Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecosts (C)
27 October 2019
[ video ]
That gospel reading has two episodes, and in each of them people are coming to Jesus with hopes of finding some spiritual blessing; either for their children or some piece of wisdom for themselves as adults.
In neither case do things go as expected.
For the people bringing infants to Jesus for him to touch, the minders—better known to us as ‘the disciples’—were refusing them access to the Master. That is a story to unpack someday when we have the time needed to make sense of it in a world that was very different from our own; a world where children were not valued or appreciated as they are in our culture now.
Suffice to note that Jesus challenged and overturned the attitudes of the disciples.
To be ready for the reign of God, says Jesus, we must be child-like.
There is a lot in that to explore some other time.
Then we get story #2, and it is a well-known story.
We probably know it as the “rich young ruler”, but that title already mashes together three different versions of the same incident in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Mark provides the earliest version. Here the key character is a man who has lots of possessions and is seeking advice from Jesus about what he must do to be sure of eternal life. This fellow is neither young nor a ruler. Very few people ever get to combine those two attributes, of course.
Matthew edits Mark’s version to remove some theological issues and, in the process, the rich person becomes a ‘young man’. He is still not a ruler, but he is a very pious Jew seeking spiritual advice from Jesus.
Some decades later, Luke makes his own set of edits to Mark’s version of the story. Luke does not follow the same line as Matthew, but he upgrades the asset portfolio of the gentleman and he also turns the rich man into a ruler. In this version, as in Mark, the rich man is an older person.
So we are dealing with a story that was well-known but which each of the three gospels chose to tweak in its own way. Later on, the church mashed all three versions into the meme of a ‘rich young ruler’, but the core issue about this person is that he is very rich.
Each of the gospels uses this episode as a lesson in discipleship, and all of them link the story with an odd saying about a camel not being able to pass through the eye of a needle.
For Luke—our key Gospel for this year—this episode occurs in chapter 18; very close to the end of the extended ‘long march’ which Luke created by devoting almost half of his storyline to Jesus making his one and only adult journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
As Luke tells the story, Jesus has almost reached his destination (see next chapter) when he is approached by this wealthy ruler seeking spiritual advice.
Like the parents who brought their children to Jesus, the visit does not go as Mr Money Bags might have expected.
In fact, it ends in tears.
Maybe not actual tears, but disappointment and confusion all around.
The rich ruler walks away from Jesus. He has not found a wisdom that he is willing to embrace, and Jesus has missed out on a wealthy new member of the movement. They probably could have used his offering envelopes!
The disciples had been saying: No room for children in the Jesus movement.
But Jesus seems to say: No room for rich people in my movement.
No prosperity gospel here, and no special favours for rich and powerful supporters. This, guy—as Luke tells the story—was both exceedingly rich and a ruler. He could have been rather handy on the team.
Jesus does not promise that people who follow his wisdom will become rich (or happy or powerful or healthy), but rather the opposite. Those who want to be his followers must become poor, relocate to the edges of society, and lose all their social connections.
Tough words indeed.
Very few people in history have been able to embrace that message. But some have: Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Theresa … to name just a handful.
The disciples are shocked.
In their minds, rich people with influence have a much better chance of pleasing God than ordinary folks like them But Jesus has just turned their world upside down. It seems they had not been watching very closely during the previous few months.
Mind you, the church has not been very good at listening either during the past 2,000 years. We love influence. And we enjoy privilege. We accumulate wealth, property, assets. Indeed, we have sometimes loved those things more than the little children, as the recent Royal Commission has demonstrated so grimly.
Jesus doubles down on his message.
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s empire.
He seems to be quoting an ancient Middle Eastern axiom, and perhaps it originally said ‘camel (rope)’, but over time the axiom has been exaggerated to make it even more compelling. It is not just that one cannot thread a needle with rope made from camel hair, but it would be easier to thread the whole camel through the needle than get a rich person into the kingdom of God.
No wonder the disciples are confused …
This is classic Jesus, the verbal poet with an ear for a great turn of phrase.
This is the same person who told people to rip out their eye or cut off their own hand if those body parts cause them to sin.
Hyperbole was one of Jesus’ favourite tools, and we certainly seem to have it in action here.
Infants are welcome, rich rulers can go to the end of the line.
Now that is good news for some, but not do for others.
It is good news for the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the refugees, the people whose lands will soon disappear under rising sea levels, and everyone who the powerful and privileged people overlook.
It is not good news for those of us who are comfortable and privileged.
Yet Luke was writing his account of Jesus for the successful people in the second-century Roman world. He wants the rich rulers to hear the good news that Jesus both proclaims and lives.
And we need to hear that good news as well.
If we have wealth or privilege or status, then that is to be spent for the sake of others. It is not to be hoarded and protected as if it somehow gives us a cosmic superannuation fund for the future.
For the rich ruler ‘giving away all that he had’ sounded like a punishment, rather than an opportunity to share the blessings around.
Yet a core spiritual principle of our faith is that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’ (or we might say to share rather than to hoard).
Maybe the rich ruler realised that, at some stage, and came back to Jesus ready to share all that he had with those who had so little. I like to think so.
It would be his only hope of redemption and it may be ours as well.