Mark 10:17-31 – ‘starting and finishing

Reflection by Anne Stewart

We are all familiar, aren’t we, with the story of the rich young man who has as much chance of entering the kingdom of heaven as a camel has in getting itself through the eye of a needle. A couple of years ago I had a ride on a camel in Morocco. Now I have ridden horses all my life, being up on an animal is a comfortable place for me, but that camel, Victoria, I think she was called, was really high. It seemed quite fine climbing on while she was seated on the ground but then she literally tossed me all over the place, well out of my comfort zone, as she clambered up to her full height. Victoria was a big girl and I can tell you she was never going to make it through the eye of any needle!

I imagine you have all heard the rich young man’s story read many times through the years. Maybe you have cringed a little as you heard it used with maybe a slight tone of judgement to anyone with a comfortable bank account. A wee chance, perhaps, to put the rich in their place, and make the rest of us feel better about our less comfortable bank balances. Not ideal, but bizarrely, this story is also used by some Christians as a basis for understanding wealth as proof of obedience. If we are good and do things right, we will be blessed with good things. Following the logic that means if we have a lot then we must have been very good. This was the understanding in the time when Jesus told the story; great wealth was viewed as a sign of goodness. Is it so very different today? These days we would call this a prosperity gospel. If you do good and follow the rules you will be blessed, and blessed financially. There are some pastors around who understand the personal wealth they have elicited off their parishioners, to be a sign of God blessing them for their goodness. These pastors are not Presbyterians, of course, and I am so thankful for our systems that keep me safe from the burden of owning a private jet, or a Harley Davidson. The theology that rests behind this way of thinking is seriously flawed and can have some disastrous outcomes for those who follow these leaders. I think, for instance, they may have missed the point of this particular Jesus story! I have also heard of places where this story has been used as a device to open wallets and help keep the church books balancing. I remain unconvinced that any of these interpretations were what Jesus intended with this story.

So, why did Jesus tell it? The rich young man has everything he needs and he has obeyed all the rules but still he knows there is something missing in his life. He wants a little bit more; he wants eternal life. He thinks he can get this by doing something, he just needs to know what that something is, so that he can get on with making it happen. That method has worked for him thus far so it’s a natural starting point for him. He needs Jesus to let him into the secret of what the rules of this particular game are. Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘God helps those who help themselves’? I have a chocolate here for anyone who can tell me where that is found in the Bible. Proverbs chapter 32 perhaps?? Proverbs of course ends at chapter 31! The saying actually comes from the ancient Greeks and was used then, as it is now, as a means of inspiring self-initiative. It’s actually quite the reverse of what Jesus is telling us about where we should be looking for our help. But the message we often hear is that, to get ahead we need to work hard, make life happen, do the right things and gather stuff as a reward.

But of course, it’s not that simple. Jesus is tricky, he has a reputation for it! Jesus responds by outlining just how difficult it is. The only way to get eternal life (and what exactly that is, is a whole other story!) is to give up the very thing the rich young man holds dear, to let go of all that matters to him and to follow Jesus. But it’s more than just giving up his wealth, Jesus wants him to give it to the poor. Jesus wants him to be part of some rebalancing of the books, of redistributing of wealth, and the rejigging of inequality. This means a whole new ordering of status, a re-balancing based on what the rich young man has and what others don’t have. Whether anyone deserves anything is never mentioned, it’s not important. Getting rid of wealth or whatever it is that we cling to, is not about loss to Jesus, it’s about enabling us to have more. Eternal life requires an exchange; a

surrender of all we hold dear, for everything that God holds dear. Without the excess of us and our stuff there will be room for God. That’s where our trust needs to lie, rather than trusting in the shifting sands of our possessions.

Last week I was at the hospital visiting someone who was having a lovely peaceful nap when I arrived. I hate waking people who are unwell, sleep is surely one of the best medicines, after all. Fortunately, she woke by herself fairly soon but while I was waiting, I could hear a nurse on a phone call outside the room. I wasn’t listening but I couldn’t help hearing, if you know what I mean. She was clearly talking with another health professional about a mutual patient. I heard her describe the health condition which was a hip replacement with complications, and then I heard her say, he’s a very anxious young man. It caught my attention because hip replacement and young man don’t often go together. As I sat contemplating the strangeness of life, it hit me how differently we all start out, in a health sense. Some of us are born so fortunate, with straightforward bodies which pretty much do what they are designed to do. Others have massive hurdles to get over before they even begin. Some fight for basic things like breath right from the start of their lives, others have to find ways around significant issues that the rest of us never have to even think about. A hospital is a very good place to get a handle of how fortunate we are. Well, visiting one is anyway!

The fact that we all start out in life in varying places has long fascinated me. Having been brought up on the myth that we all have equal opportunities; it took some time for it to register with me that some of us have to battle to even start to make something of the opportunities we take for granted. When we have had a fortunate start in life, we tend to assume it’s like this for everyone and seldom have to reckon with what it might be like to not be as fortunate. This is true of our bodies, our wealth, our place in society, and where we are born, among other things. All of these things are a bit of a lottery and most are beyond our conjuring. But the reality is that some of us start more easily than others. What is also true is that we often notice those who have had a better start, before we notice those who haven’t. We want what others have, more readily than we want others to have what we have. That’s a fairly large generalisation and we are not all the same in this either, of course, but I have definitely noticed that tendency. Most of us have to remember or be reminded of those behind or below, but we definitely notice those above or in front. We seem to be drawn to envy those with more before concern for those with less kicks in.

In the story we are told that Jesus looked at the rich young man and he loved him. I like that that is made explicit. Out of that love Jesus tells him to let go of the things that he has locked himself into and follow him. Simple really. Just do the thing that is the hardest for you and you will be ready for eternal life. Stop clinging to your way of ordering things like success, and be free to come along for the ride with Jesus. It’s not an easy thing though, we cling to the privileges that having money and opportunity bring and fear what not having them might bring. Sometimes I tire of having to think about money and wish for a life where there is always enough. Of course, in those times I am forgetting that my starting place has been way ahead of where many start out. I am among the privileged, and Jesus in his call to follow him wants me to let go so that I can be available to look out for those who didn’t get the same start in life. In this story he promises that I will have a fuller life if I live this way.

But it won’t be easy. Particularly if I try and do it on my own, in my own strength. That way is as difficult as it would be for Victoria to squeeze her way through the eye of a needle. Impossible! Well impossible on my own anyway. Remember Jesus’ words ‘apart from me, you can do nothing? (Jn15:5) I think we especially need to hear those words now, at a time when we are collectively under siege by a virus. We need to hear them too because humanity is struggling to stay united as a collective. The pandemic is bringing out some ugly and divisive stuff. New ways for us to divide into ‘us’ and ‘them’. The ‘with COVID’, the ‘without’, who’s followed the rules and who hasn’t, the vaccinated, the un-vaccinated. We have to be so careful here. We need to hear Jesus and his call to follow him. We can’t follow him by calling others names and pushing them away, despite how much we might disagree with them. Jesus told the rich young man to give his abundance to those who had a different start from the one he had. He didn’t ask him to judge those people, but rather to let go of his own attachments and share what he had with them. This is surely a time to let go of our fears and the voices that would divide us and pull together in order to look out for the least, the lost, the little, and the last. Jesus loved the rich young man and tried to help him find a new way. We too are loved and are called to love those who are not like us, but not on our own. That would be like trying to squeeze ourselves through the eye of a needle. Come and follow me, Jesus invites, and I will show you how to live an abundant life.