Sermon - Ordinary 28 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Can wealth keep you out?

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "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." [Mark 10:21 ]

What is wrong with wealth? Or is that the question?

The man who came running to Jesus and knelt before him was earnest in his enquiries, and Jesus saw that he was honest and sincere in his wish to find his way into the Kingdom of God. He looked at him lovingly, and the way Jesus spoke to him was more in the way of a kind invitation than a stern warning. But the man was shocked and went away grieving:

Why should he be shocked? Jesus said similar things on other occasions:

At another time he followed a general warning by the parable of the rich fool who thought all was well as he built bigger barns to hold his material wealth only to be faced with death before he could enjoy his wealth:

It concludes:

So there were plenty of examples of this general theme in the teaching of Jesus. But the reaction of the disciples and the man himself on this occasion suggest that it was something new to them then; and that is understandable. The people of Israel were promised riches in the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and they regarded prosperity as a blessing from God. Although in their literature there had been people like Job who had struggled with the idea that wealth was a sign of having favour with God. They believed that we are placed on the earth to enjoy it and knew that God saw that his creation was good.

This incident with the man commonly called "the rich young ruler" ("young" from Matthew 19:20 and "ruler" from Luke 18:18) astonished those who witnessed it. The disciples were perplexed when he said to them afterwards (Mark 10:23) "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"

and they were even more astounded when he added:

This proverbial saying was meant to catch attention. Do not try to rationalize it and reduce its absurdity. It was meant to be absurd. Jesus deliberately chose to compare the largest beast of burden amongst them with the smallest aperture in common use. It was another dramatic exaggeration, like the hyperbole of


The enormous camel through the tiniest hole: it was not meant to be taken literally but in a dramatic or poetic sense, laughably impossible in a provocative challenge to conventional ways of thinking. It is true that there are alternative explanations. For example some say there was a narrow gate through the wall of the city called the eye of the needle which a camel might squeeze through with great difficulty. So you might argue a rich man might just make it into the Kingdom if he tried very hard, but that was a later interpretation not used at the time. Then there was a word in the language that Jesus spoke very similar to the word for camel that meant rope, so it would have been possible to make a pun on the word by saying camel instead of rope when saying it would be easier for rope to be put through a needle. The dramatic point would still be made. That is, what we have here was a style of speech that Jesus used at times, in much the same way as the other rabbis. Indeed there is evidence of rabbis in the first century using a figure of speech that is very similar, when they said: "It is easier for an elephant to go through the eye of a needle..."

Why then is it so difficult for a rich man or woman to enter the Kingdom of heaven? Basically it is as Jesus said For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If your interest or investment of time, energy and passion is primarily in the material things of this world that is what you will love, that is where your heart will be; but if your heart is right with God and other things are secondary you can expect to have a good continuing relationship with God. The more possessions you have the more tempted you will be to give them much time and attention, distracting you from what really matters if you are to fulfil your potential to know God and enjoy him for ever.

It is the sort of thing about which it is very easy to deceive ourselves. Many of us have had to make financial plans for retirement. It takes time and care to accumulate savings and to use one's assets wisely and responsibly. It is understandable that in the uncertain rapidly changing world we live in there is some anxiety associated with how we care for whatever money we have or hope to have, or that people might worry about their potential for earning an income in the future. With both hope and anxiety it is easy to get hooked on financial concerns. It can be very seductive, but we know in our hearts that what Jesus said was right. It can easily distract you from things of greater importance. It is a question of what takes your attention, what demands your loyalty, which master you serve:

In the competition for loyalty, there is a spiritual danger in wealth because it tends to deceive us into putting other things before God. Then we tend to think that we are in charge, that we can order our lives to suit ourselves. We tend, when we are strong and independent in economic and social terms, to put our will in the place of the will of God -- and that is not the basis of a proper relationship with him. Our worship and service of God does require us to recognize that he is Lord. In the end everything belongs to God. We only enjoy possession as stewards who look after some part of God's creation that still belongs to him. He is the owner of the vineyard to whom we have to give an account. Will we be glad to meet with him if we have misused that trust or made an idol of anything that God has made?

