“Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”” (Mark 10:23)
Last week I wasn’t at my post at Holy Trinity. I was out in the bush, leading a small but courageous troop of wilderness warriors in a series of death-defying challenges, aimed at conquering their harsh environment. One of the unexpected side-effects of that experience was that I lost track of the proper sequence in the preaching roster and spent much of the week preparing a sermon on Jesus’ teachings on divorce.
I really felt that I’d drawn the short straw, but I came up with something, which I faithfully abandoned yesterday when I realised I had to deal with the rich young ruler instead! And I must say that I didn’t find much that I could carry over from one sermon to the other, except that both passages make me rather uncomfortable because I feel targeted in both cases, being both divorced and rich!
This wasn’t always the case, of course. I wasn’t always divorced, and I don’t think I was always rich, though it’s hard to define exactly what rich is, isn’t it?
I had a friend who pastored a church on the North Shore once, in an area that most of us would consider a rich area. He said he often preached on Jesus’ warnings to the rich, but his sermons never seemed to get much traction with the congregation. He eventually realised that they always assumed Jesus was talking about the next tier up in terms of wealth!
Perhaps that’s the way it always works? When we hear these warnings against the rich, we think of those persons who live on the North Shore. When congregations on the North Shore hear these words, they figure Jesus is specifically targeting people who live in St Ives. When the congregation of St Ives hears these words, they figure Jesus is talking about Dulwich Hill (or they soon may, the way we are going). We always assume it’s not us.
That’s certainly the way I felt when I was a young Christian and a university student – full of zeal and deeply troubled by the levels of global poverty. I looked at the wealthy churches and I looked at the wealthy people in my own church, and I looked at them with disdain! Then something happened. At the age of thirty, I finally got a job, and then dad died and left me an inheritance. All of a sudden, I had to give my attention to things like superannuation and tax returns and BAS statements, and then I got a mortgage! And then I realised that the people Jesus was targeting weren’t people like me at all, but one tier higher!
How do we define ‘rich’? It is an important question, and an important question for people who want to follow Jesus most especially, for Jesus had a lot to say about the danger of riches and worldly wealth, and none of it was good. But who is to say who is rich? Are we rich? Well … compared to a lot of people around the world and compared to most of the people Jesus lived and moved with we probably are, but compared to the upper echelons of our own society we are probably not.
I think a decent working definition of being rich would be if you don’t need anybody else’s help to get by. If you don’t need anybody else, biblically speaking, you’re rich – too rich.
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)
As you may know, I’ve done a fair bit of reading in recent years about human pre-history – that is, that period in human history when we lived in hunter-gatherer communities – and I get the feeling that a lot of Biblical ethics is about transposing the value of the hunter- gatherer lifestyle into the contemporary context.
Hunter-gatherers lived a subsistence lifestyle, living off the land, gathering fruits and nuts, hunting and eating game, etc. There are still some such communities in the world today, but they are few and far between. Once upon a time we were apparently all like that, as is captured in the story of the garden of Eden – the Biblical story of our origins.
The key point I want to make here is that people in hunter-gatherer communities depend on each other for everything. Every member of the community has an inter-dependent relationship with everybody else. We live together, work together and eat together, and there’s no such thing as competition, only cooperation.
I remember reading a story retold by some English missionaries who had been working with hunter-gatherer communities in the highlands in New Guinea, and they made the mistake of trying to teach some of the locals to play croquet. I’ve never played croquet, but I understand that it can be a very aggressive game, where you not only knock your balls through hoops, but where you also try to smash your opponent’s ball to the other end of the croquet field, thus depriving him or her of their chance to make any hoops.
Apparently, once the highlanders got the idea of how to play, they started working together, making sure all their balls got through all the hoops, and when they got the last ball through they jumped up and down together and shouted, “we won”!
That’s a very different sort of game, isn’t it, reflecting a very different sort of culture. In hunter-gatherer societies, you can’t afford to have one person win at the expense of others. The emphasis is on cooperation rather than competition. And, of course, there is no private property in these communities, and where there is no private property, there is no theft, no rich and poor, and no wars!
You’ll have to forgive me if that sounds as if I’m idealizing these communities, and certainly Thomas Hobbes and Charles Darwin didn’t depict this period of our history this way, but it’s generally acknowledged by scholars nowadays that Hobbes’ description of the life of ‘primitive’ men and women as being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ was entirely a product of him reading back into the past the miseries experienced by the landless poor in his own time (in 16th century Europe).
In contrast to Hobbes and Darwin, the Bible speaks of our early days in the garden in idyllic terms, and the Bible likewise points us towards a city – the new Jerusalem – which embodies much of the beauty of the garden and is also a place of peace.
