Monday, 12 October 2015

How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God- Mark 10



For the last few weeks we have been dealing with some difficult teachings. Last week we heard some hard words about divorce. The week before that we heard about the danger we are in if we cause someone to stumble as they try to follow Jesus. And the week before that we heard how Jesus was turning the world upside down, making the servants and children into the most important people in the society of the Kingdom. This week we encounter yet another difficult teaching of Jesus- the difficulty of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

I find that I have two reactions to these hard messages of Jesus. One, is the thought of crushing defeat. I want to give up because it just seems too difficult to live up to his teaching. The other reaction I have is that I try to soften his teaching. I try to twist his teaching to match my life so I don’t have to make any changes. The Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said:
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.” (Kierkegaard’s journals)
Perhaps Kierkegaard is exaggerating, but I think I know what he is saying. Jesus asks difficult things of us. He asks us to live in ways that don’t make sense to the rest of the world. Wouldn’t it just be easier if we could twist his teaching a little bit so that we don’t have to live in such an extreme way? … Somehow we have to find a way to not feel crushed by the weight of the teaching of Jesus, but also not try to soften his words by twisting them to make them easier.

In our Gospel reading today a rich man runs up to Jesus and kneels in front of him and asks him what he has to do to gain eternal life. Jesus asks him about some of the commandments- murder, adultery, theft, lying, fraud, and honouring parents. The man responds that he has been obedient to these commands since his youth. Jesus looked at him and loved him. … So here before Jesus is someone sincerely seeking eternal life, he humbles himself before Jesus by kneeling at his feet, and he is obedient to the Hebrew Law. This is a very good man. There is only one things standing between him and eternal life- his wealth. Jesus names the man’s problem- 
"You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 
Jesus probably could have asked him for anything else and the man would have obeyed, but Jesus asked him to give up the one thing he loved more than God- his wealth. We read about Jesus saying to others, “follow me” and they leave their nets and boats behind and they follow him. But, this rich man is not willing to leave his riches in the same way the disciples left their nets to follow Jesus. We read, 
“When [the rich man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’”

Jesus’ directions to the man are shocking. First, it is an incredibly difficult thing he asked. He asked him to change his entire life, even though he was a good man. We usually think bad people need to change their lives, not good people. Second, wealth was often considered a sign of God’s favor. They believed that if God was pleased with you that you would be blessed with wealth. Asking someone to give away a sign of God’s blessing would have been difficult to accept.

So why did Jesus ask the rich man to give up his wealth? It seems as though the man made an idol out of his money. Anything we place in priority ahead of God can be an idol. Anything we trust more than God can be an idol. If you have lots of money in the bank, then you feel secure. You can lose your job and you aren’t worried about paying your bills or feeding yourself. Money can also make you feel a sense of control. You can pay people to do things. If you want something, you can buy it. If you have enough money you can get on a plane and go anywhere in the world. Money is a powerful tool, but it can also be a powerful idol. We can trust it to take care of us more than we trust God to take care of us. The rich man in our story might not have been able to put himself in the position of trusting God to give him what he needs.

Maybe the rich man didn’t think Jesus had the right to ask this- to give it all away. Maybe, like us, he felt like he deserved his money. He has earned it and so it is unreasonable for Jesus to ask him to give it away. That is our normal way of thinking about our money. But, much of our wealth has to do with the circumstances we find ourselves in rather than our particular talents or efforts. There are people who work very hard and long hours picking through garbage dumps in Calcutta, or farming in places like Ethiopia. Do we have more wealth because we work harder than them? Much of our wealth is due to being in Canada and having certain opportunities that come from being born in a wealthy country. Often we have opportunities because of the families we are born into. Where we happened to be born gave us the opportunity to make certain friends, or attend certain schools. How much of that can we actually take credit for? Of course our effort counts. I’m just saying that there are plenty of hard working and talented people in other parts of the world that live in absolute poverty. It seems to me that the circumstances we find ourselves in has much more to do with whether we are wealthy or not. … Isn’t it God who places wealth into our hands? And doesn’t that give God the right to direct our use of our wealth? In the offertory of the Book of Common Prayer we pray a portion of scripture, 
“All that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine. All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee” (1 Chronicles 29. 10, 11, 14). 
It’s all God’s. We can’t really imagine anything that doesn’t belong to God the creator. So surely God he has the right to direct us in how we use our wealth.

So what do we do with this teaching? On a global standard we would probably be considered to be rich. Should we give away everything we own to the poor? There were people who heard this reading throughout the church’s history and gave all their wealth away to live a life of poverty. In the late 2nd century St. Anthony, who is considered the father of monasticism, heard in this reading his own call to give away his wealth and go off into the desert to live a life of simplicity and prayer. St. Francis of Assisi in the late 12th century was also inspired by this reading to lead a life of poverty. The monastic movement that has been a part of Christianity since near the beginning and has desired to be obedient to Jesus’ words to the rich man. Maybe some of us are called to this. Though, I don’t think this is what all Christians are called to.

I think the key question here is “would you give it all away if Jesus looked you in the eye and asked you to?” There is no inherent good in being poor. What Jesus is after actually doesn’t have anything to do with money. He cares about the disposition of our heart. Do we trust Jesus? If he asked us to give it all away, is our heart so disposed towards him that we would be willing? This is something we should meditate on and pray about seriously. Would I give it all away if Jesus asked me to?

(If that question brings discomfort, as it does for most of us, then it is worth bringing that to God in prayer.) … Jesus saw that for the rich man the only way he would learn to trust God more than his money would be for him to give it away. That would destroy his money idol and teach him to be vulnerable and trust God for his wellbeing.

Ultimately, though, the rich man’s problem is shown in his question, “What must I do?” The man is pursuing eternal life as something that is earned- something that is bought by an action. The kingdom can only be received, not earned. Earlier in the chapter Jesus says “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14-15). Like a child we become vulnerable and dependent on God, and receive the Kingdom from God, we don’t earn it. There’s nothing we can “do” to get it. It doesn’t matter how well we obey the Law. The Kingdom is not earned. It is received. As a child receives food and shelter from their parents, that’s how we receive the kingdom. To learn to become like children we might need to be willing to sacrifice our wealth or our position in society.

These are hard teachings from Jesus. We want the kingdom of God to be easy to enter, and in a sense it is. It is hard if we think it is all up to us, but as Jesus says, 
"For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible" (10:27). 
 That’s not to say effort isn’t expected of us. Effort is expected, but we don’t earn a place in the kingdom by our efforts. The kingdom is given and received, not earned, so get rid of anything that is blocking your ability to receive.  Can you have wealth and be a Christian? Sure. But be sure about your priorities. If you aren't able to put God first, then give it away. 

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