It might help if you reflect a little on why money is so seductive. It has great power precisely because of what it is, a medium of exchange. It can be changed into other things, according to your desires, and it seems that it can be exchanged for almost anything at all if you have enough of it: the basic necessities of life like food, clothing and shelter and all sorts of other things that are nice to have, and it can influence greatly how you are treated by other people. We know that there are some things that money can't buy, but these days there is not much in our society that is not traded in some way in the market place. Money is power, and power corrupts. It corrupts all except those who are pure in heart -- for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8). Even at the simplest level of what we regard as necessities Jesus encouraged his followers not to be unnecessarily anxious:

I know it is not easy to sit loosely on our possessions, but there is the challenge and the warning so often repeated in the gospels, of the spiritual danger that can come from the idolatry of possessions. I am not talking about the importance of giving to the church, although sacrificial giving is one way of limiting the spiritual danger of too great a concern with money; and I am not thinking especially of giving to those in need, although that too should be part of our discipleship. The real challenge is in the priority that money can have in our lives. The challenge of sacrificial giving is one way of testing what our priorities are.

None of that is meant to imply that paying attention to wealth in the community at large is always bad, although the materialism of our society in recent years has been shameful. From a general economic point of view increased production makes it easier to provide social services. Even for individuals something can be said for gaining and sharing: John Wesley said `Get all you can; save all you can; give all you can.'

So where is the danger? The first danger is idolatry. Then, in addition to making an idol of money, one danger is that your gain can be at the expense of another. Exploitation is common and easily hidden or justified. Landowners who took too much of the produce and left the workers hungry were condemned in ancient times, as were mill owners in modern history. Usury, exploiting others through interest payments on loans, was forbidden for Christians in most centuries, and may well come back into consideration as we see in arguments about farmers losing their land to the banks or even whole nations having to reschedule their international loans least their people be deprived of necessities, and is has been good to see some debts of the poorest countries being cancelled. Much of the damage done by communism was justified in Marxist theory by reference to the exploitation of labour, especially as it occurred in the industrial revolution. We are going through another kind of revolution today. Some economic difficulties have been due to the collapse of speculative manipulations of finance and investment in which a few became extremely rich (at least temporarily) at the expense of many. There is always the temptation to take more than your share, and being wealthy gives you power to take a bigger share than you should. Exploitation is wrong because of the injustice it does to others and because of the spiritual danger it has for those who benefit.

As we have already seen, the greatest spiritual danger is in our relationship with God, but it extends to our relationship with others. It is common enough to see people who are well off and have little satisfaction in their personal relationships. The power that we have to become children of God is limited by our capacity to recognize others as his children too, as our sisters and brothers. Indeed, we do not enter the Kingdom of God alone, but in the company all those who respond to his call. Love God and your neighbour, and you will find you way into the Kingdom. That is how Jesus answered a similar question about how to gain eternal life at another time when he went on tell the story of the Good Samaritan.

Can the dangers be avoided?

It is difficult. People can try to be fair to others. Economic systems can be made more just. People can voluntarily give away much of what they gain. But it is hard for most people not to think that they deserve what they have. After all they have is so often seen as what they are 'worth'. Is not poverty a sign of failure? Is there still not a sense of the blessing and cursing of God in these things? Such dangers are real because of human pride, which makes it difficult to avoid the traps of seeking wealth. That is why Jesus said it is very difficult: Children , how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! {25} It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle; but when his disciples said "Who then can be saved?" he added For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible. (Mark 10:27) We are not then saved from the dangers of wealth by our own efforts, even our moral and spiritual efforts, but by the grace of God. For God, not for us, all things are possible. If we trust God we can be saved: for by grace are saved through faith.

What then should we do? Accept the liberation that trusting God will give. Then you can sit lightly on your earthly possessions, share gladly what you earn in the company of others, offering sacrificial gifts of praise and thanksgiving, and giving to those in need; and that includes paying your taxes and going the second mile.

It comes back to loving God, trusting him and being thankful for all we have received. Above all we give thanks for Christ and give him the glory for opening to us the way of salvation with the promise to share with him in riches of the Kingdom of God. That is the pearl of great price, a prize so rich that when it is fully appreciated all else can be given up in exchange for it, and we can gladly sing,

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small:
love so amazing so divine
demands my soul, my life my all.

| DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

| Christian Beliefs | Family History | Public Affairs | Higher Ed Research | Hobbies and Interests | Issues in the UCA | Personal Background | Psychological Research | Templestowe UC | Worship and Preaching |