Mark 10. 17-31
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to You, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Today, I’m going to talk about money! Oh no, I hear you cry – not that – anything but that. Talking about money in church is a bit like talking about religion in the pub – you know you ought to do it but somehow it just feels wrong. What will people think – it’s just not the thing to do in polite society.
Well, be that as it may, this Sunday of all Sundays we have no choice because Christ himself wants us to talk about it as we have, of course, had that most famous of readings from Mark’s gospel, the story of the rich man and that memorable phrase from Jesus that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Well what hope is there for any of us – because compared to the average person in the world, we all enjoy the riches of Croesus. We may as well head back home early this morning and get the Sunday lunch on the go – we’re wasting our time here looking for eternal salvation.
While we’re at it we may as well shout a few insults at our neighbours and steal a bottle of wine from the coop as we’re all heading for hell on the back of today’s reading so we may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb!
Now just before you all run out for a sinful binge, let’s just have another think about what we’re hearing from Jesus in this engagement with the rich man and do a bit more thinking on this vexed subject of money. In fact, money is something that it is hard for us not to talk about as it seems to be in the news all of the time.
I suppose if we had been in the United States at the time of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression of the 1930’s, it would have been hard to have avoided a daily discussion on the subject of money and the same is true today in the wake of the worst modern day financial meltdown from which we are still feeling the pains of the hangover.
I think what’s changed now is that money is almost an abstract commodity for most of us these days as relatively little of it actually passes through our grubby hands in the form of notes and coins. We get paid electronically and we pay our bills electronically. I can now flip money into my student son’s bank account in 10 seconds by just using my smartphone –a development that I regret but my son thinks is absolutely wonderful!
I read a statistic the other day on this development of electronic money which I found amazing. Now that we have these two distinct forms of money; legal tender and electronic money, the way the world works has changed for us in Western economies.
A market economy is one where human beings exchange goods and services for money. In India today, 80% of that exchange is in the form of legal tender – real folding or jangling money. In the US today it is 10% and in the UK only 5%.
I found that amazing. We have now become so sophisticated that 95% of the commerce that takes place does so without anyone ever seeing real money. Instead electronic digits are transferred by an instruction from a computer or a card holder or, increasingly rarely, a cheque. I think in some ways that this increasingly remote way of dealing with money changes our relationship with it markedly.
I’m not sure that we would wander so casually into a car showroom and sign a few bits of paper and drive out with a new car if we had instead spent months or years accumulating £5 notes under the mattress and then hauling them down to the showroom in a barrow. You certainly wouldn’t wander into an estate agents to buy a house if you had first had to accumulate all that physical cash.
Because of course, the thing that makes us this relaxed about spending money is that we have this wonderful system for moving electronic digits around called debt. HP, car loans mortgages and the rest – increasingly complex financial instruments that flip money from one bank to the next without us ever seeing it.
And its not just us that can do this, our governments can do it as well – only with them the numbers get truly mind boggling. As a means of digging us out of the financial crisis, the Bank of England has been pretty active in spending our money.
They have used a technique that is known as Quantitative Easing which is a fancy economist’s term which basically means they take public money and pump it into the banks by buying assets from them. To date, this little spending spree has totalled £375 billion – that £375,000 million pounds.
It takes a lot of imagination to picture £375,000 million pounds – I really struggle with it, but, compared to America, the Bank of England looks like a little old lady spending at the corner shop. America likes to do things big and Quantative Easing is no exception. Their bill, unlike our paltry £375 billion is now at $2.1 trillion. Let me convert that for you into real money, that is a total of £1,340,000 million – a 13 digit figure. Now it becomes completely impossible to imagine that amount of money.
To give you some idea though, it is equivalent to the entire GDP of Russia and bigger than the total GDP’s of Canada, India, Spain or Australia. It’s 4 times the size of the GDP’s of Norway, Sweden, Belgium or Poland. And remember, this is just the amount they’ve pumped into the banks in the last 2 years - $2.1 trillion. The total amount of debt in America has now soared to a staggering $14 trillion. How has this happened?
We talked earlier about debt and one of the things about debt is that it means that money itself has a price and that price is, of course, the interest rate that it can attract when it is lent to someone.
The higher the risk associated with lending that money, the higher the price and therefore the more profitable the debt – assuming you get it back. It was this ever increasing race to find higher and higher priced debt to make more and more profit that drove the financial markets to forget that most basic of rules which is that money lent as debt is only profitable if you get it back.
Would this have happened without electronic money – I doubt it. It is this separation of money from real life that has caused the problem and, if the crash has done some good, it is surely that it has taught us to look again at money as something that needs to be carefully managed.
This takes us back to our reading and to Christ’s insistence that we look again at money and wealth and what it is doing with a fresh pair of eyes – with the eyes of a follower of Christ and we come back to that uncomfortable demand from Christ to the rich man that he give away his riches to the poor and to Christ’s memorable statement that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
This has been such a contentious passage for centuries and you would be amazed at the numerous attempts to water it down and make it a bit more palatable for we rich types to swallow.
