When I was growing up in London my family taught me to take reading the Bible seriously. I had a copy of the Zondervan red letter Bible. They were very popular in this Diocese at one stage as Bibles given out at Confirmation. In the red letter Bible every word that the Biblical authors ascribe to Jesus is printed in bold red, so that they stand out from the rest of the text. That Bible, which I grew up with, helped me to focus away from the general stories of the New Testament and on to the very words of Jesus, highlighted by the red text.
This highlighting of particular texts is nothing new in the Christian tradition. A few hundred years after the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, bishops gathered together in synods for heated debate over which books should be in the New Testament and which should not. And our New Testament today is a product of those bishops deciding which Gospels, and which letters highlighted what they believed to be the most important, and authentic and accurate accounts of the life of Jesus and of the early church.
As Anglicans, we believe that the Spirit of God that was present throughout the very complex process of the New Testament coming into its final form, and is present each time a group of scholars provide us with a new translation of the text, and each time a group help to highlight certain things in the text for us – as Anglicans we believe that the same powerful spirit of God is present with us each time we open the scriptures for ourselves.
We never read the Bible alone, even if we are physically the only person in the room. Our reading of the Bible comes alive because God’s Spirit is with us. That’s why when I read the Bible in my study at home every morning and evening I come to it (when I am alert to what I am doing) expectant that God will say something new to me, even through a passage which I have read many times before.
So its worth asking, every time we have read a passage from scripture, what God is saying to us through the holy interaction of the Bible, and our own experiences, and God at work in both. What will you say if I ask that question of you as we leave Church today? What grabbed your attention in the readings which we have heard together at this Eucharist? Did you hear something new? Did the Holy Spirit highlight something for you in what you heard?
A few weeks ago our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, launched the Australian edition of the Poverty and Justice Bible. Whatever you think about either of those men and their politics, we should not forget how amazing it is that we live in a country in which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the day are willing to launch new editions of the Bible. There aren’t many other places that we could live where that would happen today.
The Poverty and Justice Bible is distinctive from other versions of the Bible because it highlights 2,000 passages which speak directly about the alleviation of poverty, the care of the elderly and the importance of those on the margins of society (rather than those, like most of us who are in the centre). I had my first look at one of these Bibles in Canberra last week, and each of the passages which speak about God’s priority for the justice and the care of the oppressed are highlighted in orange print (as if someone has gone through with an orange highlighter pen), so that they easily stand out from the rest of the text which is in black.
It is inescapable to read the Bible and not to be aware of the good news which it represents to the poor. The great premise of the biblical writers is that although in their current age, life was full of sin and injustice, lying and oppression – where good people suffered and wicked people got away with it – there would be an age to come in which everything would be different.
As I approached this week’s Gospel, I wasn’t struck so much by the good news which Jesus offers to the poor, but rather the bad news which Jesus gives to the rich. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.” And that point is underlined powerfully for us by the story of the man who approaches Jesus wanting to be a part of that Kingdom. In Mark’s Gospel he is a rich man, in Matthew’s account he is young, and in Luke’s account he is a ruler, hence the description often given that he was a “rich young ruler.”
For those of us who are familiar with this story (having heard it many times before) it is difficult for us to grasp that it has nothing at all to do with our modern conception of a man trying to get to heaven. In the time of Jesus time was basically divided, for the Jews, into two segments. There was the present age (full, as I have said, of wickedness) and there was the age to come, when God’s Kingdom reign and all would be well.
This rich man is not so much asking how he can get to heaven, but how he fair in the age to come, when all is restored on earth to its former glory. And Jesus has some terrible news for him. Whilst noting that he has kept the law (and its interesting to see which parts of the Ten Commandments Jesus highlights here, because he doesn’t highlight all ten of the commandments) he gives the bad news that this will not be enough. For this man to live fully in the age to come, in the reign of God, he must sell all that he has and follow Jesus.
Its hard to see how what is bad news for this man is not bad news for us as well. We may not consider ourselves rich, but in comparison to most of the population of the world, we are certainly not poor. Yet which of us has given up away all that we have (house, car, superannuation and savings) in order to follow Jesus.
About thirty years ago it became fashionable to talk about a gate in the wall of the city of Jerusalem. A gate which a camel could pass through as long as all of its baggage had been removed. It was claimed that this gate was called “the eye of the needle” and that this was what Jesus was referring to when he made his claim about the rich entering the Kingdom of God. As far as scholars can tell, this gate is completely imaginery and was simply someone’s good idea of a sermon illustration which then found its way around the world. But it is okay, nevertheless, to understand Jesus’ teaching that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, as a deliberately exaggerated image – its one of many of these images that we find in the teachings of Jesus, which deliberately exaggerate the story and are not meant to be a scientific hypothesis.
Why is it, then, that this man is prevented from participating in the fullness of the Kingdom of God because of his wealth? And how does this relate to us?
After the Second World War one of the great ongoing debates across Europe focused on what should be done with all of the treasures which were accrued from the innocent victims of that war, particularly but not only from the Jews who suffered under Hitler’s regime.The point was not just that some people had benefitted during the war from those atrocities, but that some people continued to benefit after the war because of the wealth that they had gained as a result of others suffering. There was a sense that justice would not be fully served, until all those possessions which had been stolen, had been returned to the families of those who had had them taken by force. So paintings, and furniture and land needed to be restored to those who had had them taken away, rather than allowing them to remain with an unrightful owner.
There are a number of possible interpretations to our Gospel reading this morning, and I want to suggest to you that this is one which is worth considering. Jesus not only looks deeply in to the life of this man who approaches him, but also into the reality of the context around him – and in so doing he knows that it isn’t possible for that man to be wealthy without also colluding with the oppression of others. The wealth of this man is caught up in the suffering of others, the same actions which have made him rich, have made others poor. And so Jesus is saying to him, “you cannot follow me, whilst at the same time leaving unresolved the wealth which you have accrued from others.” Those who will share with Jesus in the fullness of the age to come, (‘The Kingdom of God’) need to live in the present age as if the age to come has already arrived.
So what about us? What does this passage have to say to us this morning? One way of approaching this question would be to ask what we have gained through others losing out. What are the things which we enjoy which in fact cause suffering to others? How does our faith inform our participation in an unequal world, where many have nothing and a few have a lot?
Those are very big questions, and ones which we may feel inadequate to deal with on our own. We know the reality of the inequality in the world, but we may feel powerless to do anything about it. That I think, is why we have made such a strong commitment here to the vision of the Diocese, that each local Church should be a Ministering Community in Mission. Because we hope that by bringing about change here locally – both spiritually and physically – the whole world may eventually be changed as well. That ministry of living the Kingdom of God here and now, in anticipation of what is to come, is a calling for all of us (and not just Fr Glen or the ministry team or the parish council).
Jesus’ point to the rich man is not that by giving away his wealth the whole world will be changed, but that by giving away the wealth which he has gained through the oppression of others, that a start will be made – which may in time inspire others to do the same, as the Kingdom of God becomes a lived reality.
One phrase grabbed me in our readings today, about that rich man and his encounter with Jesus. What did the Holy Spirit highlight for you as you listened to scripture this morning; and how will it change what you do this week?