The Gap between Rich and Poor.

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2015-10-11 by George Kaplan

Preacher: Simon Woodman
11th October 2015
Readings: Mark 10:17-27; Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Mark 10:17-27

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”
20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 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!”
24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
25 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.”
26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

6 Seek the LORD and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins– you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.
14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

One of the recurring themes of all the party conferences recently

has been the discussions on the gap between the rich and the poor,

and on ways in which the rich might, or might not,

be taxed in order to preserve the social care budget

that protects those at the bottom end of the social spectrum.

From mansion tax to child benefit restrictions

from budget deficit reduction to affordable housing

from green growth to GDP

the economic crisis loomed large in the various keynote speeches

and will continue to affect us all for years to come.

A few years ago I was asked to go on behalf of the Baptist Union

to the Labour Conference

where I had a fascinating day of meetings

with various members of the shadow cabinet

and was able to talk about a range of issues

including the housing crisis, betting shops, pay day loans,

community organising, and benefit cuts.

And I have long had an interest

in how we might, as Christians,

help our society to do ethical things with money.

Well, our passage this morning from Mark’s gospel

takes us right to the heart of Jesus’ thinking

on issues of wealth, economics and justice.

In these verses from Mark chapter 10,

we meet a very rich man

who is wrestling with some profound questions about eternal life.

And in this I suspect he is not alone:

There are numerous examples

of good people who also have a lot of money.

Not everyone who has money is bad, or evil, or compromised.

And there are many people who have money,

who also try to live good lives.

This rich man who comes to Jesus in Mark’s gospel, would, I think,

have liked to think of himself as “good, with money”.

A bit like the old Co-Op bank slogan, before it all went wrong,

when they used to claim that they were

“good, with money”

with the clever double meaning emphasizing that not only do they intend to be

“good, with money”

in terms of being able to invest wisely

and get a good return on their investments

but also that they will use their money to do “good”:

they are “good”, and they have money, they claim.

Well, we all know how that worked out for the Co-Op,

but I wonder whether our rich man from Mark’s gospel will fare any better?

Yes, he has money,

but he also wants to be “good”.

And so he comes to Jesus,

who has been travelling around

preaching a message of good news and newness of life,

encouraging people to live lives of eternal value

and to consider their lives from heaven’s perspective.

And the rich man says to Jesus,

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In response, Jesus gives him a stock Jewish answer

and lists six of the ten commandments.

Interestingly, Jesus misses out the first four ‘theological’ commandments

citing only the final six ‘ethical’ ones.

This man’s issue is not, it seems, to do with his belief in God

it is to do with his behaviour.

How his belief works itself out in practice.

And in fact, Jesus actually changes one of these:

In the list of the ten commandments in Exodus 20

the final one is:

“You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbour”,

but Jesus changes this in the list he gives to the rich man

to “You shall not defraud”

which is actually not a command from the ten commandments at all

but from Leviticus 19.13 – which says,

“You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning.”

With this deft bit of editing,

Jesus reveals that he is more interested

in how this man became so affluent,

than he is in any pious theological inquiry about eternal life.

The temptation facing this rich man

is not about coveting the wealth of others:

After all, he already has great wealth.

Other people covet his possessions,

not the other way around.

Rather, his particular problem is the acquisition of wealth

at the expense of those less fortunate then himself.

So let’s return to the man’s original question:

It seems that this rich man assumes he can inherit eternal life.

It seems that he is of the opinion that eternal life, like property,

can be inherited – passed on from one’s ancestors

Like many who find themselves the beneficiaries of a socio-economic system,

he sees the benefits of religion – eternal life, in this case –

as a mere reproduction

of his own class entitlement.

He has inherited wealth

and now he wants to inherit the eternal life

to which he also believes he is entitled by virtue of his privileged birth.

In first century Palestine, the basis of wealth was land,

and the primary mechanism for the growth of such wealth

was the acquisition of land through the debt-default

of small agricultural land holders.

The socio-economic system of Jesus’ time

was one of haves, and have-nots

with the rich growing richer, and the poor growing poorer

and the gap between the two getting wider with each generation.

The landed class took great care, of course,

to protect its entitlement from generation to generation

And to ensure that their inheritance was protected.

And so the rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life,

and Jesus tells him

that he should not participate in the defrauding

of others out of what is theirs

in his ongoing possession and acquisition of wealth.

Jesus doesn’t directly dispute the man’s improbable contention

that he has “kept the whole law” since his youth,

even though it flies in the face of Jesus’ own assertion

that “there is no-one good but God alone”.

Instead, Jesus “looked at the man and loved him”

whilst then delivering the hardest truth of all:

“You lack one thing” – he says to the man who has everything.

What the man lacks is forgiveness…

This rich man has a debt to pay:

he remains indebted to the poor

who have been defrauded down the generations

in order that he may inherit his great wealth.

“Go”, pleads Jesus, “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”

This is radical stuff:

Jesus is asking the man to do nothing less

than dismantle the very system from which he derives his privilege.

If he gives his money away,

there will be nothing for his children,

and the system of inherited wealth and privilege

will be challenged as money is redistributed to the benefit of the poor

rather than hoarded for future generations of the wealthy elite.

