The rich young man who needs only one more thing

This sermon was preached by Rev Sue on Sunday 10 October 2021.

I am an inveterate asker of questions. One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that it is a good idea to have some idea what the answer would be before you ask something. The classic wrong question is to ask “When‘s it due?” unless you are absolutely sure that the woman you are talking to is, in fact, expecting. The man in the story is usually referred to as the rich young ruler. He was very keen to ask Jesus his question – so, seeing him on the point of leaving, he ran after him. In spite of the fact that he had money and status, he was not afraid to kneel before Jesus in public and admit that he didn’t know all the answers. He was probably expecting Jesus to talk about some extra rules or practices, perhaps some extra prayers to say or rituals to observe – that sort of thing was common with many Jewish sects of the day. So, when he asked Jesus: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ he would have been surprised by the first answer; “Don’t commit murder or adultery. Don’t steal or swindle. Don’t be a lying witness and respect your parents”. Jesus steers him away from the commandments about religious practice and focuses on the ones to do with the way we relate to other people. They are quite specific laws, and the young man could in all honesty say that he had always kept them.  He was disappointed, because in the depths of his heart he knew there was more to life than keeping the rules. He had inherited his wealth and found that there were some things that he could not inherit. So, he turned to Jesus “How can I inherit eternal life”. He remained kneeling there, hoping for more. What could give him the feeling of satisfaction and inner peace that was missing in his life? Jesus looked at him and loved him. He saw through the man’s faults and liked what he saw. He looked him in the eye and invited him to be a disciple. But there was a catch. “Sell all you have, give to the poor, come follow me.” The man lacked one thing – the simplicity that comes when we let go of the love we have for our possessions and our lifestyle.

For some people the commandments are harder to keep than for others. If you are rich, it is easier not to steal. You, or your family may not have everything you want, but you won’t go hungry.  If you are a ruler you can rely on the law to deal with anyone who wrongs you – you do not live in a sector of society where grievances are usually addressed with violence. Interestingly, Jesus did include a sin not mentioned in the ten commandments – do not defraud, the white-collar crime.  It is easy to think that we are better than others because we are law abiding, but we don’t know what we would do if we were tempted.

Very, very few people don’t have an issue around money. The Bible tells us that “the love of money is the root of all evil”. For the poor, money becomes the focus of their lives. They are anxious about unemployment, benefit cuts, losing their possessions by theft or fire. They concentrate on little economies that will save pence that they can spend on food, heating or children’s shoes. Many better off people feel that they are fairly comfortable, but a little more would always come in useful. Money insulates us from suffering. It pays for our pleasures that entertain and distract us. If we have enough to spare, we insure our property against loss. It pays for accommodation in districts with less crime. Increasingly people who can afford to do so turn to private medicine to avoid long waits in pain and disability on NHS lists. It is not that any of these things are intrinsically bad, but they are the reasons why money is a preoccupation.

Possessions can be an encumbrance. The Celtic Saint Aidan used to walk everywhere. King Oswin thought that he could do so much more if he had a horse. He would cover many more miles in a day and would be able to get to distant places. So, he presented Aidan with a horse and a fine saddle. One day Aidan saw a beggar by the side of the road and stopped. True to form he had no money or food to offer him. He gave him the saddle and rode off bareback on the horse. But he continued to be concerned for the beggar. What was the point of a saddle if he had no horse? So, he turned round and gave him the horse as well. Aidan walked off, realising how burdensome he had found the horse and saddle. On foot he would stop and chat with fellow travellers, the ordinary people going about their daily lives. The horse was just a nuisance.

Once we own things it can be very difficult to give them away. The possessions begin to possess us. In 2012 two American psychologists ran a series of studies to see how wealth affects compassion. In one they watched drivers at a crossroads. Those in luxury cars were less likely to wait for their turn and more likely to cut in front of other cars. In another study they found that the luxury car drivers were more likely to speed past a pedestrian trying to cross the road. But perhaps it is selfish people who make more money, rather than money being the cause of selfishness? So they ran a study in which half the people were encouraged to feel well off in comparison with others, and the other half were told that they were relatively poor. Everyone was told to help themselves from a jar of sweets – the ones left would go to some children in another room. The people who thought themselves well off took significantly more sweets – the ones who thought they were poor in comparison to others left more for the children. They concluded that greed has the strongest influence on those who have most.

The rich young man had to choose between wealth and status on the one hand, and a vagabond hand to mouth experience on the other. He couldn’t make that radical step into the unknown, into a life of discomfort and threat, uncertainty and loss of control, but with the unequalled reward of living in the presence of Jesus. Instead, he settled for his old life, but with the undercurrent of dissatisfaction magnified by the regret of a lost opportunity.

Jesus sadly turned to his disciples and tells them how difficult it is for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom. They really couldn’t comprehend this, so he joked that it was easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle. In other words, impossible. A popular theory is that Jesus was talking about one of the city gates known as the Needle’s Eye, but there is, in fact, no evidence that there was any such gate. Perhaps commentators, like the disciples, found it difficult to believe that Jesus was making the point so strongly. He could see in the young man that his riches were holding him back, that he could not put God first. Others may learn to hold lightly to their wealth, not by their own efforts, but by the grace of God. That seemingly impossible thing, a rich person who realises the ultimate worthlessness of their riches, can sometimes occur.

As usual, Peter is the spokesperson for the disciples. If the natural order of things in which the rich were rewarded with honours and prestige was going to be turned on its head, where did that leave the disciples who had left everything behind? Jesus gives a double-edged answer. You will receive far more than all the things you have left behind, because there will be a new community where everyone is your brother or sister or mother or father or child in God. The time would come when, after the church came into being at Pentecost, all things would be held in common, and the rich would share with the poor. Yet there would be persecution, too. There would be the good and the bad.

The truth is no one is really in control. The last 18 months has brought that home. If we are to follow Jesus, we have to accept that fact, not try to cling onto the reins of our lives, but to relinquish our possessions and our futures into God’s hands. Rich or poor, we are loved by Christ and if we face the future in the certainty that he will never abandon us, now or in eternity, we can inherit eternal life, a life that is worth living, untrammelled by anxieties and greed.

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