Would you give away your privilege with joyful abandon?
Will Ridpath, 10 October 2021
Psalm 90: 12–17; Hebrews 4: 12–16; Mark 10: 17–31
You will have heard of the great organisation Alcoholics Anonymous; I am told that one of the hardest things about being a member is having to admit that you have a problem. You may not have heard that the hardest thing about going to Hypochondriacs Anonymous is admitting that you don’t have a problem!
The condition of a hypochondriac goes right to the heart of the worldview of the rich young ruler in this gospel reading, because the hypochondriac shies away from anything that is outside his or her control: hypochondriacs spend their lives deciding what is good for them and what is bad for them. They avoid anything that will mean engaging in the unpredictability of life.
And so it is with the rich young man and his relationship with God. He seems to have everything in order and to have led an exemplary life nicely tucked away from anything messy. Having done well for himself, he is doing everything required of him by the religious laws of the time, including being good to his folks. If he lived now, he would have paid his taxes on time, maybe had a few performance cars, be on the Rotary Club committee and let’s face it, he’d probably be on the PCC, because he was pretty sensible! But when he asks, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?’ the answer he gets is deeply disturbing.
Firstly, Jesus rejects the notion of having any ability to do good other than when empowered by God. But the young man has already revealed his hand: he sees the world divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. Absolutely no guesses as to which camp he most likely thinks he belongs to!
Secondly, having listed some of the commandments, Jesus goes on to do what becomes a growing feature of his ministry. He goes beyond the laws for good behaviour set out in the Torah of the Old Testament and moves to the world of inner motives, of what Brother Roger of Taizé would call ‘the inner life’.
And so Jesus looks the rich young man hard in the eye … and he loves him. Jesus then delivers the line that drains all the life out of the man. ‘There is one thing left: go and sell whatever you own and give it to the poor, and your wealth will be heavenly wealth. And come, follow me.’
It is hard not to feel a measure of sympathy for this man. Here he was, going out of his way to visit someone he saw as an extraordinary teacher, only to be told to give up his wealth and throw in his lot with fishermen and fools!
But in loving the man, Jesus had seen his inner motives: the person he encountered was surely someone looking to get an insight into how to climb the spiritual ladder. It was rather like someone looking to get advice as to how to get on in the world by being a ‘good’ person. This ladder, however, was well and truly kicked out from under the rich man’s feet and it came crashing down with all the force of a collapsed dream. The man went away deeply saddened because he could not let go of all the things he held on to so tightly.
It can be no coincidence that this reading is set in the lectionary shortly after the celebration of the feast of St Francis. Francis of Assisi was able to do precisely what the young man could not: he willingly gave away all his privilege with joyful abandon, embraced the poor and set about building a community founded on the overflowing love of Christ. Francis intuited that to draw closer to God meant descending the ladder, not climbing it. It meant being associated with the lowest of the low and even the earth, even the soil itself. In fact, the word ‘humility’ as you probably know, comes from the word humus – that broken-down organic matter that is the most fertile part of the soil.
Francis willingly offered up his life in service and praise to the Creator God, and the fruit of the movement he inspired has lasted right through the ages to now. For a number of years, the men’s group and individuals from this parish have stayed at the wonderful Hilfield Friary in Dorset where the call to live a carbon-neutral life and caringly on this earth is lived out each day. Their lives couldn’t be further removed from the worldliness that was strangling the inner life of the Church in Francis’ day and surely strangling the inner life of the rich young man.
So, what are we to make of all this? Are we to hand over our bank details to the Finance Committee members as we leave this morning? (Someone’s nodding. Are there any members of the Finance Committee here? See them afterwards if you’re so moved.) To quote the famous American theologian John McEnroe, ‘You cannot be serious!’
Well, if I am being honest with you, after reading this gospel passage, I was left wondering if I would actually have liked to have met this Jesus in person. I am simply not sure how I would have responded when he looked into the ghastly, contradictory mess that is my life and my soul.
And if we are being honest with ourselves, is not at least part of us protesting along with the disciples, that ‘this teaching to enter the kingdom of heaven is just too hard, it’s just too difficult’? Apart from anything, the combination of needles and camels has never sounded that safe. Friends, I would like to suggest that the truth is kinder than it may first seem, and that journeying into the kingdom of heaven is not the forbidding trial that we may fear.
Firstly, I would like to ask for your help: could anyone tell me what the first two commandments are?
I am the Lord your God: you shall have no other gods but me.
You shall not make an idol for yourself.
That is crucially important, and I’ll explain why. Jesus was really uncompromising in his message to the rich young man and his disciples, because he knew that to try to replace the source of life, the creator, with phony gods – such as the subtly narcissistic success stories we hear and absorb about careers, achievements, families and even our religion – is ultimately fatal. The turning of our attention away from the source of our truest identity drains us of the spiritual life-blood that feeds our very souls. To be cut off from this life source is to be cut off from our future and our spiritual inheritance.
Jesus knew that to try to replace the source of life, the creator, with phony gods – such as the subtly narcissistic success stories we hear and absorb about careers, achievements, families and even our religion – is ultimately fatal.
So, Jesus’ stern warning is for our sake, not to protect God from our wandering attention. Yes, surely God looks hard into our souls and loves us too. And if this intimidates us, we have the comfort of Jesus’ words that out of our own strength we cannot hope to enter the kingdom of God, but with God’s presence there is nothing to fear.
For we come to a God who sees us when we bow or when we cower to these idols, but who never ceases to woo us into back into relationship and into reality.
We come not to a distant, monotheistic God who sees us as either ‘good people’ or ‘bad people’, but a trinitarian God of relationships, profoundly committed to us and our planet.
We come to a God who calls us not to the miserly life of the social climber or the fearful hypochondriac, but to the abundance of life in Christ, with all its struggles and its riches, shared hopes, shared dreams and even shared possessions.
Above all, God comes to us, not only in Word, in fellowship and in sacrament, but in those who have no worldly standing, because, as St Francis’ life testified, it is the most vulnerable who have the greatest capacity to summon out of us our Christ-like nature.
And if you have trouble believing all this, then just call to mind the saints we know and those recently departed. We only have to look at their lives to see their deep and profound humanity, not untouched by suffering, but made infinitely rich by God’s calling.
As we pray and prepare ourselves for Holy Communion, may we too have the boldness to ask, ‘Lord, what must I do to enter the kingdom of God?’ And at a time when many of us are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, still struggling to put the pieces of life back together again, may we have the courage to listen to that still small voice.
May we learn to trust that it is not the heavy burden of disgrace that awaits us, but the gift of grace, grace, and more grace; a gift so great that we may dare to believe that even our most foolish and selfish moments can be absorbed into the eternal fellowship of a life-giving God with all the saints. A gift so great that even a rich man will one day abandon his empty life for a life that money could never even begin to buy. Amen.