According to the logic of Jubilee,

by redistributing his ill-gotten surplus

the man stands to receive true ‘treasure in heaven’.

But it doesn’t end there, “Come, follow me”, says Jesus.

This isn’t just about asking the man to change

his personal attitude towards his wealth,

or to treat his servants better,

or to reform his personal life.

Rather, it is asking him to participate

in the overturning of the system that generated

his elite status in the first place.

The man gives up and leaves dejected,

because, says Mark, ‘he had many possessions’.

We can imagine his distress:

if he does as Jesus asks,

where does that leave his children and the rest of his family?

In the context of class inequality,

Jesus’ message of repentance means redistributive justice.

The economic model here is one where wealth

does not simply perpetuate and accumulate in the hands of the few

as they pass it from generation to generation

whilst the poor get poorer.

Rather, it is one where the structures are in place

to ensure that the flow of money goes down through the social strata

as well as up.

Mark wants his readers to know

that this story means exactly what it says,

and so he has Jesus drive the point home

with some absurdist humour:

“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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 joke here about the camel and the needle

has been twisted by commentators anxious to avoid its sting:

Only recently in an interview,

the born-again Christian rock star Alice Cooper

trotted out the old chestnut about the eye being a gate in the city wall

as he sought to justify his own great wealth.

But the reality is that Jesus named the largest known animal

and the smallest known aperture

precisely to denote the impossibility of the rich

entering the kingdom of God with their wealth intact.

You cannot, as they say, take it with you!

But you can, of course, leave it all to your kids…

Anyway, the disciples protest, “who then can be saved?”

and we might well join them in this question.

Because we, like them, all too often interpret wealth

as a sign of God’s favour.

Those of us who have inherited western wealth and privilege

have done so in a context

where church and state have colluded down the centuries

to create a version of Christianity

that is predominantly educated, privileged, and elitist.

And those who have shaped our thinking

have been so anxious that Jesus here might be saying

something exclusive or critical about the rich

that they have often missed the fact that this terrifying passage

is not primarily about the rich at all.

It is about the nature of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is that place and time

when there are no rich and poor.

It is the place and time when Jubilee is enacted

when the equality of all humans in the eyes of God

becomes reality in the lives of all.

And this vision of the kingdom of God

– the place where eternal life is to be encountered

is a place which the rich, by definition,

cannot enter with their wealth intact.

This is a vision of a genuinely new social order

based on economic equality.

And Jesus acknowledges that it seems truly impossible

One distinguishing characteristic of wealth

is the opportunity to make decisions and choices

about the direction of our own lives and the lives of our loved ones.

Where and when and into what circumstances we were born

often determines whether we can make choices in life,

and if so, which ones.

Often it is difficult to differentiate

between necessities and luxuries.

In fact, the very definition of ‘necessity’

varies widely according to the context of our lives.

Food, clothing, shelter, recreation, and security,

for example, are basic human needs.

But how we interpret the satisfaction of these needs in our own lives

may provide our contemporary context

for the application of this gospel story to our own lives.

Food, for example, is just one example:

In a world where the diets of pets in wealthy households

are significantly better than the diets

of many children in poor households

something is terribly wrong.

Or what about clothing and shelter?

We live in a world where designer goods fill the shops

whilst the streets remain home to those who freeze at night.

Affordable housing is a growing political issue

as the need to build more dwellings

becomes ever more apparent.

We are often encouraged to believe that wealth and privilege ‘just happen’

– by good luck, or hard work, or the will of God.

And I’m reminded of the verse we don’t sing any more

from ‘all things bright and beautiful’:

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

And fashioned their estate.

The reason this is an unacceptable theology

is that great wealth and great injustice

all too often go hand in hand

Now, I don’t want to reduce this to a personal issue.

I don’t want to target those of us who are personally wealthy

into feeling guilty and inadequate.

That is not the point of Jesus’ challenge to the rich man

and we shouldn’t make it such either.

But we do need to recognize

that we live in a world where the vast majority of people barely survive

and the small minority live extremely well,

Mark’s story about the rich man

needs to be interpreted in our own times

as an invitation to transform the systems and structures

that create wealth inequality

perpetuate poverty

and maintain privilege within our own society

and within our world.

It is an invitation to enter the world of politics

to make our voices heard on issues such as international debt relief

on the housing crisis

on the policies relating to the fair and just taxation of the rich

on the provision of benefits for the poorest of the poor

on the welcoming of refugees…

If we ignore these, and confine ourselves to a privileged vision of faith

where we look after me and mine, or us and ours

then we too, like the rich man,

may find that we have turned away from Jesus

and his dawning kingdom.

And forgive me, but I remain doubtful

that a political rhetoric of “spreading privilege”

which does not also address those systems

that further benefit the already super-privileged,

has only limited practical application.

But, if we can learn to hold lightly to our possessions

and if we can learn to be generous

with our wealth and privilege and power

and if we can learn to follow Jesus wherever he calls us

Then maybe we can learn what it is to be good with money

and maybe we can, by the grace of God,

find our place in the dawning kingdom of God

Where the poor find value

and where first are last and the last are first.

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