Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Two weeks ago, the Gospel reading was about cutting off those body parts that cause us to stumble. Today, there are more tricky words to contend with: sell all you own and give the money to the poor; that vivid image of the camel going through the eye of a needle – or not, as the case may be; and the warning that the first will be last and the last first. I don’t think it’s just me, but the readings in these final few weeks of the Church’s year seem to be getting harder to understand and rather more sombre in tone. In many ways, the preacher’s worst nightmares all coming together, because all these come pretty high up on the list of things we might wish Jesus hadn’t said!
We need to bear in mind, however, that we are currently reading in Mark’s Gospel. Mark is widely regarded as the earliest Gospel to be written, somewhere around the years 65-70. That’s not very long after Paul’s epistles, and some of Mark’s material certainly has echoes of Paul’s writings. The thrust of his Gospel is that anyone who is baptised is already ‘in Christ’, with all that implies. By the time we reach later Gospels, such as Luke, there has been time for some theological processing and reflection upon the Jesus story, but for Mark it is direct and uncompromising, with little debate to be had, which is why some of his statements come across as unadorned and extremely demanding.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says that the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, and is also able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. If we take those words at face value and set them alongside today’s Gospel, I think we can see what the author might have been getting at, because that episode from Mark makes for difficult, unsettling and challenging reading. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear it? Do you wonder if you are one of the rich people whose wealth will make it next to impossible to inherit the kingdom?
In this Gospel story, as in so many others, Jesus is pushing his followers and would-be followers to think (as we might put it today) ‘outside the box.’ How do we respond to that challenge? Jesus is turning his followers’ lives upside down, but I wonder how willing they were, and how willing we are, to think outside our own boxes. In this story, Jesus gets people’s attention by talking about something very precious: possessions. A man kneels before him and asks how he can inherit eternal life. He seems sincere, and when Jesus talks to him about keeping the commandments, he says he has kept them since his youth. So, evidently, it isn’t enough just to observe the rules: real discipleship demands more. He tells the man to sell his things, give the money to the poor, and then follow him. As sincere as this young man is, he goes away sad, because he has a lot of ‘stuff’, and it seems he can’t give it up. Jesus is asking too much.
If we feel for this man, it is surely because his story also makes us uncomfortable. We, too, would be Jesus’s followers, but look at the ‘stuff’ we have. And I’m not just talking here about material possessions – even though they can all too easily consume our desires, our energies and our bank accounts. No, that word ‘possessions’ can also include everything we tend to cling on to and say that we can’t leave behind, such as opinions and attitudes; our unwillingness to compromise or concede we might be wrong; our complacency in colluding with unjust systems and our failure to question the status quo; the people we routinely ignore or write off, who don’t even feature on our radar; our fears and prejudices; our ‘let’s not go there’ territory; our compulsions and addictions; our inclination towards self-interest, which places ‘me’ at the centre of the universe…and so the list could go on. If we’re honest, each one of us knows only too well what is on our own personal list.
I don’t think we should necessarily take Jesus’s words about material wealth too literally. To do so would seem to me to be missing the real point of the story. There clearly isn’t much point in deliberately placing ourselves in abject poverty and, let’s face it, we’re not going to do it in any case. But I think we should consider taking seriously the implication of what Jesus says, which seems to be that we need to face up to whatever stumbling blocks we place in the way of becoming more Jesus-like. What might we need to lose, or indeed gain, in order to be more effective disciples? If we are fortunate enough to have money and possessions, we may need to consider how we can best use them to help those who don’t. If we hold on to attitudes or prejudices that exclude or demonise others, or tend towards self-righteousness, then we need to question ourselves and our motives more closely and change our ways. If we continue to consume without thought for the effects on the environment, then we need to alter our lifestyle. All these things may apply to us individually or as a church community. It takes honesty, and a conscious decision to want to live in a Jesus-inspired way. If we take this radical Gospel seriously, it might really turn our lives upside down, but could we cope with that? This Gospel is challenging us to get rid of the stuff that can get in the way, to de-clutter, to set Jesus-centred priorities. We’re not compelled to do it: Jesus allowed the rich young man to walk away. We also have a choice.
Beatrice is too young to understand all of this as she takes her place in the life of the baptised this morning. But most of us aren’t. As we welcome Beatrice into the community of the Church today, it’s a good opportunity for those of us who can to re-visit what our life as baptised people ought to be like. It is about becoming more like Jesus.