I wonder if there is somewhere you’ve always wanted to go? That’s captured your imagination? For me one of those places is the remote Scottish island of St Kilda. A rugged rock in the middle of the Atlantic, St Kilda was home to a unique way of life. The people hunted the sea birds which nest on the cliffs, and subsistence farmed the shallow soil. If you have the stomach to spend hours in a small boat in rough seas, you can visit the ruins of the deserted village they called home.
It seems incredibly romantic, but you wouldn’t actually want to live like that. Why would anyone voluntarily return to grinding poverty, to a short hard life?
In first century Palestine there was no Welfare State. No workers’ rights. An accident at work, like a broken leg, could mean a rapid descent into poverty. Hunger illness and death could follow for the entire family. No-one would choose poverty.
Surely therefore those who were well off could count themselves blessed by God? Throughout the Old Testament wealth is seen as a gift from the Almighty. For instance, Abraham became very wealthy because God had blessed him. Solomon’s wealth came because God approved of his request for wisdom. Job was a rich man who lost everything, but when God vindicated him Job’s fortunes and bank balance recovered.
To be sure, the Old Testament also recognises that there were many bad rich people. Prophets like Amos rail against those who gained wealth by injustice. Just because someone was rich didn’t necessarily mean they were good, but people in Jesus’ time would believe that, in general, God provided for and blessed those with whom he was pleased.
So the teaching of Jesus in v.25 that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God would have seemed crazy! And yes, Jesus really is talking about a big beast of burden and small hole in a sewing implement. It’s that hard! That’s why the disciples say in v.26 ‘Who then can be saved?’
Why is this so? Why does Jesus tell this wealthy young man to give it all away? What does wealth do to us that can be spiritually dangerous?
Firstly, there’s the risk of injustice. In Biblical times in Israel the productivity of the land wasn’t particularly high. No artificial fertilisers, not much irrigation. If you wanted to increase your profits you could reduce your labour costs by paying your people less. Or you could try and get economies of scale by snapping up the ancestral land of those who fell into debt. This is why the letter of James has such harsh words for those who are rich – he can reasonably assume that those who have reached the top of the pile have done it by scrambling over others.
His words have resonance today. If you want goods in time, at a reasonable price, chosen from a wide range, delivered to your door, where do you go? Amazon. For sheer convenience it’s hard to beat. But at what price? Low wages, workers reliant on benefits. Amazon paid less tax in the UK than the singer Ed Sheeran.
It needn’t be like this. Money can be a force for good. The Timpson family who own the shoe repair business deliberately give jobs to ex-convicts. In John Lewis the staff are not called workers but partners as they each own a share – which of course is a good incentive too. And if anyone’s looking to invest, I’d recommend Oikocredit which gives loans to individuals starting businesses in developing nations.
Why is wealth not used in positive ways more? One answer might be that we easily end up justifying the situation: I’ve worked hard for what I’ve got – but actually where did it come from? The problem with thinking that riches are a reward is that the flip side is that those lot are poor because they deserve it. They’re not working hard enough, they can’t get organised, they’re spending it on fags and satellite TV. Listening to the real stories of those who are struggling, those near to us, will give us a much more balanced view than the tabloid hysteria.
Perhaps a third spiritual danger of wealth is that we get used to it. The more you have, the more you want. The more you want, the less satisfied you feel.
I bought a car last year. One of my criteria was that it should have a built in sat-nav. And indeed, I’m much less likely to get lost now. If I’m likely to be late I have a Bluetooth connection to my phone so I can ring up and say that I will be delayed. It is brilliant, and I wonder how on earth I coped beforehand?
Well the answer is: I managed pretty well. Twenty years ago I drove to Elgin in a one litre Nissan Micra with no air conditioning and a half-broken radio. There are many people in the world who would still be grateful for that! Yet once you have become established in a level of living it is hard to give it up – and this rich young ruler knows that well. In v.22 he goes away grieving, because he has many possessions.
