Reading Mark 10:17-31
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
With a new series of The Apprentice coming up, it may just have been a publicity stunt, but Alan Sugar, estimated to be worth a mere £1.4 billion, got into trouble this week for having a go at the poor. He said: “You’ve got some people up North and in places like that who are quite poor, but they all have mobile phones, being poor, and they’ve got microwave ovens, being poor, and they’ve got televisions, being poor.
“If you want to know what poor is like go and live where I lived in Hackney, where you didn’t have enough money for the electric, didn’t have a shilling for the meter.”
In our society you could be forgiven for thinking that being at the lower end of the social ladder – especially if you live ‘up north’ – is some kind of criminal offence, even that not being a millionaire is some kind of criminal offence, so idolized are possessions, success and the acquisition of stacks of cash.
I’m not here to criticise or indeed to eulogise Lord Sugar. It’s easy to stigmatise groups of people and view them as in some way not quite the full shilling. It’s easy to stigmatise millionaires. Stigmatising a group of people we’ve taken a dislike to comes very, very cheap.
Things are always more complicated than that.
Now, as I’m sure you noticed, today’s gospel is very much on the subject of wealth – a very touchy subject in our society, possibly in all societies.
And here we are sitting – or in my case standing – on the top of Richmond Hill, one of the most affluent parts of an affluent city in one of the world’s most affluent countries.
We’ve just heard that story about Jesus telling, advising an affluent man to sell all that he has, give it to the poor and follow him, if he wants to inherit eternal life.
The question we almost inevitably ask ourselves is: ‘Oh my goodness, does Jesus expect me to sell everything I have and give it to the poor? Is that the only way I can become a really genuine, authentic disciple?’
Now, although we’re in Richmond, not everyone here this morning is going to be wealthy by contemporary standards. But the truth is that even the least wealthy of us are probably a lot better off than the vast majority of people were in Jesus’ day. Most of them would have been a hair’s breadth away from destitution, if not actually in destitution. Only a very few would have been remotely wealthy by our standards.
That doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t real hardship in our society. If we don’t turn our eyes away, it reveals itself plainly enough.
But most of us these days have more, far more possessions than, strictly speaking, we actually need – using the word ‘need’ in its true meaning. Having more than you strictly need is how I would define wealth.
Which may sound a bit extreme and it’s obviously not how an economist or a politician or a trade unionist or probably Alan Sugar would define it, but I think that that’s how wealth should be defined from a spiritual point of view: material wealth defined from a spiritual perspective is having more than you need.
Jesus makes it abundantly clear in sundry places that wealth is spiritually dangerous. In our gospel reading, as an instance, we have that image of the camel straining to get through the eye of a needle – 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.
Jesus is surely absolutely right when he says that wealth is spiritually dangerous. And this insight sheds light on the very heart of the gospel. I think we need to ask the following question: ‘What is it exactly that makes wealth spiritually dangerous?’
Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also. It boils down to a question of attachment. Are our hearts truly attached to God? Or is it the case that actually, when all’s said and done, there are plenty of other things that are more important to us than our love for God and God’s love for his creation.
Money and possessions have always been a distraction for human beings but I find it amazing that we’ve created nowadays so many more distractions from what is centrally important in life. We can, for instance, entertain ourselves from dawn till dusk and through the night. We can spend all our time grazing from one distraction to another.
It’s very easy to spend your time engaging in the various forms of distraction that are offered to us. I do it myself. It’s as if we actually don’t want to get to grips with what is really important in life. Perhaps it just seems too difficult or too demanding.
Now, most of the things that distract us are harmless enough in themselves. The problem is that they have a tendency to take over our lives, to assume an importance beyond their merits.
So, to revert back to that question: does God expect us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor?
Well, Jesus obviously felt that, for this wealthy man who had approached him, selling all he had and giving it to the poor was the progressive thing to do. It would help this man’s spiritual life to move forward.
But I always think of that encounter Jesus had with Zacchaeus the tax-collector, another wealthy man. Jesus seemed quite content for Zacchaeus to give only half his possessions to the poor.
It seems that what will help progress a person’s spiritual life is what counts. You could easily envisage a situation in which giving everything away to the poor would lead to a person preening themselves with pride. Not a good outcome. For that person it would be a spiritually regressive thing to do.
Only you in the context of your own spiritual lives and in the context of prayer can decide what the best thing to do is. That will vary from person to person. So I don’t feel in a position to stand here and say that you should give away all your worldly goods. Neither am I going to say that you shouldn’t.
But I will say this: if your wealth is keeping you from deepening your relationship with God – and only you can know – then you need to ponder how to lessen your attachment to wealth and to deepen your attachment to God.
I’m pretty sure it’s possible to have possessions and have a deep, strong relationship with God. It’s just that for most of us possessions make such a relationship a lot more difficult.