Pentecost 19 Mark 10:17-31
Mark chapter 10, verse 17: A man asked, “Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Well, firstly mate, drop the good teacher prattle. I know some leaders love lapdogs, but generally speaking sycophants make me ill. Whatever you do don’t elevate me to lordly status. Just take the few clues you might get from listening and watching, and then work out the solutions to life for yourself. And remember: don’t blame me if you screw up.”
“Secondly, it’s a good question you ask – although you don’t inherit eternal life. Sure, you might inherit some of the ol’ man’s gold, even his membership in the big boys club, but in the eternal life stakes those things aren’t worth a darn. In fact it’s impossible to buy your way into the godly good books.”
“Talking of good books, have you tried doing what they say? You know following the rules: paying your taxes, not beating up on your kids, only going 10 kilometres over the speed limit…”
Verse 20: He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
“Yeah, well, serves ya right. It’s not what you do but what’s in your heart that will get you traction.”
“Look, mate, I know it’s hard for a guy like you. You’re used to wealth and its associated power. It might get you an audience with the Prime Minister, even the bishop, but with God it just doesn’t cut it. A streetie, with aroma to share, will be ushered in before you. It’s all that first last, last first stuff. Bummer eh?”
“Same with philanthropy. Throwing dollars away will get you on the nightly news. It might get you a knighthood, as well as eternal praise from hard-pressed charities, but in the God business you might as well be a widow with a 10-cent coin for all the difference it will make. You can buy power, prestige, even religion… but you can’t buy God.”
“My advice mate, and its tough, is that if you’re a serious seeker ditch the gold, glamour, and glory. They are just gonna weigh you down.”
Verse 22: When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
But the disciples couldn’t believe their ears. ‘How could wealth not get you an audience? How could power not give you influence? If these rich dudes can’t get in, well there’s just no hope for plain guys like us!’ They just stood there, mouths agape, looking like stunned mullets.
v.24b Jesus said to them again, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.”
It’s more difficult than finding a sickness beneficiary at an ACT Party conference; or a mining engineer at a Green one.
26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
Well… dieting camels with access to big needles?
Of course it’s all hyperbole, code for the impossible. It’s not about William Barclay’s make-believe ‘needle gate’ that admits only camels on bended knee. Humility isn’t going to get the rich man in either.
This biblical text is talking about divestment: giving money away.
It doesn’t mean stop making it – although some methods of money-making are not commendable. One can think of alcopops, cigarettes, non-biodegradable plastics, semi-automatic rifles, body ‘enhancement’ surgeries... Just because something is legal doesn’t make it good. Just because there is a market for your product doesn’t mean you should produce it. Just because you are making lots of money doesn’t mean you have what is truly worthwhile.
Money is not neutral. Money has a corrosive effect. It says, “I’m really important.” It says, “If you have lots of me you are successful.” It says, “If you have more of me than your neighbour has then you are not just better off you are better.”
And we Kiwis are seduced by money and its myths. We believe that wealthy people are more important, more successful, and better than the rest of us. Indeed critics of wealth are derided as naïve socialists, destructive of the entrepreneurial spirit.
There was a meeting in 336 B.C.E. between probably the most powerful and richest ruler of the day, Alexander the Great, and the philosopher Diogenes who had no possessions save a staff and a tunic.
When Alexander asked Diogenes to name anything he wanted, he replied: “Just now stand a bit away from the sun!” Alexander had apparently interfered with his basking in the heat.[i]
There are scholars who believe Jesus followed in the same philosophical tradition as Diogenes. This story involves a calculated questioning of power, rule, and kingship. Who is the true ruler: the one who wants everything, or the one who wants nothing; the one who wants all of Asia, or the one who wants only a little sunlight? Was Alexander being ‘real’ and Diogenes being ‘naive’? Or was it the other way round?
Money is a means not an end. Money at its best is a means to assist in the building up of human communities.
An employer told me the other day, with a note of pride in his voice, that it was not profit that motivated him but the fact that their business could support fifteen families. Sure, he was proud of his products too. But he understood the purpose of money to be supporting others.
Similarly the Norman family – who own companies like Farmers and Pascoes – where they were quoted in an interview recently as “not being in it for the money”. I had to read that line twice. They were in it for the satisfaction of serving their customers and supporting their staff.
Divestment is not just about giving money away to charities – although that’s a great start. Divestment is about looking at society and our environment as a whole and thinking about what will make it better. What products will benefit the common good? What services will promote values of love, loyalty, and altruism? What innovations will help the land, the sea, the animals and plants benefit from the human imprint?
How can we help not just the well-off but everyone be happier, everyone be more content, and everyone live a life they can be proud of? One of the surest ways to feel happy and content is by helping other people achieve happiness and contentment. We are communal creatures. The good of the whole affects our soul.
The potent combination of money, individual fulfilment, and greed destroys the soul, and destroys the lives of others round about. This was the malady behind the prime mortgage and banking catastrophes that recently swept our world. The answers don’t just lie in regulations and controls. The answers needed are soul answers, and they affect all of us who aspire to have more.
The answers also lie in making a stark choice: Are we going to spend our lives striving for money and influence? Or are we going to divest ourselves of these attractive idols and seek that which is beyond price?
Diogenes was once reprimanded by the philosopher Aristippus: “If you would learn to be subservient to the king you would not have to live on such garbage as lentils.”
Said Diogenes, “If you had learnt to live on lentils you would not have to flatter the king.”[ii]
Or as Jesus once said:
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” [Matt 6:24]
[i] Crossan, J. D. Jesus a Revolutionary Biography p.116
[ii] De Mello, A The Song of the Bird p.105