- The Revd Canon Camellia Flanagan, TSSF
Discipleship that costs us dearly
211010: Pentecost 20 B Mark10: 17-31
* In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In October 2018 on the Cathedral Website blog, you will find another sermon on the bible readings set for today. But I hope today to lead you to think differently about the changing biblical theology of wealth.
Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jerusalem and along the way he is answering questions and apparently suddenly we find one individual wanting to have eternal life. Jesus had previously been teaching and it was clear from this teaching, that the key to eternal life was to believe, be baptised and to follow Jesus.
Since Old Testament times there has been a theme of the goodness of God and God’s desire to bless his people with possessions, especially the land of Canaan and its bounty through which the Children of Israel could in turn bless all the peoples of the earth. (Genesis 12: 1-3) Part of the deal was that they would obey God and therefore enjoy his blessings. There were also restrictions on the use and accumulation of wealth, so that the people would remember that God owns it all and wants all people to be able to enjoy some of it.
The records tell the story of the Children of Israel’s alternating obedience and disobedience to God’s laws and the consequences of this behaviour. We also find the contrasting themes of reward for faithfulness and industry, along with warnings against the wicked rich and ill-gotten gain.
Job protested against human claims to have achieved any justice in this life and in reading the Psalms and the book of Daniel, we may conclude that judgment day and a life to come are the only true end for equitable solutions to this world’s injustice.
Later we find Jewish thought valuing the poor, and by the time of Jesus, material wealth is never promised as a guaranteed reward for either spiritual obedience, or simple hard work. All Christians should have access to houses and fields, thanks to the generosity of fellow Christians who share with each other. Material poverty is never viewed as good. Jesus identified God and wealth as rival masters and a person can only successfully serve one of them. (Matthew 6:24) The kingdom of God, Jesus reminds us, is centred around almsgiving and Jesus and his disciples voluntarily limited their personal wealth for the sake of ministry to only enough of what was needed for the journey. The early church as we read in the book of Acts 6, lived by community sharing and later had a better organisation run by Deacons for the support of the widows and local poor.
In the writings of St Paul and St Luke we see evidence of a growing middle-class and even upper-class minority of Christians in the emerging church who supported the ministry, but the well-off believers were not called on to change places with the poor. They were to give from their surplus but also to be honest in acknowledging how much is surplus. (Acts 5:4) So we are perplexed at Jesus’ command to the man who had many possessions “….go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven;”
Why did Jesus say this? Should all of us to likewise? We do not know the man’s circumstances, nor do we know all the rest of the preceding conversation other than some of the commandments had been discussed. We wonder why Jesus only quotes some of the commandments as part of his answer to the man’s question of how to inherit eternal life. Was he setting him up to show how he had in fact not kept all the commandments? But Jesus does not follow this up when he insists he has kept the law since his youth. Jesus shows us his special insight into the situation, in knowing that this man’s wealth is standing in the way of discipleship. Jesus declares his love. Jesus looked at him and loved him and said, “You lack one thing.”
The simplicity of this answer is the key. It is interesting that Jesus included ”You shall not defraud” when a portion of the 10 commands was quoted. Could this have been a clue that the man had sinned in the accumulation of his wealth? Could this be telling not only of Jesus love for the man, but that he was forgiven as well? So, when we read this portion of the story, we need to be sure that we read all of it. The command to sell everything and give to the poor cannot be separated from the accompanying command, “then come, follow me:”
Is this the cost of discipleship? The man’s grief may suggest that he was perhaps a respected person in the community who thought his wealth was a reward for obedience to the commandments. If this is the case, we can also understand why the disciples were shocked about Jesus reply when he said, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God”
If a godly rich person cannot be saved, who on earth can be saved? The disciples are clearly astounded that Jesus has described a literal impossibility then reminded them that “with God all things are possible”
Was Peter being peevish when he reminded Jesus what he had given up following him, or was he genuinely curious? What could the disciples expect for the sacrifices they had made? Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions
These innumerable possessions and people are the spiritual relatives acquired as they become part of the larger and growing family of God’s people. They are the result of the work of the disciples through telling the good news of God’s love. A new family means a new community of those who share with one another, with those in need, and in the future, all will share eternal life
Can we consider our possessions as not our own, and can we consider that the plight of the poor should take priority over the desire to increase our affluence, so that we think of others first? This is what Jesus is saying in this instance when he said, “ But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
The Reverend Canon Camellia Flanagan TSSF