Even our bible translations show it. In the New International Version, Jesus preceeds the famous phrase about the camel with the words; “How hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God”, whereas in the King James – which was being prepared for the wealthiest man in England, it is subtly rephrased to be “How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter the Kingdom of God” – the implication being that it is not the riches themselves that are the problem but your attitude to them.
Even our famous camel phrase has been subject to all sorts of interpretation. It’s pretty clear that Jesus adopts imagery that leaves no scope for error. It is clearly impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle but here again, scholars have had a good go at trying to water it down.
There was a school of thought which proposed that the ‘Eye of the Needle’ referred to a very small gate into the walled city of Jerusalem and that to pass through it with your camel, you would have had to unload it and then push, shove and heave – in other words not an impossible task but a difficult one. The fact that no one has ever proven that such a gate existed rather defeats that particular hypothesis.
So let’s forget about trying to water down Jesus words and take them at face value and look again at what happens in this story. The rich man comes to Jesus and says to him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus starts by telling him to obey the commandments. He responds by assuring Jesus that he does indeed obey all of the commandments and then we have this amazing phrase that Jesus looked at him and loved him.
He then goes on to tell him to “Go sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven”. As we know, this is a bridge too far for the rich man and he wanders off downhearted and it is at that point that Jesus turns to his disciples and says “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God”
Now this passage has some wonderful insights that we wealthy Westerners would do well to dwell on at some length.
Does Jesus hate the wealthy? No, of course not. Here is a man that is genuinely concerned for his eternal salvation. A man who, since he was a child, has dutifully followed the laws of God. A good man and Jesus looks at this man and at his longing for salvation and loves him. He loves him – this man of wealth. In other words, the fact of his wealth and success does not diminish him in the eyes of Jesus – he loves him.
Secondly, Jesus does not answer his initial question on how to attain salvation by telling him to give away his money. No – he tells him to obey the commandments. Jesus knows that this is a wealthy man but he does not start by condemning his wealth, he starts by telling him to obey the commandments. In other words it is the man’s attitude to life that he challenges not his status and position.
It is only when the rich man assures Jesus that he has done all of that but feels it isn’t enough that Jesus challenges him to give away his wealth to the poor – and why is that?
Well I would suggest it is because Jesus knows that the reason this man is fearful for his soul despite obeying the commandments is because in his heart of hearts, this man knows that his attitude to his wealth is the barrier. The only way to resolve this is to remove the barrier and the way to do that is to remove the wealth.
Interestingly Jesus is also specific in telling him how to remove his wealth. He doesn’t just tell him to get rid of his money – he tells him to give it to the poor – so again, we see that it is not the money per-se that Jesus has a problem with, it is how it is used.
Now maybe, I am just joining that long list of wealth apologists and trying to make you all feel better but I do firmly believe that the message that Jesus gives us in today’s gospel is clearly that money of itself is not evil or corrupting, it is our attitude to it that needs attention.
This does not just apply at a personal level – although I’ll come back to that – you don’t get off the hook that easily! It also applies at a national and governmental level. You have only to look at the distribution of wealth around the world to see that there is something very, very wrong with how money works today.
If you look at the ranking of countries by their GDP per head, in other words the measure of the average wealth per person, you can see the fault lines that run through our globe. Does anyone have any idea of the richest country on earth by this measure? Well remember that to have a high figure per head of population it helps to have lots of money and very few people.
And the bottom? Well I’m sure you can guess which continent dominates the bottom of the table? Yes, of course it is Africa, in fact 9 of the bottom 10 in the table are African countries with the lowest being the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also scraping along the bottom are countries like Zimbabwe, Burundi, Liberia and Eritrea. The only non African country in that bottom 10 is Afghanistan.
The real eye opener for me though is the difference in wealth between the top and bottom. Qatar at number one was $98,948, Congo at the bottom was $349 that is a difference of 283 times. So the average Qatari is almost 300 times richer than the average Congolese.
So what about our own country – how do we rate here in the UK? Well in terms of the league table of GDP per head, we are the 22nd richest country in the world with a GDP per person of $36,322 but again, that hides some significant spreads. There are 619,000 millionaires in the UK today so, by definition, a lot of people are at the other end of the spectrum.
So, however, you look at it – we here in this church community are blessed by money. We don’t want for food or clothes or shelter. We have the luxury of worrying about things like where we will go on holiday or whether to upgrade our phones or our TV’s and not about where we are going to find the money to buy tonight’s meal.
I’m not going to lecture you on how you should use this blessing that has been bestowed upon you – I’m in the same position as you and certainly in no place to preach on that. All I believe is that God has blessed us in this way for a reason. How we use that blessing is the challenge in today’s gospel.
Are we, like the rich man, going to put our wealth in the way of our faith or are we going to allow our faith to guide us in how we use our wealth?
Let us pray
We thank you Lord for the blessing of wealth that you have bestowed upon us and we pray that you will guide us to use our blessings to support our faith. Amen