A sermon by Rev Sandy Boyce on Mark 10: 17-31 – The Rich Young Man (prepared for SermonShare here)
As Jesus was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (you can read the full text of this reading here)
It is a challenge to reflect upon this particular encounter of Jesus with the rich young man, while we are still in the grip of a global pandemic, and living with economic uncertainty. Last year, Australia’s economy was plunged into its first recession in nearly 30 years as a result of lockdowns imposed across the country. The economic fallout from COVID-19 impacted many small businesses that didn’t survive. There was a disruption to supply chains and cash flow shortages. Households were living with financial stress. Tourism was brought to its knees. There was real tension between the economic welfare of the country, the need to contain the virus, and look after the welfare of people. And now, we’re told, Australia’s economy has had a rapid rebound, growing larger than it was before the Covid-19 pandemic due to the soaring demand for commodities around the world and spending by consumers and businesses. But we will all know people who have been doing it tough, and there’s more to come when interest rates inevitably rise sometime in the future, and people find themselves in economic uncertainty and peril. We may be those people.
The context for the Gospel story was a society where 9 out of 10 people were living close to the subsistence level or below. There was no middle class. Wealth was based on the ownership of land. Most land was controlled by a small number of wealthy, elite families. The landowners rented the land for tenant farmers, who – together with their families and possibly slaves – actually worked the land. The wealth and status of the elite families ensured their influence in politics, so that they were able to control both local and regional governance and also profit from taxation.
The Gospel story recounts what happens when a rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” His question is sincere. Initially, Jesus responds by reciting the six socially oriented commandments – Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour your father and mother.’. Interestingly, Jesus reframes ‘do not covet’ with a commercial twist – ‘do not defraud’.
It must have been a relief to the man to have these listed, as he was confident his life had been lived with integrity, that he was morally and spiritually good. The rich man said he had “kept all of the commandments since my youth” (Mark 10:20). He understood his wealth to be a result of God’s favour and blessing.
But in the upside-down world of the reign of God, Jesus states that the one thing the man lacks is treasure in heaven, and that the man would need to set aside his attachment to wealth and status and privilege – and follow Jesus. In fact, he is to sell what he has and give it to the poor – in order to obtain treasure in heaven. It’s the only time Jesus makes such a demand. What will the man love more – his wealth, or treasure in heaven. Is a relationship with God more valuable than the things we possess?
This is a scene of great pathos. The rich man was shocked and went away grieving. Jesus, looking at him, loved him. Jesus’ does not set out to shame the young man, but to love him. Jesus calls him to leave his possessions for his own benefit, saying, “You will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Jesus uses this encounter as a teaching opportunity with the disciples about attachment to ‘things’ (in this case, wealth), and the need to give priority to following the way of Jesus.
How do we unpack this? Is wealth the opposite of Christianity? Is profit antithetical to the kin-dom of God? Are we talking about the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, with his $US201+ billion? Closely followed by economic powerhouses like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Do we take this Gospel reading and layer it over all of our lives – the rich and elite, the Mum and Dad suburban investors, those just trying to earn an honest living through their own work and industry, those struggling to keep their heads above water.
Probably. Yes. The story points us to the fact that when wealth and privilege are seen as more valuable than our relationship with God, it creates a distance in the way we relate to others and may deaden our sensitivity to the needs of others. It’s the love of money, privilege and power, not the wealth itself, that is the issue here.
Wealth has the potential to create a distance make us and God, to dampen our relationship with God. That’s what Jesus seems to be picking up here, identifying the things that take our time and attention, the things we seek that give us meaning and purpose, the things that serve to orient our lives? If not seeking a deeper relationship with the God revealed by Jesus Christ, then our lives need redirection to give priority to the values of the reign of God, and not to be distracted by other things. Our calling as disciples of Jesus is expressed in the the imperative to serve others, to contribute to a healthy social fabric where all are valued and afforded the means to live with dignity.
Ram Dass has an expression, “We’re all just walking each other home.” He was talking about coming home inside of ourselves. To risk the journey of peeling away all of the identities, beliefs, assumptions, expectations, roles and attachments we have adopted in our lifetime, and discover who we are as beloved children of God. The language of salvation is about finding healing and wholeness, knowing who we are at the deepest and most profound levels of our being as beloved children of God.
Maybe the pandemic, as unwelcome as it is with all the changes and uncertainty, is an invitation to unpack a little of our personal lives, what we give attention to. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine some of the economic, environmental, political, social, and spiritual structures, paradigms, assumptions, and habits we take for granted, and re-imagine the world and our relationships. Perhaps it’s time to shed some of the things that have taken our attention away from following Jesus and the values of the reign of God.
Perhaps it’s also time to have a fresh look at wealth and the practices of the church, and to dream of a Christianity unreconciled with wealth. Yes, many congregations may be struggling financially and many will close their doors in the next few years. But the institution that is church has eye-watering wealth through property and investments. Perhaps that’s a subject for another time. Perhaps it’s time to dream of a church intentionally uncoupled from the concept of wealth as virtue and reward. There’s a branch of Christianity that promises a direct path to the good life. It is called by many names, but most often referred to as “prosperity gospel” for its bold central claim that God will give you your heart’s desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness.
Go with me for a quick history journey. A Tuscan Franciscan friar and mathematician named Luca Pacioli made possible an institutionalized wealth shrouded in Christian language and scripture. He made possible the renaissance of early capitalist commerce for the profit of European Christianity. He followed a very different sort of Jesus from the Jesus we encounter in Mark, one that baptizes wealth as virtue, and names it God’s will for Christians. In 1494 he published Double-Entry Bookkeeping which firmly reconciled wealth and Christianity, a “foundational text of capitalism” which made profit virtuous. It changed the world. At the time of his writing, the Catholic church condemned profit made from lending people money. Being a Catholic priest himself, Pacioli could challenge such ideas from the inside. He was, ironically, a priest in the order of Franciscans called the Conventuals, or Minorities, so named for living a minor life adhering to the vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. But Pacioli was closely aligned with the Pope and several wealthy benefactors, and so he received a special papal dispensation to earn money as a mathematician and teacher. In his will he legitimated that wealth by mentioning this special papal bull by Pope Julius II permitting property ownership. He also legally willed his soul to God. Pacioli might amend Jesus’ declaration in Mark to say, “a rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven if he files the proper paperwork.” Pacioli’s fellow priests were not thrilled with his flagrant flouting of the rules of their order; they tried to get him kicked out. He was instead made head of his monastery. Money makes a way. Pacioli understood that wealth was a matter of reputation and credibility. His entire premise was an apologetic of sorts to prove the virtue of a good wealthy Christian merchant. His neatly ordered financial system of profit is still used in every country in the world, by a different name: reconciliation accounting. A rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of men, given the right system and the right reputation.
What have we inherited that we now consider normative, unexamined, but may be subject to challenge and critique by the Gospel teachings of Jesus? And by our own UCA Statement to the Nation in 1977 which said, We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor”.
Our lives are diminished when we let wealth or possessions or work or hobbies or the ‘to do’ list or positions of privilege and power cut us off from other people and underwhelm our relationship with God. The invitation is to follow the way of Jesus as the way to life, to healing and wholeness. This Jesus, who looks at us, sees us for who we really are entangled with the systems and structures of the world, and loves us enough to inspire dreams of worlds otherwise.
The writers of the Basis of Union expressed our calling as the church: God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself. The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.
May we all play our part as we walk each other home. Amen.