Sermon for High Mass – 20th Sunday after Trinity Sunday 14 October 2018
TRINITY 20, 2018 HIGH MASS
Readings: Amos 5.6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90.12-17; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31
“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 the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render account.” Hebrews 4.12-13
There are few areas of life where we feel and know this to be true than in the issue which Jesus addresses in today’s gospel: money and possessions.
Should a pope or an archbishop address issues of economic justice, they will instantly be condemned by commentators and politicians – who if they have ever heard of the prophet Amos, have clearly never listened to his strictures on the economic divisions which had grown up in an Israelite society; contrary not to some human political system but to the law of God which was the very foundation of the nation; the basis of its common good.
When we seek to hear what the scriptures, the law and the prophets, and Jesus in particular, say about money, we have to realize that we are talking both of the communal and the personal.
This is not to say that the free enterprise economic system in which we live is of its very nature wicked – that it has not raised the incomes and living standards of countless people, lifting many out of poverty, but it is to say that it is no more immune from the effects of original sin than any other area of human life. As such it cannot be safely left to run itself.
We are waking up to the fact that we live in a society in which unimaginable amounts of treasure – some the rewards of legitimate business – some the proceeds of corruption and crime on a gigantic scale – the plundering of the resources of entire nations – are kept not in heaven but in offshore tax havens – safe from being taxed by national governments – but also unavailable to fund investment in fresh wealth generation for the common good.
Today’s gospel is the longest single treatment of an ethical issue in Mark. It combines four separate elements which illustrate important aspects of wealth, poverty, and status:
1. The story of the rich man shows how a good, pious, law-abiding Jew finds the attraction of wealth too strong to give it away and become a benefactor of the poor and a disciple of Jesus.
2. Jesus instructs his disciples on how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
3. He promises the disciples a hundredfold reward for following him and forsaking the things of the world, while also predicting persecution.
4. He speaks of a reversal, a turning upside down of the world’s ideas of status.
The incident with the rich man begins as Jesus and his disciples were “Setting out on a journey” or “setting out on the way” – a reminder to hearers of the journey on which Jesus and his disciples are embarked: the way to the cross.
Religious figures who question Jesus in Mark often do so with hostile intent, but that is not the case here. The man’s question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a sincere one.
What does Jesus mean by saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” If the man’s question is not a trap, then he is being asked a question designed to make him reflect more deeply on his intuition about Jesus; who he is and what his relationship with God really is. The word “good” agathos, in this context can also mean “gracious.” It reflects God’s faithful loving kindness, truth and compassion, the unique aspects of God’s faithful loving relationship with the people which the young man may have seen reflected in Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus then spells out the commandments which deal with actions towards other people, not those attitudes or actions directed towards God. These are the commandments a rich man might be tempted to violate. Ritual obligations towards God can be observed, while ignoring those to weaker neighbours. However, this is not the case here; the man replies that he has always lived according to these commandments, from his youth.
Notice that Jesus adds “You shall not defraud,” a clarification of “You shall not steal.” Fraud and tax evasion often used to be described as “white collar” or “victimless crime;” somehow more respectable than robbing a bank – but they are crime and theft all the same – and their victims are ordinary people and especially the poor.
Jesus looking at the man, loved him and said, “You lack one thing, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, (the only tax haven that really counts), then come, follow me.” He is calling the man to discipleship just as he had called Simon and Andrew, James and John, then Levi the tax collector, at the beginning of the Gospel. They left everything and followed Jesus. This rich man failed to rise to the challenge to become a disciple because of his wealth. He goes away sorrowful.
This call to poverty is not a call to asceticism as such, a hostile attitude to the things of this world, but to the itinerant lifestyle of an apostle. Being with Jesus and sharing in his mission of teaching and healing demands the simplest possible way of life (one staff, no bread, no bag and no money). Personal comfort must be subordinated to the mission. This kind of poverty is apostolic or mission-oriented rather than ascetic in the sense that self-denial becomes an end in itself. The man’s rejection of Jesus’ call arises from his unwillingness to adopt the simple and itinerant lifestyle suited to Jesus’ ministry and the conditions of first century Palestine.
So then we can all relax, unless we have been called to be wandering evangelists. Jesus is not addressing us. There’s no need to put the house on the market and take all our possessions round to the charity shop. But, let’s not breathe a sigh of relief too soon. We are not let off the hook so easily.
Jesus looked around at his disciples and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” The word chremata, wealth/riches, is stronger than the word ktemata, possessions. It suggests the pressures put on some by wealth which needs protection, the care and planning time and energy which distracts from more important aspects of life and living: love and care. Wealth also has an addictive character. We end up needing more and more; never having enough. Paul used the term pleonaxia, avarice, the need for more which is never satisfied, which describes and eidoloatria -idolatry (Col. 3.5). It is an addiction to which any of us might become victims.
I’ve just been reading a biography of the priest who preached the sermon at my ordination to the priesthood. He became a Franciscan friar and his last years were spent as a hermit; living in an unheated hut or caravan, with the minimum of possessions. In fact he had always travelled light. Our bishop in Glasgow, where he had been the curate at the cathedral, said when he left: “He arrived with one rucksack and he left in just the same way.” Most of us cannot travel so lightly on this earth; unless we are on a pilgrimage to Santiago. We have children to raise, mortgages or rent to pay, food and transport to pay for. Even those who do lead such a simple life are often dependent on the generosity of others: a parable of our dependence on God for all that we have. We might ask if we need to travel so heavily; do we need quite so much stuff? For one day we must all render an account for that we have done with the gifts we have received from God.
The biblical remedy for wealth was to use it for good purposes, such as the relief of poverty. In biblical thought the good persons prospers and becomes a benefactor, ‘making friends with the mammon of iniquity,’ ensuring a welcome in the kingdom from the recipients of one’s generosity.
The law of God, to which Amos recalled the people of Israel, saw this not just in terms of individual acts of charity but in the way the community organised its affairs and practiced justice.
The memorable image of the camel passing through the eye of a needle is not just a preacher’s exaggeration for effect. It states a plain fact. Riches are an impediment to entry into the kingdom of God. Attempts to soften the teaching by suggesting that they eye of the needle is a gate in the walls of Jerusalem through which camels could only pass if it is stripped of its burden, kneels down and is given a good shove, only rob the image of its powerful effect.
What Jesus says here teaches that God’s ways are unlike human ways. All human effort to enter the kingdom is like trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle. It cannot be done. For human beings, entry into the kingdom is impossible, but God sees to it that even the impossible becomes possible: all things are possible with God.
Peter says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you?” In response Jesus promises that their reward, for leaving everything, “for my sake and for the sake of the gospel,” will be both in this life and in the age to come. The replacement of the natural family with a ‘spiritual’ one may well reflect the experience of those whose allegiance to Jesus cut them off from their own families; the principal support group for people in ancient society. The church had to become a replacement family. In that family the marks of status in this world – class and wealth – will be reversed “Many who are first will be last and the last will be first.”
So while there will be rewards in this life, Mark is starkly realistic about the cost of discipleship when adding to these rewards “with persecutions.” One archbishop who did speak out against economic injustice in his own country and the violent repression, the murder, rape and torture, including that of priests and nuns as well as poor peasants, which accompanied and sustained it, paid for it with his life. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador had been warned by one army officer that “cassocks are not bullet proof.” He refused to be cowed into silence. But even eucharistic vestments would prove no defence against bullets when he was gunned down at the altar while celebrating mass.
This morning in Rome, he is being canonised as a martyr.