to unload himself of his wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Secondly, the Aramaic word gamla was used in three different contexts, it could mean a camel, a rope or a beam. Nothing unusual about that - we use single words in different contexts. Take the word crane: it is a bird; it is used to lift large objects; it describes stretching your neck. There’s the famous example of Lynne Truss’s book on grammar the title of which was made into a joke about a panda that goes into a Glasgow restaurant with a gun and eats shoots and leaves. The camel was also the thick rope used to tie up boats in harbour.
The disciples asked Who then can be saved? Jesus gave one of his infuriating enigmatic answers that was not an answer to the disciples. 'With man this is impossible, but not with God, with God all things are possible'. The power of God can and does change the lives of even the most stubborn and arrogant and self-satisfied of human beings. There used to be a common phrase 'a self made man who worships his creator'. But many a wealthy successful woman or man has been humbled and become a Christian. Peter protested 'We have left everything to follow you'. We know that Peter hankered after his business and its success because even after the resurrection he went back to it. It took some real gentle confrontation by Jesus to get him to finally become an apostle.
Jesus promises that whatever you give up to be a Christian he will repay to you many times. He adds eternal life also. Whatever you do for Jesus Christ is worth it. It matters and it works. Put him first and see.