23rd SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST OCTOBER 10TH, 2021 MARK 10:17-31
Forgive me for getting very bleak, very quickly. I try not to get too gloomy until the second third of a sermon, but I’m going straight there today. So, do you ever wonder just how much more our society can take before it completely destroys itself in its discontent? Obviously, I do, or I wouldn’t be asking the question. What I’m thinking about is how we in the developed world have this ever-increasing expectation of comfort, ease, and material satisfaction. And our ever-increasing anger when those unrealistic demands are not met.
Some fake and funny tweets illustrate my point.
“The Wi-Fi at the luxury Greek villa we are staying at only supports 4 devices at a time.”
“I want to order pizza, but it is too early, and I don’t want to be judged by my doorman.” “Really sick and tired of this place putting too much orange peel in my brunch mimosa.” May God have mercy on our lack of perspective.
He’s rich, he’s young, he’s powerful. He’s the rich young ruler and he’s lost his perspective. Somewhere – maybe it was in between the pool and the hot tub, he misplaced it. Maybe it slipped down the side of the seat in his Leer jet, or perhaps he left it in the glovebox of his Rolls Royce. Wherever it was, he really did do a thorough job of losing it. So completely lost is his perspective that he comes to Jesus to ask if he’s seen it. “Master, have you seen my perspective on life?” he asks. “I think I left it somewhere, but I forget where.” His actual words were, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But that was the gist of it. And Jesus replied. “It’s where it’s always been. It’s just that you’ve buried it under a mountain of money. You can’t find it because it’s under a mansion full of luxuries. Go and hire a very large dumpster and fill it with all that stuff.”
So, the rich, young, ruler did as Jesus instructed. He hired a dumpster and began to toss into it the ocean of goods that had crushed and hidden his perspective. Down and down, he went into the depths of his pyramid of belongings until he eventually reached the bottom, and there, just as he hurled the last of his Picassos into the dumpster he saw, twinkling in the sunlight, scratched, bedraggled, bent, but still intact, the thing he had lost. So, he picked up his perspective on life, wiped it down with Lysol and got on with the truly important things with newfound happiness – he loved, he laughed, he served, he prayed, he gave thanks, he made new commitments to people and to causes and to the God who created it all and holds it all together. And one day he died a happy man.
At least, I hope that’s what he did. The fact is we don’t know. The story of this shocking encounter between Jesus and the rich, young man ends without that final chapter. Mark mournfully tells us, “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The depth of his emotion tells me that he there’s hope for him. He didn’t just shrug and say ‘whatever’; and he doesn’t say “Yes, yes, I’ll follow you”, and not really mean it. I want to believe that he wrestled with the invitation; that he looked squarely at the cost, but knew this was the only way he was going to find freedom.
Jesus has more to say. As he watches the rich young man walking away, he turns and says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth 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.” Phew! Thank goodness Jesus is talking about rich people and not me. Imagine what a shocking warning that would be if Jesus had people like us in mind, rather than billionaires.
I’ve got bad news. I regret to tell you that I’ve studied this passage in its original Greek, and the words, “Jeff, Bezos, Queen, Elizabeth, Bill, and Gates” do not appear in the original text. I’m sorry to say I can’t find any loopholes – at least not one a camel could squeeze through. When Jesus was talking about wealth, he was looking at us – the vast majority of 21st century Western people. The median household income in the US is $63,000, and that places a household in the top 0.17% of the world’s richest, according to the Global Rich List. Forget talk of the 1% and billionaires. If the household, you live in has an income of $63,000 you are in the 0.17%. That is my first fun fact of the day. How dare I complain about anything – in particular my standard of living.
Humans, you see, tend to compare ourselves with people who have more than us, and not the people who have less than us. I can walk past brownstones on the Upper-West Side and feel envy; but I will drive past social housing in Elizabeth and not even notice, let alone be moved to thank God that I live in great comfort. Our human nature is trained to spot the things we don’t have not the things we do. O wretched creatures that we are.
