What must I do?
A Sermon by Lay Reader, Annie Coley
preached on Sunday 11 October 2015
Mark 10: 17–31
He was a really nice man. Nothing he enjoyed in life seemed to have spoiled him: he had parents who thought the world of him – and to whom he was very good – an unblemished record of achievement, good standing in the community and a very nice house in a good part of town. And there was something about him that made people like him.
When he heard that Jesus was in the neighbourhood, he reacted with the enthusiasm that was typical of him. He swerved through the crowds and fell on his knees before Jesus. “Good Teacher,” he cried out earnestly, “What must I do to get eternal life?”
“Well, you know the commandments,” replied Jesus, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honour your father and mother.”
“I’ve done all that …ever since I was old enough to know God’s law.”
Jesus looked at him and really warmed to him. Here was a young man full of eagerness and enthusiasm, with so much to give. It would be wonderful to have him as a disciple. And yet at the same time, Jesus could see why that wasn’t likely to happen – there was something in the way.
“There’s one more thing,” he said, “Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. So do it, and then come and follow me.”
Peter, recalling this incident years later and recounting it to Mark, who wrote it down in his Gospel, remembered how the man’s face fell. Gone was that look of eager anticipation. This was something he had not bargained for. He got to his feet, a diminished figure as he melted away into the crowd – he was wealthy and this was a price he was unwilling to pay. He loved his wealth – too much, it seems. We don’t know where the story ends – perhaps he came back.
Anyway, the disciples were totally shocked. They had always thought that material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing. It was those on the margins and the outcast they thought would have a hard time getting into heaven. Reading their thoughts, Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how hard it is for people who have it all to enter God’s kingdom? You can’t imagine how difficult. I’d say you might as well try to thread a camel through a needle.”
Now they began to panic. “Then who has any chance at all?” they asked.
Jesus was blunt. “No chance at all, if you think you can do it yourself, but every chance in the world if you let God do it.”
Peter blurted out, “Well, we’ve given up everything to follow you.”
“And none of it is given up in vain,” Jesus assured him. “Whatever you’ve given up for my sake you’ll get back a hundred times. It’s what I’ve been saying all along: those you think are there are not and vice versa.” I can picture a sobered, more reflective group travelling on with Jesus to Jerusalem.
Jesus was perhaps lost in his own thoughts. “It’s so hard for people to grasp it. I put a child in front of them and tried to illustrate the importance of a childlike attitude. I told them that you enter God’s kingdom not by anything you do but by the simple trusting attitude children show to adults who love them and on whom they depend for their very life. Already this young man has suppressed those childlike instincts and presumes that now he is grown up pleasing God is by adding one more commandment to those he thinks he already keeps.”
What Jesus said to this man was not stating here a universal requirement that all should sell up. Not all of his followers did that. It was a lesson about priorities and what keeps us from being true disciples. In this case, it was the young man’s wealth and his attitude to it that was the barrier. Ironically, it was this that was actually preventing him from keeping the first commandment he thought he could tick off: to have no other gods.
The key to ‘getting’ this teaching is in not distancing ourselves from it because we don’t think it applies to us – we’re not that wealthy. For this young man it was money that was the stumbling block, but Jesus wasn’t against money per se – for the most part you can’t get by without it and with it you can do a lot of good. His point was, it isn’t a question of how much a person is worth, but how much value a person gives to it. You can cling to £5 or 5 million – either way it won’t go through the eye of that needle.
Clearly, there are other gods in our lives, but money and material success are very likely to become a barrier between us and God because we can so easily be seduced into thinking it is a healthy bank balance that will see us through rather than a God who loves us and has promised to care for us.
Whatever is our particular stumbling block, God’s unnerving gaze will search it out and identify it as surely as Jesus knew what was hindering this man. Our other reading, from Hebrews, describes God’s word as a two-edged sword, cutting through all the pretence and getting right to the heart of the matter, like a surgeon’s scalpel or a laser, opening up everything to God’s scrutiny, laying bare our values and attitudes. He can see not only what prevents us giving him our lives, but what, once we’ve done so, saps our energy and weakens our resolve.
We were looking at these issues in our house group this week, trying to bring life and faith together in a culture where the acquisition of ‘stuff’ can become the be-all and end-all and of more importance to us than anything else. Three challenges were put to us. You might like to consider them too. (This is the Lyfe course from the Bible Society).
1. Look for an opportunity to be (secretly!) generous, like leaving a bigger tip or treating someone (or conversely looking for generosity in others towards us)
2. Analyse your spending habits so you can get a better picture of where your spending is going; any sense in which it’s a bit lop-sided?
3. Share stuff more readily – we don’t all need to own everything.
This would help us, we were told, to help us develop a looser hold on our money and resources, our ‘stuff’.
Last weekend on the Isle of Wight, we were considering with the children how we make excuses and exclude ourselves from the feast in God’s Kingdom. You know the ones in the parable: “I’ve bought a field,” “I’ve married a wife”, I’ve taken delivery of a herd of cows” … To this the children added, “I’ve got to watch my grass grow,” “My team’s playing at home,” “I’ve got to buy some biscuits” …. The excuses they came up with were quite creative! But it was an open invitation that we wanted to accept, “Lord, count me in.”
Don’t let’s rule ourselves out by making Jesus less than the Lord of our lives, all that we are, and all that we have.