The question for us is: Do I really need such and such? What difference will it make? Perhaps it would also be good for us to live simply from time to time – say at Lent.
Fourthly, we become invested in places and things. We sense that we are finding our place in the world, whereas in reality the world is finding its place in us. Money can tie us down.
Every holiday I have my estate agent’s window moment. A few days in, when I’m enjoying myself, I begin to think ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a holiday cottage? I could nip down on my day off…and have another lawn to mow and another set of gutters to clear!’ As we buy things, particularly the big ticket items, we tie ourselves down with more and more commitments. And while in one sense commitment is good, it is good truly to belong to a place, good to be committed to people, there are other commitments which are perhaps more of a tie. Are you still able to respond flexibly to God’s call?
It’s interesting that many really successful businesses started off in someone’s garage. A big existing company might not risk its funds on an unproven technology – but the little guy has the freedom to invest everything he’s got and become an entrepreneur. Do we, do our churches have the freedom to be entrepreneurial for God?
Finally, perhaps the most significant risk in having a bit of money is that we put our trust in it rather than God. The fact that our money can help us through a hard time may be wise planning – but it must never become what we rely on.
It seems to me that self-reliance is what Jesus was driving at in our reading from Mark. In v.17 the rich young man arrives to see Jesus and he has a most peculiar question: ‘Good Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ That’s odd – you don’t usually do anything to inherit – it comes to you as a gift. Although I suppose there are people who carefully cultivate wealthy great aunts.
But this man seems to think he can do something to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response seems equally strange. ‘Why do you call me good – no-one is good but God alone.’ Actually, he’s pointing out to the young man that if only God is good, then trying a bit harder to be a bit better is unlikely to be the path to eternal life. Self-reliance won’t get you there, but reliance on God who is good will.
And if the man recognises that Jesus is good – well that might well be a pointer to the divinity of Christ. That’s why following Jesus, in v.21, is the path to eternal life. Think about it, if Jesus meant to say that, he Jesus, wasn’t good, if Jesus meant to say that he was a sinful person just like anyone else, then it would have been utterly crazy to suggest that following that Jesus would be the way to eternal life. What Jesus is doing here is pointing us to his divine nature, and saying that when we follow him we receive the greatest gift of all.
Yet why does the man need to give away his wealth in order to follow Jesus? Perhaps it was a tie, but it seems there’s more going on. In v.19 Jesus lists the commandments – but interestingly he misses out the tenth commandment ‘thou shalt not covet.’ Sincerely, the young man says that he has kept all these.
But then Jesus strikes to the heart of the matter: ‘You lack one thing, go sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and come follow me.’ He sets this huge challenge because he knows it is the one thing the rich young man struggles with. This is the crux of the matter.
Jesus doesn’t do this because he wants to catch him out. v. 21 says that Jesus loved him, he wants what’s best for him, he wants him to recognise this problem and address it. Only by going for it head-on can he address this self-reliance. Would we be able to do this? Does it feel as if Jesus asks too much? Do you doubt you could do it in our strength? If so, good. Because Jesus means us to understand that we can’t. We need God. We couldn’t do that on our own. We need God.
It could have turned out differently. If the young man had said ‘Help me’, if he’d said ‘Lord, this is tough, I can’t do it in my own strength but you can enable me do it.’ then that would have been enough. Jesus can work with the smallest willingness – as long as we will let him in. Isn’t that what he says in v.27? ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible.’
In other words, this man was approaching it the wrong way round. His success, his wealth, had made him self-reliant. He asked what can I do to inherit eternal life – when it actually comes as a gift through trusting in the only one who is good, Jesus himself.
When we have put our faith in Christ, we can work out its implications. This is the only way to be set free from the love of riches – by trust in the God who provides. This is how we really grasp God’s generosity – and are set free to be generous ourselves. This is what a Christian attitude to money is – whether rich or poor we trust in God, and use what we have to bless others. Amen.