Here’s fun fact number 2: This story is the only time in the Gospels where Jesus is said to love a specific person. Of course, Jesus loved everyone, and he showed it by his actions in healing, embracing, forgiving. But when it comes to a writer actually stating in so many words that Jesus loved a person – it only happens once – and it is this guy, the rich young man who I find quite shocking. So, what can we take from fun fact number 2?
Well, Jesus loves rich people. He knows that each morning when they get up, they plunge into shark-infested waters. Just by having wealth they face spiritual dangers that less well-resourced people don’t struggle with. The wealthy woman, the popular man, the powerful person can do incredible good, but they can also do terrible harm – the kind of harm under-resourced people can’t inflict. Wealthy people are given unique responsibilities, temptations, and pressures. Money brings with it influence, and well-resourced people can use their power and their resources to advance the cause of God’s kingdom or to undermine it.
Here’s a third fun fact. If you search the New Testament for a clear statement that wealth is a blessing, you won’t find any. You will in the Old Testament, but in the New, Jesus and Paul are too aware of the power of money to seduce us away from God and impoverish your true selves. At best they see money as morally neutral, and at worst as a danger to our souls. Wealth can insulate people from the suffering of others, it can lead some to take their eyes off God and live as if they were self-sufficient, it can even lead to self-righteousness, as if material possessions were a badge of someone’s goodness or morality or favor in the eyes of God.
So, it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus looks at the rich young ruler with love and tells him to sell all his stuff and give it away. It is because he loves him that he tells him to give it all away. Jesus sees that despite this man’s faithfulness to religious tradition and his desire to do right by God, he is swimming with sharks in life-threatening waters.
Elsewhere Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.” Those who are well-resourced dwell in a dangerously vulnerable place because of them much is expected. People who are well-resourced can literally change the world. They have the power to transform lives. What an incredible gift from God. To be God’s instruments in the renewing of the world, in saving lives, in influencing society’s ideas and opinions. All it takes to turn a window into a mirror is a little bit of silver. We go from looking out at the world with curiosity and compassion, to looking only at ourselves. That is what a layer of silver will do.
Here’s the truth that Jesus saw so clearly and that we all know: The greatest riches in life, the most precious treasures in all this noble human experience cannot be bought with money. The things we live for, the things we are willing to die for, aren’t measured in dollar signs. Or as Bob Marley said, “Some people are so poor all they have is money.”
There’s a story of a man who loved gold. As it happens, he inherited a fortune and with joy he redecorated his bedroom. He put up gold parchment wallpaper, hung gold-colored curtains, and had a golden colored rug and a yellow bedspread. He even bought some yellow pyjamas. But then he became ill and came down with, of all things, jaundice. His wife called the doctor who made a house call and went up to examine the patient in his bedroom. The doctor was up there for what seemed like an eternity, and when she finally came down, the wife asked, “How is he?” “I don’t know,” said the doctor. “I couldn’t find him.” Money can do that. We can lose ourselves in it. We can forget who we are, and become deeply, tragically lost.
It’s week three of our autumn stewardship campaign, ‘Every Perfect Gift’. Today’s theme is ‘The Gift of Enough’. We included this title in the series because ‘enough’ is what we all have. Enough is a gift, enough is a blessing, enough is the attitude we must have if we are going to thrive in life. Enough might not be what we want – we might strive for more, but enough is all we need. A 2018 study from Purdue University found that the ideal income points for in the US is $95,000, and emotional wellbeing is optimized at $60,000 to $75,000 a year. When people earn more than $105,000, their happiness levels decrease. The way of striving for more is futile – I will not find what I am truly looking for. What the rich young man, I, and all of us are seeking is meaning, love, the peace that comes form knowing you are loved by the creator, that my life has a purpose, and that God holds me in palm of his hand. The rich young knew his wealth couldn’t buy it, he had tried slavishly following religious rules – and that didn’t work either. It’s only when we get material things in perspective, and give them away, that we will find ourselves and our God.