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Saturday, 13 October 2012

Exit, Rich Dude

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Readings:    Job 23.1-9, 16-17
        Psalm 22.1-16
        Hebrews 4.12-16
        Mark 10.17-31

Too often in conversations and even in sermons I have heard expositions on the Rich Young Man’s encounter with Jesus that take the form of ‘isn’t it sad that he didn’t rise to the call, but isn’t it great that we did?’ Sometimes there is a sort of browbeating included, a bit of tut-tutting about rich people or people who are obsessed with financial advancement – after all this is the same Jesus who said terrible things about those who store treasure on earth – but on the whole that is the end of the level of textual analysis that is made. As I said in addressing the powerless child a week ago, such a superficial analysis really skirts around the deep and disturbing challenge of the way of the Cross. This approach, when presented with the famous “Then who can be saved?” tends to take a sort of cosy comfort in the answer of Jesus, “for God all things are possible.” The equally famous ‘there but by the grace of God go I’ is shared around conspiratorially, and the conversationalists or members of the congregation go away deeply comforted and self-satisfied.

There is a degree of parody here, but only a degree. There is a degree of truth in the ‘there but by the grace of God go I’ response, but only a degree. There is comfort in the gospel, always, but of course never self-satisfaction, and that is almost certainly where we end up going wrong. None of us, not one, shares the righteousness of Job, yet we all too often behave as if our immense satisfaction with our hard-won standing with God was our own doing, a kind of right, though we may protest loudly about our un-meriting nature, and even seek to demonstrate that we are even more un-meriting than the person next to us. I suspect the Protestant doctrine of ‘assurance of salvation’ or ‘blessed assurance’, a somewhat suspect mis-reaction to some of the extremes of Medieval Catholic doctrine, has much to answer for. In fact I suspect that all Christians need to listen carefully to the polemical but wise Tridentine statement

If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end, unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema

We need to listen to that if only because there is a whole spectrum of Christianity whose membership live in a state of cosy complacency about the state of God’s world, while rejoicing in the knowledge that they will spend something called ‘eternity’ frolicking on the clouds with harps. We could learn much from Ernst Käsemann, who observed:  It ought to disquiet us when Christianity has nothing more to offer here than the fulfilment of pious or carnal longings for the conquest of the grave.[1] This in part has led to the image of the West as selfish and disinterested in the suffering of God’s earth, and no matter how hard some mission agencies work to ameliorate the plight of the poor of God’s earth, that image is deeply entrenched in our history. It is not I might add, merely a Protestant nor a Catholic nor an Anglican problem: it is a problem of communities and individuals who have forgotten the stern nature of the judgement of God and decided it applies to everyone but them.

Which is really the problem of the young man who approaches Jesus. It should not be forgotten that in Mark’s hands he is following a series of characters whose approach to Jesus is not one of respectful engagement by which to grow closer to God, but whose approach to Jesus is in order to entrap Jesus. This man does not seem to be entrapping Jesus, but he is obsequious in his approach, and his question is utterly self-centred. Jesus is not particularly interested, it seems, in accommodating this man’s game-playing, and the conversation soon has the man heading away, saddened, and no doubt keen to be amongst those calling for the blood of Jesus in his final week of suffering. So much so-called evangelism, ironically, is of the ‘where will you spend eternity’ approach: on the whole Jesus is very little concerned with eternity and individuals’ enjoyment of it, but with food for the hungry and clothes for the naked. His question to would-be followers is not ‘how many people did you convert’, ‘but did you feed, clothe, liberate those in need’.

Yet of course I have to acknowledge that I stand condemned by the demands of this encounter. We of the global North, or the West as we used to be called, should almost all slink away, saddened, with the Rich Young Man. I know my sin: I know my cavalier attitude to international greed, to the selfish lifestyle that sees the gaps between the haves and the have-nots growing if not exponentially then at least tragically. I know that it is into the gaps of life-expectancy and financial opportunity that extremists of Islam and other religious cultures have leapt. I know that I have crept around, secure and arrogant in the cosiness of my encounter with the redeeming Christ, and have done only miniscule amounts in the genuine service of the gospel of feeding hungry, clothing naked, and proclaiming Jubilee. I will again and again seek God’s forgiveness, but one day perhaps, as God the God of judgement watches, I may have to seek the forgiveness, too, of those whose food I ate and whose life-opportunity I consumed.

At the beginning of Luke’s account of the gospel we hear the all-unsettling Song of Mary, the Magnificat, that sees the world through God’s eyes and is deeply threatening to those of us who, simply because we dwell with the tiny percentage of the world’s population with food on the table and money in our accounts, stand if not condemned at least torn down by God’s perspective. As Jesus in Mark’s account first takes abused and vulnerable women, then a powerless child, and finally a Rich Young Man into the centre of Jesus’ ministry he is revealing his own understanding of the Magnificat lenses through which Jesus judges and will judge the world. These should be unsettling passages that at the very least disturb our complacency and challenge our cosy reliance on some blessed assurance based on the happy experiences we have with Jesus.

In the end, I suppose we can fall back on that grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that Paul offers even his starkest enemies in the service of the gospel. But the stories of abused women, powerless children, and an obsequious and complacent Rich Young Man in Mark’s gospel account should at the very least remind all of us that we very truly better mean the sorry-words we say when we tell God that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.

Only when we have grasped the magnitude of that culpability can we reach out and say once more, Lord Have mercy on me, a sinner, and say it not just once but over and again until we see him no longer through a darkened glass but face to face.


[1] Käsemann, Jesus Means Freedom , 67.
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