Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity 19 2015

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Hebrews 4:12-end
Mark 10:17-31

What do you give a man who has everything? Well, the shops are already putting up their Christmas decorations and will soon be urging us to part with more of our cash for this or that present that we must give, or perhaps this or that thing that we want ourselves, and have to get someone else to give to us. And sadly some families will get seriously into debt to buy things they don’t need.
What do you give a man who has everything? The man who kneels before Jesus in today’s gospel seems to be a man who has everything. He is rich, in fact the Greek means that he had many properties: he was a landlord with a large property portfolio. Besides that, he has kept the whole law from his youth onwards – he says. He has everything he needs, he has ticked every box. He is the perfect “self-made man”.
And yet for some reason he feels impelled to run up to Jesus and kneel before him. And he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”. Perhaps this man, in the presence of Jesus, has suddenly caught a glimpse of what the life of God is like, and has seen the contrast with his own life of self-made self-sufficiency. Despite his seeming to possess everything and to have achieved everything, he senses that somewhere there is a huge gap, a deep longing and a desperate need. And it is to Jesus that he feels he must turn.
But Jesus turns the tables on him by saying, “you know the commandments”, implying that those will tell him what he needs to know. But look closely: Jesus has changed one of them. The last commandment, according to Exodus, is “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, etc etc.” But Jesus says, instead, “you shall not defraud”. Coveting is desiring what belongs to someone else. And one way to get what belongs to someone else is to defraud them. Perhaps Jesus is probing how this rich man acquired his wealth. How did he come to own his neighbour’s houses?
But the rich man claims to have kept the commandments. And Jesus, we are told, looked at him and loved him, though there is a sharp irony in his response. “There is one thing you lack”, he says - to the man who has everything. And the one thing he lacks is - that he has everything! “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.”
The disciples are puzzled by this, as they often are. They are slow to grasp the radically different nature of God’s kingdom. The rich man’s assumption is that his riches are a sign of God’s favour. That was a common assumption at the time, and the disciples probably shared it.  But Jesus says no, it will be hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. And to underline the point he makes the famous statement that “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.”
The disciples are astounded by this. Who can be saved? If even the rich, whose wealth must be a sign of God’s favour, will struggle to enter the Kingdom, what hope have the poor got? But yet again, the disciples are getting it wrong.
And indeed Christian disciples down the centuries have found this teaching distinctly uncomfortable, and have tried to take the sting out of it. Mediaeval commentators explained that there was a very small gate in the walls of Jerusalem, called “the eye of the needle”, so low that a camel could only go through on its knees. So Jesus was making a joke, and what he really meant was that you can be rich and get into heaven, provided you say your prayers.
The problem is that there was no such gate in Jerusalem, and there is no such meaning in Jesus’ teaching. Mark’s account couldn’t really be clearer: Jesus means what he says. Riches, possessions, are a huge obstacle to entering the Kingdom.
Why? Because the Kingdom is God’s gift, and not our construction. We have to receive it as gift, and not grasp it as possession.
Also, the Kingdom is God’s rule and justice made real in the world. The inequalities and injustices that lead to a few people being vastly rich whilst many are grindingly poor have no place there. In God’s Kingdom there are no rich and no poor – there are only those who become like little children, that is, like those who possess nothing but receive everything as a gift. For the poor, who already have nothing, it is easier to enter the Kingdom than for the rich, who have so much to lose.
There are implications of this both for society and for ourselves. Economic injustice is part of the sinfulness of the world, which those who enter the Kingdom have to leave behind. There is a gospel imperative to work in this world to overcome those injustices.
But lest we think that this is an excuse to point the finger at other people, we need to remember that the call to conversion begins with ourselves. It is those who hear the Gospel who must change, so that we can enter God’s kingdom. The Kingdom has to become real in our lives so that it can become real in the world around us. We have to live according to the values of the Kingdom if we are to make those values real in the world. So how we handle property, invest money, use our time, and so on, is part of how we are to respond to the call of Jesus.
Jesus invites us to enter God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness. But to do that we must leave behind all that can hold us back. This will be shown in how we behave and live our lives, of course. But it requires a deeper conversion of our hearts, to become like little children. We need to ask ourselves what attachments, possessions and riches we have that will make it hard for us to enter the Kingdom. This could be anything at all that we cling on to, that we fear to surrender. For we are only able to receive God’s kingdom as a gift if we let go of everything else. Do we trust our heavenly Father enough to do that? Do we trust like little children?
The Kingdom of God, ultimately, is about love. The love of God who desires to embrace all in his justice, righteousness and mercy. And what keeps us out, ultimately, is fear. The fear of loss, the fear that makes us cling on to what we think we possess.
But, as St John tells us, perfect love casts out all fear. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton commented on that. He said that love knows no fear because it has already given away everything it owns, and so it has nothing left to lose.
What do you give the man who has everything? Nothing, because he is no longer able to receive. What do you give a child, who possesses nothing but is simply open to receive what is given? The Kingdom of God.

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