He is a stranger in Mark’s gospel but he has a question that resonates for many of us. What must I do to inherit eternal life? What do I need to do to really come alive in my life? How do I live a life that makes a difference and leaves an eternal mark? How do I live a life of significance? How doe I find true peace?
It’s a question others had asked but Jesus recognizes that it’s a genuine question from someone who is genuinely searching. This stranger genuinely wanted to explore a question that most of us ask at some point. Jesus responds by quoting from the Ten Commandments. You shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honour you father and mother. These are six commandments are good rules for nurturing life. Interesting that this life is seen as life in community with others and not some individualistic fulfillment. Also interesting that Jesus omits the first four commandments relating to our relationship with God. The man however is quick in response and boldly proclaims that he’s kept all these good community rules since he was a boy. He knows the importance of good morals that safeguard the human family and trust, honesty, and dignity in the community. I appreciated the story in the Press this week of the building inspector in Auckland who left his ipad on site after a pre inspection report prior to a big concrete pour undertaken by a Chinese construction firm. He returned 30 minutes later to retrieve his computer to discover all the steel reinforcing was being removed prior to the pour. The writer was lamenting the influence of foreigners who had no culture of honesty. I wondered if he might have given thought to where the backbone of honesty came from in our own culture and whether in fact declining standards are due to something else other than just the influence of foreign culture. Maybe the rejection of established religion with traditional teaching like the ten commandments has something to do with it?
However Jesus’ questioner has no problem with declining standards of honesty and as Mark tells the story he says simply Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus’ heart warmed towards this man who is genuinely trying to live a good life. What follows is said in love, and is offered to the man as a means of drawing him closer to the fullness of life he is hankering after. Jesus says you need to take another step in your faith journey, “sell everything you own and give it all away.” And the story takes another turn as it is revealed the man went away with a heavy heart because he had great wealth.
I bet you could have heard a pin drop. It was a huge ask. I sometimes wonder if Jesus expected him to pick up the invitation there and then, go home and put his house and contents, and maybe his business on the market, or was he expecting that the man needed to undergo some serious rethinking of his values way of life that would take time. I suspect the latter but we simply don’t know. We are simply told the man became sad for he was very rich. Quite simply it was a bridge too far, and I think most of us feel for the man, and possibly a little uncomfortable ourselves because on the world scale we are all very very rich.
In what follows Jesus unpacks the incident with his disciples who share our discomfort. He draws on the image of a narrow gate in the Jerusalem city wall known as the eye of the needle which was a squeeze just for a man to get through but for a camel especially one loaded with goods and possessions it was simply impossible. The message was simple you could only get through if you let go of all your possessions. If you want to find eternal life, if you want to enter God’s kingdom you have to learn to let go. And if you are going to let go then you actually need to address the issue of where you put your trust. What do you hold on to for security in life?
I wonder if this is why Mark and the other gospel writers put this story alongside the incident with the children. Children are good trusting their parents. They usually have implicit trust that their parents will take good care of them….sadly not always though. Jesus must have known that children can be demanding, annoying, and sometimes downright awful, but in the end they trust – trust in the love of their parents and other family members. I remember one of the games I used to play with one of my nephews when he was young. It’s a game I wouldn’t play with him now because he is now bigger than me, but as a little fellow he loved to climb up on the back of an armchair and launch himself off into my arms. It was a risky game because from the back of a chair it was a long way down but he trusted that I would catch him every time. As an adult we don’t find such trusting easy. I recall an interactive experiment in the old Science Alive display that used to be in the railway station in town. This particular experiment involved letting yourself drop off a 5m wall that was polished and gently curved outwards towards the bottom. The idea was that your downward momentum was transferred by the gentle curve into horizontal momentum and that you could drop the 5m onto the hard wooden surface below. The trick was the bottom of the wall was curved and your downward momentum was transferred by the curve to horizontal momentum and so despite no soft surface to break your fall you ended up with no broken bones. All I can say is that I didn’t find it easy trusting that all would be well as I struggled to let go and drop! I needed some of my nephew’s childlike trust. Such is the trust and faith Jesus is inviting us to put in God. I’ve talked before of learning to swim and trust the buoyancy of the water. Tense up and you sink, relax and you float. This is faith. We trust the love of God and we trust the buoyancy of God. We trust in the Ways of God. If the rich man was to find life says Jesus he would need to let go of the wealth and the security and trust he put in the wealth. He trusted that the commandments would provide life, but in his holding tight to his money he showed he needed to take another step into true faith.
Most of us I suspect are somewhere along this road of learning to trust God and the ways of God. It’s not a simple road. It’s not a simple matter of giving everything away and hoping God will take care of us.. Our scriptures tell us in a number of places we have to ensure that we are not an unnecessary burden on others. We do have bills to pay and we need to live responsibly and take care of our own welfare. We do need money to put food on the table and ensure we have a roof over the heads of those we are responsible for. But it’s really easy to loose the balance. It is very easy for our possessions to become something we hold tightly to and they begin to own us and rob us of life.
I am reminded of the story of Sir Moses Montefiore a good Jew and friend of Queen Victoria. Sir Moses was a man of considerable wealth who retired at age 40 and spent the next 60 years of his life putting his wealth to good use improving the lives of others, and working for the welfare of humanity. A sort of Bill and Melinda Gates sort of figure. Someone asked him one day how much he was worth. He contemplated for a while and then named a figure. The questioner was puzzled and queried the response. “That is a large sum but I don’t think it is enough. By my calculation you should be worth at least ten times the figure you have given me.” In reply Sir Moses gave the following response: “You didn’t ask me how much I own. You asked me how much am I worth. So I calculated the amount I have given to charity in the last year and that is the figure I gave you. You see,” he said, “we are worth what we are willing to give to others.”
Sir Moses understood that he was merely a trustee of the wealth, and that he was called to use his wealth to reshape the world according to the life of God, and in learning that basic truth of faith he had made a significant shift from owning his wealth and claiming it as his to understanding we are mere trustees. Trusting in God is more than some blind faith, but it is releasing our grip on our wealth and the powerful thought that it is mine, and realizing that all we have is gift and all we have is God’s. Once we start seeing wealth as gift we start asking how is it best used. We are part of a culture that says we should amass wealth so we can leave it to the kids. I don’t think Jesus would agree. Andrew Carnegie the wealthy industrialist had a great dream – it was simply to bounce your last cheque. In our world maybe that is to go into permanent overdraft as you breathe your last. By the time you die you have given it all away. I like that dream and my aim is to follow it.
Generosity is at the heart of life. Giving things away, putting your wealth to good use, to God’s use, actually brings life. To live generously and bounce one’s last cheque is to die vertical, not horizontal. To die vertical is to die fully engaged with life and promoting life. To die horizontal is to passively allow others to decide how your wealth is used, to put it in the bank for a rainy day where it’s used to pay fat salaries to unscrupulous managers, or to leave it to the kids will happily spend it on some frivolous endeavor.
Jesus makes it clear we are to be trustees not passive hoarders. We are to take risks with God to declare a new kingdom on earth. I don’t think we are all called to be ascetics and give it all away although I do think simpler less materialistic lives are called for. Life is to be lived and enjoyed. Life is to be enhanced. Riches like leeches can suck your soul dry and leave you bloodless. Over the last 50 years our material standards have sky rocketed … I wish I could say people were happier and more truly full of peace. Amassing wealth does not bring significance, it is generosity and adoption of the idea that we are trustees of everything we own – that brings the life we long for.
Dugald Wilson 14 Oct 2018