Between the garden and the city, the people of God, it seems to me, are called upon to live out the values of caring and sharing, and, when they fail, they are sent back to the wilderness for testing – a place where once again they are forced to live as hunter-gatherers and depend on God and upon one another for survival.
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)
We know the story of the rich young ruler well (even if we don’t know the man’s name). Jesus, we are told, was busy getting ready for a journey when “a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”” (Mark 10:17)
It seems to me that this man is a bit like a guy wanting to win at croquet. He’s not asking Jesus about the salvation of humanity or the restoration of the created order. He wants to win! “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
I don’t want to suggest that we have full knowledge of the psychology of this young man, but he seems doomed from the outset to me by virtue of the way he asks the question. This guy wants to win. Does it surprise us that he has great wealth? Of course he has great wealth! He is a winner in the game of life and now he wants to be a winner in the afterlife!
Perhaps the key issue here is not so much the amount of money he has, nor simply the attitude he has towards money (which is often how us preacher-types interpret the issue) but simply the fact that the man seems to be living in a world that’s all about him!
One of the best books I read last year was one by American journalist and anthropologist, Sebastian Junger, called ‘Tribe’. The book is an analysis of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which is a condition most commonly associated with soldiers returning from war. Junger gives particular attention to the American Indian Wars that spanned the early 17th to the early 20th centuries.
Junger notes that during those wars there were a number of white settlers were kidnapped by native tribes and later returned to their communities. Interestingly, a disturbingly large number of those ‘returned’ persons later tried to sneak back to rejoin the tribes where they had originally been held as captives. Junger’s analysis is that these people wanted to get back to a tribal community based on cooperation rather than competition, where people lived interdependently with one another.
Junger suggests that most of us ‘civilised’ types never get to experience real community, except during war. In wartime, men and women have to depend on each other, and so we band together and cooperate sacrificially in ways that we never do in peacetime. Junger’s analysis of PTSD is that returning soldiers suffer this, not because they’ve come out of a horribly traumatic war-time situation, but rather because they can’t adjust back from their war context to this dysfunctional society, based on competition and self-seeking profit!
Interestingly, I finished reading that book on my way to Manus Island last year where I had the privilege of sneaking into the Australian government detention centre for asylum- seekers, and meeting so many wonderful men.
What I discovered there was exactly what Junger had been talking about in the book. They were a tribe, living with and for one another. They worked together for their daily survival. They shared their medications as well as their food. They lived by cooperation rather than competition. There were no winners and losers, no private property. They were (and they continue to be) a band of brothers, who might indeed struggle with PTSD if they ever do have to adjust to living in an individualistic and dysfunctional society like ours.
“Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” (Mark 10:24-25)
The problem with riches is more than a problem with riches. It’s a problem with culture and values and with the way we related to one another. At the same time though, I don’t want to dilute Jesus’ words. We do have a very serious problem with riches.
I remember listening to a savvy commentator after Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States. He warned us not to expect too much change. As he explained, if you’re elected CEO of Apple Corp., you might make a few changes, expand one market and shrink another, but your job is basically to sell iPhones. That’s what you do. And if you’re elected President of USA Inc., whatever else you do, you’ve still got to make war because your economy depends on it. If you want wealth, you sell weapons. It’s the ultimate economy of death, though, of course, it’s never presented that way.
We are in Syria because Bashar al Asaad is waging a religious war against the Sunni majority, just like we were in Libya because Muammar Gaddafi was busy butchering his own people, just like we were in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. All lies, and we all know that they are all lies! And we know full well why we are really in Syria, and it’s the same reason why we were in Libya and Iraq. It is fundamentally economic.
There was a protest song in the 1970’s that said that war was good for absolutely nothing,
“cause it means destruction of innocent lives … [and] tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes”.
In truth though, while war might do nothing for humanity, it does a great deal for Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and their shareholders.
Even if you do the maths on the relatively minor missile strike against Damascus on April 14th of this year, the Americans fired 66 Tomahawk missiles and 19 other missiles, with the Tomahawks retailing at 1.87 million each. Do the maths and you realise quickly that death is a very profitable industry.
The love of money is indeed at the root of all kinds of evil, though the thrust of today’s passage is not so much on the death and destruction caused by the love of money, but rather simply on the way the love of money blocks the path to the kingdom of God.
“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.” (Mark 10:24-25)
We have a problem with money but the suggestion I want to make today is that the solution to our problem with money isn’t to simply dig deeper. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with digging deeper, but I am suggesting that the reason we often find it so hard to dig deep is because we are part of a culture that values competition more than cooperation, makes private ownership a sacred right, and makes life all about me and not about us.
We need to build a less dysfunctional community – one where people can learn to live againin interdependence with one another, where cooperation is valued above competition, andwhere ultimately our question will not be “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, but rather‘what must we do to bring about the Kingdom of God for all of us?’
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 14th October, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org