How much is too much?

Pentecost 20

Mark 10:17-31 (St Francis)

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who has given us all things. Amen.

If we are honest many of us find today’s gospel challenging. “Sell all you own and give to the poor.” “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” We wonder if these words applies to us. We ask ourselves: What is too rich? Is it a person or a company whose yearly income could pay the debt of a third world country and more? Is it being rich enough able to spend millions of dollars on a home when many are homeless? Is it worrying about whether to send our children to a state school or a private school when millions of children do not have the opportunity go to school at all?

I don’t have the answer to these questions. On the one hand I support the initiative and enterprise that leads to the creation of jobs. On the other hand it does worry me that 85% of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10% of the world’s population. I would like every person in the world to have the same advantages that I have, but at the same time, I am very grateful that I do not have live hand-to-mouth like so many millions of people do and not entirely sure how much I am willing to give up in order to make the world a more equitable place.

St Francis thought that today’s gospel applied directly to him. As the story goes, Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant. It was expected that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, join the business, finally taking and charge of it himself in turn passing the business and any accumulated wealth to his own children. Francis’ experience of Jesus altered all that. He changed from a wild, hedonistic young man into a fervent follower of Jesus Christ. He understood that his call was to renounce all worldly possessions and to live a simple life entirely dependent on God.

Francis embraced poverty, not because he had some romantic notion about it, but because it freed him from the responsibilities and concerns that wealth, possessions and status can bring with them. Poverty for Francis’ signified reliance not on material, but on spiritual things. He did not want anything to have a hold on him or to stand between himself and God.

It is clear that Francis’ view is not the dominant Christian view, even though we find the story unsettling, very few Christians have taken the text as literally as did Francis. That doesn’t mean that we are off the hook or mean that we shouldn’t attempt to understand what Jesus is saying here.

Today’s gospel begins with an interaction between Jesus and a young man who “has many possessions”. The young man interrupts Jesus’ journey and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. He has, by his own account, has lived a blameless life. Despite this he seems to sense that something is missing, he recognises that despite all that he has his life is empty and without meaning. Though he observes the commandments and presumably has all that he needs, he is not satisfied. He recognises that even though (according to the thought of the day) his wealth is a reward for righteousness his relationship with God could be so much richer.

Jesus looks at the young and loves him. He sees (we must assume) that the young man is bound by his possessions – they own him, not he them. Jesus knows that the young man will not be at peace, he will not be entirely happy until his possessions no longer have a hold on him, until there are no longer a measure of his righteousness or of his place in the world. Jesus’ advice? – sell it all, get rid of everything, free yourself from all worry and concern. Do what you really want to do – give yourself to God. It is too much. Unlike Francis, this young man’s passion and desire has not been kindled to the point that he can fully let go. He departs from Jesus in a state of sorrow. Jesus has given the answer for which he was seeking, but now that he hears it, he cannot do it. For the moment at least his wealth has too great a hold on him.

Jesus’ advice to the young man leads Jesus to reflect on wealth in general. It is not that wealth is necessarily bad. The problem is that, for some, wealth can become an obsession that needs to be guarded and maintained. A person can become so focused on what they have and what they want that they becomes self centred and inward-looking, absorbed by their own needs and desires and careless with the needs of others.

Jesus’ advice to the young man may not be Jesus’ advice to us all, but it would be a mistake to think that the reading doesn’t not apply to us. Wealth is not the only thing that binds us or causes us to focus on ourself us or that prevents us from seeing the needs of others. Greed and selfishness are only two things that make us look inwards and not outwards, that create a barrier between ourselves and God. Pride, anger, bitterness, self-righteousness are all signs of self-absorption that lead us to concentrate on our own wants and needs and that, as a result, separate us from our fellow human beings, from God and ultimately from our eternal inheritance.

The bible does warn us against allowing wealth to have control of us rather than our controlling our wealth but to make that the only focus of today’s gospel might be to miss the point. The young man has the courage to ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Are we brave enough to ask the same question and if we do will we, like the young man, walk away or will we have the courage to respond to Jesus’ love, recognise what it is we lack and make the changes necessary to remove the barriers between ourselves and God and between ourselves and others?

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