Hebrews 4.12-end, Psalm 90.12-end & Mark 10.17-31 (Year B, 2021)

The letter to the Hebrews tells us, upfront and with no fudging of the issue, that if we listen to the word of God we will be challenged.  “The word of God is living and active”, meaning it is at work in the present.  It is not something confined to the past or to the pages of a book; it is moving in and around you right now.  Furthermore, it is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4.12); it is going to get into your mind, your heart, and your bones, and it knows everything about you.

This passage helps us to understand why the encounter in the Gospel between Jesus and the rich man is so uncomfortable, for the rich man and for ourselves.  Because the word of God is going to confront us with the truth about ourselves.

When the rich man approached Jesus, let’s assume he was genuine in his desire to search for eternal life.  However, note how he asks how to “inherit” eternal life – his choice of language makes it very possible he inherited all his worldly wealth and power, and was looking for eternal life as something which he will be given by right.

He even asks “what MUST I do?”  What’s the least, the minimum, that is needed?

Despite this, Jesus’ response is initially comforting – he asked the rich man if he had lived by the law, of which Jesus gave a a representation of the wider Jewish Law by reciting from the Ten Commandments. And the man replied that he had lived by the Law.  So to hear those words would have been very comforting to him, to be told that he was on the right track.  

But just as he thought he had done enough, Jesus did what he so often does, he called the man to take the next step.  

He invited him to sell all that he owned and follow him.  Comfort turned to challenge, and the rich man struggled with the idea of letting go of his everyday life, the materials things that tie so many of us to the world.  We can do nothing but feel for the man as he left the scene, sorrowful at what he had to face, the challenge of letting go of all those ‘things’.

Jesus goes on to describe wealth as being a hurdle to heaven, because when the chips are down, money and possessions seem to actually be rather sticky.  We might think we are happy to get rid of them in theory but the practice is another matter.  There are very few of us who hear the challenge given to the rich man and respond as St Francis of Assisi did, who took this as a literal challenge, and sold all he had to embrace a life of poverty and prayer.  

So how do we each know, here and now, that money hasn’t become an idol to us?  Timothy Keller gives us some helpful pointers: if you can’t give large sums of it away, if you get jealous at how well other people are doing and feel you should have their rewards, if deep down you are fearful of having less than you have right now.  Basically when money, wealth and status become the core of your identity, then you are in real danger.

We all, at some point, have to examine our approach to money and giving.  This isn’t something which should only be preached about at harvest time.  The only thing Jesus talked about more than our attitudes to money is Heaven and Hell and the Kingdom of God.  Eleven of the thirty-nine parables are about money.

And I’m going to bring this home to this church.  Starting at a Diocesan level, Chichester is the 6th wealthiest Diocese in England.  In the 2018 Parish Finance Statistics report it stated that in this Diocese the weekly planned giving per giver was £14.40.  That works out at £748 per year.  If that was a tithe (10%), it means that person is living on a net income of £7480.  The average income in the South East in 2021 is £34,664 – a tithe would be £2750 per year, or £1375 if split equally between the church and other charities.

The Church Urban Fund takes census information, and works out the deprivation of every parish in England.  This Benefice is currently ranked 9447 out of 12832, where 1 is the most deprived parish.  There is 4% child poverty in this Benefice, compared to the most deprived in England, which has 57%; 4.4% pensioner poverty compared to 72.7%.  This Benefice is relatively wealthy.

And yet we, as a church, are struggling.  We are currently on track to pay the lowest parish share in the whole of the deanery, less than parishes that only have a half time priest.   Every time we need to do something, whether it is to buy Bibles for the school leavers or do necessary tree works, I have to stand here and ask for money.  Now I’m telling you about the church’s state of affairs because you need to know, because this is the church to which you belong, and how we fulfil the mission God has give us in this place is in your hands.  Our giving reflects our attitude to God, to mission and to discipleship.

Remember what I said at the beginning about the word of God being a two-edged sword.  This is hard to hear.  It may make you feel uncomfortable, even want to push back.  But whilst we may not have as much wealth as the rich young man, there is no doubt we all need to spend time reflecting and recognising on where money and possessions can be a preoccupation that becomes a stumbling block.  What could you change in the way you use your money?  You can give your money away, increase your giving or decrease it, depending on your circumstances – that’s for you to decide, but we are called to give generously, sacrificially, and cheerfully. 

Finally, and I hope this will explain why we are called to give in such a fashion, did you notice that there was more than one rich ruler in the Gospel reading?

When Jesus looked upon the rich man, he loved him (Mark 10.21).  That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it?  I mean, Jesus loves everyone, but why is it specifically mentioned here?  Because Jesus understood deeply the man’s position, perhaps even recognised himself in the rich young man.  Jesus is the wealthiest king of all, and yet he gave it all up to be born in a humble stable and die upon the cross.  As St Paul explained in his letter, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8.9)

Don’t think ‘what MUST I give?’, but let what Jesus gave up for us, be your inspiration.

Artwork: “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Heinrich Hofmann