Sermon: 20th Sunday after Pentecost 10th October 2021
Readings: Job 23:1-9 Psalm 22:1-15 Hebrews 4:12-16 Mark 10:17-31
When John and I were preparing to emigrate to Australia, we had to sell our house which we had lived in for over forty-one years. As you can imagine, we had collected quite a lot of ‘stuff’ in that time and we quickly realised that it would not all fit into a twenty-foot shipping container. So, we had to ask ourselves, ‘What did we want to keep and what could we let go?’ It came down to deciding which things were most important to us and this was difficult, but we knew that it had to be done if we were to begin our new life in Australia.
The wealthy man in today’s gospel story also has to choose what is most important to him but he faces a much more important decision than the ones we had to make, because what is at stake here is his eternal life.
Jesus was often approached by the outcasts of society – the poor, those who were ill or those who had not kept the laws. But here we have someone who seems to be wealthy and who says that he has always kept all the laws! But in spite of that, he seems desperate to ask Jesus how he can inherit eternal life, so perhaps he feels that there is still something missing or something not quite right in his life.
We are told that Jesus loves what he sees but as he looks into the man’s heart and mind, he knows what is missing and how that can be put right. Jesus says, ‘go and sell what you own, give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me!’
But this is a step too far for the man because he has many possessions. He goes away grieving and that’s when Jesus says how difficult it will be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
We might have some sympathy for this wealthy man. We are privileged people; we may not be rich but we live quite comfortably and we probably all have many possessions. We might be thinking that we try to live as God wants us to and we also want to have the assurance of eternal life.
So, does this story tell us that we have to sell everything we have and give our money away before we can have the promise of eternal life? Well no, it does not.
It is not the fact that the man has lots of money and possessions that makes it difficult for him to follow Jesus. Wealth in itself is not a barrier, but it is the relationship that the man has with his possessions that holds him back.
It is the value he puts on them that causes the trouble because he loves them above all else and his love of money and possessions is more important than his relationship with God.
The material things he owns are the things that give him his security and his sense of identity and he just finds it too difficult to give them up. This is what Jesus sees when he looks into the man’s heart.
We might also stand before Jesus and ask what we must do to receive the assurance of eternal life and just as Jesus looked at this man and knew what he needed to do, so he also looks on us with love and sees what it is we need.
He looks into our hearts and sees what we hold on to for our security and our sense of identity and he knows how some things can become damaging to our relationship with God and with each other.
When we ask Jesus what we must do, the answer he gives to each of us will be deeply personal. We might already know in our hearts what it is we are holding on to for our security.
It might be possessions, it might be memories of wrongs done to us in the past, it might be pride, addiction or selfishness. All these things will prevent us from hearing and acting upon the Christian message.
We may feel that to let go of whatever it is, would just be a step too far, but Jesus says that ‘for God all things are possible.’ This should encourage us to do whatever we need to do, in order to let go of the things that prevent us from becoming true followers of Jesus.
God wants us to decide what is really central to our lives and to let go of the things that damage us and our relationships, things that have become more important than they should have. And Jesus knows the difficulties of following him – ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.’
In 1st century Palestine, the early Christians were also growing weary of the demands of the Christian life. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is trying to encourage them and warns them that God sees through their pretences and hidden intentions. God knows the secret thoughts of our hearts and minds but we are also assured that God looks on us with love and offers us his grace and mercy because he understands what human life is like.
The wealthy man had to learn that the Christian life is demanding and that he needs to get his priorities in the right order. Wealth and possessions are a gift but it is what we do with them and how much value we put on them that is important. When we rely so heavily on material things, then we no longer see the need to rely on God.
We have to remember that eternal life is not just something we look forward to when we die – it is available here and now. So when Jesus says, ‘Come follow me,’ we have to be ready and free to do just that, so that we can follow him willingly.