Treasure in Heaven

October 14, 2018

Helen Jacobi

Ordinary 28     Amos 5:6-7, 10-15     Psalm 90:12-17     Hebrews 4:12-16     Mark 10:17-31

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Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are familiar with the phrase which begins a confession – “Forgive me for I have sinned; it has been – however many – weeks since my last confession.”

 

Well it has been 12 weeks since my last sermon and so my penance is that the week I am back in the pulpit I have to wrestle with “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. Go sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

 

There is some divine humour in there somewhere. I have no desire whatsoever to give up what I have. And I am pretty sure you don’t want to either.

 

Our readings today can either leave us feel pretty beaten up – with Amos who seems to shout “I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins” – or the readings leave us feeling guilty and sad like the man who encounters Jesus and chooses not to follow him – or annoyed like Peter “we have left everything and followed you” – we have done our bit, surely, we are here aren’t we?

 

Many writers and preachers have tried over the years to soften this passage – maybe it is not about literally giving away all your possessions, maybe it is about our attitude to our possessions. There have been theories about the camel – some have claimed there was a literal gate in the walls of Jerusalem where the camels had to be unloaded to get through; and because they kneel to be unloaded it was symbolic of prayer. But as one writer says “In the end, this story is untamable. … it resists simple explanations and denies loopholes, making us so uncomfortable that we are liable to talk circles around it in hope of stumbling upon a basis for softening its message.” [1]

 

So I will try not to talk circles around it, nor soften its message in keeping with the writer of the letter to the Hebrews who says “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of our heart.” (Heb 4:12-16) Are we ready to be pierced by the Word?

 

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

 

Inherit? eternal life. Our unnamed man is using the language of his world – the language of the rich and the entitled who inherit what is their due. In Jesus day, and indeed in OT times, to be rich meant that God has blessed you. We find its parallels in today’s so called “prosperity” gospel where preachers claim the same heresy of wealth equating to God’s blessing. So this man feels blessed by God already – now he just wants to be sure he will have that for all eternity.

Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

 

Jesus is having none of the man’s compliments: Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. But since you ask 
You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’

 

Jesus lists 5 of the 10 commandments (Exodus 20); but he changes one of them – the 10th commandment is “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house” – meaning you shall not be envious or jealous, or desire to have what your neighbour has but be satisfied with what is yours. But Jesus changes covet to “defraud” – the Greek can translate as to defraud or make destitute; so Jesus is directly challenging and accusing the man of becoming wealthy by dishonest means or at the very least by the exploitation of others. And that was the way of things in Jesus day – you didn’t get rich on your own – using slave labour or indentured peasant labour was the way to be wealthy. 
 

Without a pause the man says "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth."
Right. 


Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go [2], sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 

This man is the only person in Mark’s gospel not to agree to follow Jesus when asked.

 

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"

 

Jesus looked at the man, looked at his audience – the word ‘look’ here means, looked at intently or deeply; looked in the eye; considered – Jesus looks us in the eye, considers our situation, assesses it. 

 

How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
No wriggle room at all. 

 

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.

And we say with the audience – well what hope is there for anyone? 

 

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?"
Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you."

I’m with Peter – the disciples have left everything – their businesses, their fishing boats, their homes, their families – surely that is enough?

 

Up till now we have probably been assuming that when Jesus talks about entering the kingdom of God he means where we go when we die, or life after death, as the man’s question was about inheriting eternal life. But Jesus’ answers are about the kingdom of God, the reign of God, the realm of God which is about the here and now. Jesus often says – the kingdom of God is at hand, or has come near (Mark 1:15). He is talking about life now - 

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. 

The age to come part is an afterthought – Jesus says the people will be rewarded now. 

And they will receive houses and families – the Jesus revolution was about people’s economic wellbeing as well as their spiritual wellbeing. Those two things were not separated out like we do today. And Jesus has a lot more to say about money and possessions than he ever does on prayer or believing. [3]

 

So what do we do with this teaching that pierces us?

Do we go home and on Monday morning sell all we have? We could.

That would be a personal, individual response.

 

Or we could think about the community, the kingdom Jesus promises is at hand.

And then we would work together to bring more economic justice to our world.

 

There are things we can do

  • pay the living wage to people we employ

  • encourage businesses we deal with to the pay the living wage

  • support initiatives like the one the government announced this week where loan companies will be controlled to stop debt being able to spiral out of control

  • support the City Mission and Lifewise in their Housing First programme

  • I know some of you volunteer at the City Mission; at Citizens Advice Bureaus and in other ways support those in need

  • get involved politically to hold our Council and Government to account on their promises to improve the lives of those living in poverty

  • we know that climate change is the greatest threat to the lives of the poor worldwide, so maybe we don’t grizzle about taxes on our petrol and drive less instead 

  • and of course we can always give more, to the City Mission, to other charities we support, to our church.

 

This story is in the end still untamable; there is no wriggle room: Jesus looks at us, loves us, and asks us to believe that with God all things are possible. 

 

Even the prophet Amos says that if we hate evil and love good, and establish justice; it may be that the Lord will be gracious to us. 

 

So let’s get on with establishing justice. 

 

 

[1] Matt Skinner https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=402

 

[2] also means “get up” as often used in the healing stories 

 

[3] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm: In the NT there are 2,100 verses on possessions, 272 on believing, 371 on prayer (p180 Preaching the Gospel of Mark 2008). 

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