The Revd Brutus Green
You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.
Richard II quoted our Gospel today:
It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle's eye.
Having been dethroned twice, the second time by Bolingbroke, aka Henry IV, reduced from everything to nothing, Richard laments, languishing in prison:
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.
With nothing shall [he] be pleased, till he be eased/ With being nothing.
You may have been displeased with today’s readings. Amos harrangued you for trampling the poor and pushing aside the needy in the gate; the author of Hebrews warned that God’s surveillance renders you naked before the one who judges your very thoughts and intentions; and the rich young man turns away in Mark’s Gospel because he won’t give up his possessions. It all sounds a little bit like a party political broadcast for the opposition.
It also sounds a bit miserable. It’s hardly a Gospel of wealth-creation. Even the disciples think Jesus is being a little bit hard on the rich young man. They were ‘perplexed’, ‘astounded’; like a coven of political advisors thinking ‘sack the script writer! This is not going to go well in the polls’. But this isn’t really about politics - Jesus’ or yours. This is about attitude - where is your heart?
The rich young man believes himself righteous. Like a good boy he has kept the commandments since his youth; correctly living as a Jew. But Jesus sees his very thoughts and intentions, and sees that his security is held in his great possessions. That his first concern is with the things of this world. The first point then is that Jesus is not concerned with correctness but with where your heart is; what or whom do you love?
By and large we are all like that rich young man. Even if we consider ourselves poor, or spend all our money on the mortgage, our standard of living is high above any rich young man of 2000 years ago. And our resources may stretch beyond our finances. One of our poor singing students, I’m told, ran out of money in Wales but had to perform in Froom and then get back to London.
A little cheeky busking and she was on the train - depending on how good her singing was, I suppose, perhaps in first class. That’s not having the golden goose, that’s being the golden goose.
So how do any of us respond to Jesus saying: you lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor… come, follow me. At its heart the question is about whether you’re concerned with the things of the world, or kingdom of God. Are you stocking up your assets here? Do you wish to be the richest corpse in the morgue? The best dressed stiff in the fanciest box? Are you gathering and hoarding for yourself?
Well naked you came into this world, naked you will leave it, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But more than this Jesus is saying that while the many good things of this world do not last; sacrifice, generosity and service endure. Love endures. The kings of old were buried with their treasure, riches, weapons, sometimes servants - but the crematorium has the theological advantage in allowing nothing but a silk robe. Only what we have given is remembered in eternity.
Richard II flew from prince to pauper, he learnt that both plenty and penury will not please till you have learnt contentment apart from them. Jimmy Savile even in death has fallen from national treasure to despised villain, his sinister headstone ‘it was good while it lasted’ smashed and ground to dust; cyclist Lance Armstrong is humiliated and deprived of all his life’s achievements: ‘With nothing shall [they] be pleased, till [they] be eased/ With being nothing’. There is no permanence, no final satisfaction with anything we can grasp in this life, only our own virtue and what we give to others will be remembered by God.
You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor… come, follow me.
Is this too difficult a saying though? Is it too much for a part-time Christian? Yes it is. But then there are no part-time Christians. To be a Christian is to hear that ‘come, follow me’. We might find it all terribly troubling, difficult, obnoxious, confusing, wearisome, boring; we might be three-quarters of the time facing the wrong direction, running screaming away, or more often just ignoring it, being too busy for it, coming back to it later, not taking it too seriously; or actually, like the rich young man, physically walking away from Christ. But we are called. There are no part-time Christians because God has formed you in his image, called you by name and you are his, no matter how little attention you give him.
But, you may say, this saying is still too difficult. Well Jesus is one step ahead of you: ‘for mortals it is impossible… 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’. But are we then condemned? Like the rich man who is ‘shocked’ and turns away ‘grieving, for he had many possessions’?
‘For God all things are possible.’ We’ve heard the unsettling demand that turns away the rich young man: ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.’ But more important is the sentence that precedes it: ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him’. The demand that Jesus makes comes out of his compassion for him because Jesus wants the young man to be fully himself, fully alive. At no point does Jesus turn away. At no point does he stop calling him. At no point does he stop loving him.
The second point then is that more important than who or what we love, is the fact that God loves us and does not turn away from us.
But is it too difficult a saying for us? God asks for everything from us and death will finally take everything from us anyway. It’s a harrowing thought. But Christ’s call remains true and ‘for God all things are possible’. So the question you are being asked today is what is God’s call on your life and how can you be free to give it all away?
The first part is to consider your vocation. You may have a secret desire to get ordained, or to get out and spend the remainder of your days in contemplative silence on a small island. It may be to run a charity, to volunteer, to raise a huge amount of money for a specific purpose. It may be to write letters, or to sing beautifully; to start a business that will bring employment to many; to work unselfishly in order to feed and clothe your children; to give up work for a time in order to raise them; to retrain in the area that actually gives your life meaning and pleasure; it is almost certainly to be a good daughter or father, partner or friend. Our vocations begin with our relationships. Vocations change over time, though. And so it’s always worth asking the question - what does God require of me here? Am I now living the life I was called to?
The second question is who are we serving? Who are the poor for whom we are supposed to sell-up and give-out? Liquidating and impoverishing ourselves would not get you many thanks from your friends and family. Simplistically handing over responsibility to someone else is not necessarily living a life of care and service to others. Neither our dependents, nor the poor, are well served by irresponsibility and idealism. Having said that we must always beware our ease-loving nature that fobs off love of neighbour with a sheep’s clothing of prudence draped lightly over wolfish self-interest.
Ultimately like Richard II, whether a king or a beggar, we have to become ‘eased with being nothing’. Not out of worthlessness but out of the joy of giving which leads to humility. Then we shall also find ourselves naturally predisposed to giving. Discovering this also tells us something about God. Our earlier reading from Hebrews might have led to a vision of God as the terrifying all-seeing panopticon, the circular prison designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, where a single guard from a central tower could see all the in-mates at any time without being seen himself. The Gospel corrects this, showing that God’s knowledge is personal, understanding, compassionate. Jesus looks at the rich young man, and loves him.
What or whom do you love? For you are loved and known by God.
Perhaps you too lack one thing. Be eased with being nothing. Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor… come, follow Christ.