There’s a story doing the rounds of a young soccer player earning millions of pounds each year, on contract with one of the UK premiership clubs. He came to England having spent his teen years in a refugee camp. The reporter was surprised to see the broken, rather tatty mobile phone the rich young man was using. However, it seems this doesn’t matter to the young man. He gives a lot of his money away to help children back in Africa and supports charities for young people in the UK. The young man’s matter-of-fact reply stated he had more than enough to live on and his skill was an unearned gift and he wanted to share the fruits of this gift widely while he can.
Mark’s gospel story of ‘The Rich Man’ (10:17-22) who runs up and kneels before Jesus is a story also about wealth, with its different expectations of privilege and inheritance. The man stops Jesus who is on his way to Jerusalem and his anticipated death. (Mark 10:32-34) He asks Jesus directly:
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Mark 10:17)
Privilege displays itself in ways in which the one who is privileged generally remains unaware. Privilege is unearned. It is not achieved through worthiness. It creates a sense of entitlement, generally shows a lack of responsibility with arrogant behaviour and callous indifference. It is blind and self-centred.
The rich young footballer is aware of his unique privilege arising from his gift with the soccer ball, yet he has already chosen not to be ruled or consumed by it. He is putting his skill and his gift to very good use as he thinks about his neighbours and daily walks away from his privilege.
However, the rich man in the Gospel story has a different approach as he asks about his potential inheritance.
When I think about inheritance, we know wealth is generally passed from generation to generation, as it is acquired and accumulated. We don’t question how our inherited wealth has been amassed. We frequently have not done anything to earn this intergenerational blessing. We may work hard to maintain it, increase and enjoy it, keeping it in the family. The privilege of having an inheritance gives unearned, unquestioned access to education, housing, health, wealth and power which all continue to entrench the accruing privilege and power. Being born into wealth gives unearned status, and ensures our thinking is always biased in this country by our white privilege, and which is unquestioned and ferociously defended when challenged or questioned.
The rich man assumed he could inherit eternal life, just as he had inherited the benefits of everything else. He saw eternal life as another commodified ‘good’ he could acquire, purchased at the right price. This week in Morning Prayer we heard the story of Naboth’s vineyard stolen by King Ahab, in this story, Naboth’s death was the right price.
No doubt the rich man in this story was a good man. He kept God’s commandments. He hadn’t broken the law. Jesus saw his honesty and loved him. The rich man was interested in acquiring benefits which he had perhaps earned by his righteousness and to which he hoped he was entitled.
Jewish inheritance law was also critical to this story. Inheritance was patrimonial, from father to son. Wealth and its inheritance also needed to be kept in families, marriages were made around the economics of increasing wealth of the family. Women were bought and sold for dowries, increasing access to wealth and land. We talked last week about the issue of marriage and divorce (Mark 10:2-16). Here’s another part of the economic puzzle Jesus is teasing out and laying bare for us.
Yet, inheritance also tears families apart as people argue over who inherits and benefits from this intergenerational impact. We still see this today.
The expectations of privilege noticeably loaded the question to Jesus as Jesus, sadly and openly answers the man. Following Jesus, as he keeps reminding us, includes sacrifice, selflessness, and sharing. Sacrificing the comforts of privilege and to share economic and social power are elements of a life of discipleship.
We were also reminded of this last Monday as we celebrated Francis of Assisi’s life. Francis was a rich young man who gave his wealth away to live simply on God’s earth; giving away his father’s power over him and the restrictions and expectations of wealth to live in God’s love and in God’s creation relieved of the burden of wealth or its power over him.
The rich man who ran to Jesus may well have expected to have direct access to eternal life; his inheritance for having lived a good life, already blessed with wealth and power.
The shock of the disciples and the rich man, at Jesus’ clear response is obvious. The bluntness of the choice was laid bare.
I heard another story this week. At a function held in one of our country towns, a respected Aboriginal elder was offering Welcome to Country. A local wealthy farmer, whose family were among the early settlers, responded very comfortably, noting this land was now his as his family had owned it since his ancestors had arrived in the 19th century and taken the land.
I’m told the Aboriginal elder replied with kindness, dignity and respect, letting the farmer’s response remain unchallenged; as he said later to my colleague, the farmer wasn’t ready to see or hear the truth. Like the rich man in the encounter with Jesus, the question has been asked and Jesus has answered. Are we now ready to hear it, respond to the answer and its invitation?
The other half of this discussion with Jesus is then shared with the disciples, whose horror at hearing the difficulties for a rich man in inheriting eternal life, wonder how they can compete with the wealthy and privileged.
And how do the poor and dispossessed of our world inherit eternal life; the economically disadvantaged, those whose status in life has no value, women, children and slaves, and those too poor to count? Mark tells us the disciples:
Were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’ (Mark 10:26-27)
Jesus was very clear with the disciples, their perception of having economic wealth being a sign of God’s grace was not real or true. God’s kingdom protects the poor and provides justice for the oppressed. Jesus’ answer, full of love, reminds the disciples, everyone can be saved.
What is impossible for us as humans is possible for God. As all things are possible for God, God can empower a wealthy person to sacrifice and to share for the sake of the gospel to join in God’s kingdom.
With God, anyone can be saved. However, Jesus reminds us not everyone can hear this teaching or accept it, but only those to whom it is given. There is a call to sacrificial discipleship, but also loving recognition from Jesus as he sees sadly not everyone is capable. The gate is both so narrow and so very wide open. Our love of God and of Jesus and his Way, will open the gate wide. The love of God is so generous and open all are welcome if we want to hear and go through.
What is important for us to hear though, is as we leave behind all we might consider precious, family relationships, friends, property, goods and wealth, the kingdom does not replicate our old lives, including our social and political standing. Rather the community is a new family reimagined with new friendships and resources.
The list of restored goods Jesus offers (Mark 10:30) promises neither a life of leisure nor wealth. God gives us a wide set of relationships, (new brothers, sisters, mothers and children) the economic means to produce abundance (fields) and the conditions for making a common life together (houses).
The kingdom of God is not limited by the rules of status, power, privilege, prestige and human expectations; the kingdom is a community where the first will be last and the last will be first. In other words, Jesus promises fullness of life, real life, not just in the age to come but here and now for all of us.
Jesus’ expression of love for the rich man, for the disciples and for you and I is obvious in this discussion. All are welcome. What you choose to do with the invitation is up to you, sisters and brothers. I hope you will choose Jesus’ invitation to eternal life in God’s kingdom now with all the persecutions but also with all the joy and love we can barely imagine.
The Lord be with you.