Wednesday, 7 October 2015

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”: a sermon (Mark 10:17–31)

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”    I’m sure that most of you have heard Eddie McGuire ask this question more than once.*

We may know that the source of the TV show’s title, a song from the classic film “High Society”, has the repeated refrain “I don’t”.  (“Who wants to be a millionaire? . . . I don’t.”)  The behaviour and attitudes shown by most people in our community give the impression that most of us - if we’re brutally honest with ourselves - would not answer “I don’t”.  Rather, the honest answer for most of us would be “Yes, please” .

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”    Most people seem to admire the very rich - even if it is a grudging admiration at times.  Whether we think of a rich person on a global scale (such as Bill Gates), on a national scale (such as Dick Smith), or even a local success story, we attribute a fair degree of intelligence and good judgement to the very rich.  Even when we think of those whose gains were probably (at least in part) ill-gotten, we credit the very rich with a high intelligence, even if the intelligence sometimes takes the form of rat cunning rather than true wisdom. 

It’s a bit like the song “If I Were a Rich Man” in the play “Fiddler on the Roof”.   Tevye, a poor dairyman, speculates what life would be like if he were a wealthy man.  People, even total strangers, would come to him for answers to their thorny questions and, as Tevye muses:

It wouldn’t make one bit of difference
if I should answer right or wrong,
for when you’re rich they think you really know.

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”    Most of us admire the very rich - even if it is a grudging admiration at times. 

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus has a conversation with someone who is often called “the Rich Young Ruler” by people who preach sermons and write Sunday School lessons.  In our lesson from Mark, he is only described as being rich.  The same story in Matthew’s gospel tells us that the man (besides being rich) is young.  In Luke’s gospel, we are told that he is a ruler, as well as rich.  So, thus, we have the “Rich Young Ruler”.  He asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus gave a good Jewish answer:  “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.  You know the commandments.”  He then proceeded to list a few.

The man replied, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  This must have been an essentially honest answer, because Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him with love.

Jesus then said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”

The “Rich Young Ruler” was “shocked”.  Mark tells us he “went away grieving for he had many possessions.”

Jesus told his disciples:  “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. . . . 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 thing about the camel going through the eye of a needle is interesting.  In the United States, I’ve heard of a “religious” amusement park. (Yes, as tacky as it sounds, they do have religious amusement parks in America!!!)  This park has a ride in which you can ride a camel through a very large eye of a very large needle.  (I’m sure it is very comforting for some!!!)

As well, I once heard a “popular” preacher here in Australia, one who specialised in ministry with the wealthy (and politically conservative), talk about a gate in one of Jerusalem’s ancient walls, a narrow gate called “The Needle’s Eye”.  It was difficult - but not impossible - for a camel to go through that gate.  This information may have been very comforting to the “popular” preacher’s affluent and conservative listeners but, like the amusement park ride, I doubt if it was really what Jesus had in mind.

Back to our lesson, the disciples asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus replied, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God:  for God all things are possible.”

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”   

The “Rich Young Ruler” was a good person.  He kept all the commandments and was serious about it.  But the one thing that hung him up was his wealth.  Jesus challenged the rich man at this very point:  “... go, sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven...”.

Jesus challenged the “Rich Young Ruler” to move from a lifestyle centred on his belongings to a lifestyle centred on the needs of his neighbour.  Over the centuries, Jesus continues to challenge us to move from a culture of acquisition to a culture of generosity.

The poor understand this “culture of generosity” and seek to live it.  Even the comparatively poor in our society, who are still very well-off in global terms, understand the nature of this “culture of generosity”.  Even the frantic overspending that we see each December among less affluent families in our community - as maddening as it may be - is a sign, however flawed, of this “culture of generosity”: a sign of a desire to express the generosity of the season to family and friends ... particularly the kids.

But it is among the world’s poor:
  • found in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and the Sudan; 
  • found in Aboriginal communities in this country and in refugee camps on nearby islands;
it is among the world’s poor that we see this culture of generosity most clearly expressed.

In my four visits to Bangladesh in the 1990s on behalf of the Christmas Bowl appeal, I saw this many times. 
  • If you want to see generosity, look for it among the poor. 
  • If you want to see real generosity, look for it among the very poor.  
  • If you want to see sacrificial generosity, look for it among the poorest of the poor. 
Among the poor, we see a real "culture of generosity".

Ultimately, whether one is rich, or poor, or (like most of us here) poorer than Bill Gates but much richer than more than 90% of the world’s population, the question Jesus asks us (like the “Rich Young Ruler”) is whether or not we are prepared to be part of such a “culture of generosity”.   “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.”

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”   

Eddie McGuire asks that question.

So does Jesus.

Jesus expects a different answer than Eddie.

*  For readers in nations other than Australia, Eddie McGuire was the host of the Australian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", and its spin-off "Millionaire Hotseat" since the internationally-franchised programme was first seen on Australian TV in the 1990s.  This is alongside such other hosts of this quiz show as Chris Tarrant (U.K.), Regis Philbin (U.S.), and the incomparable Gay Byrne (Ireland).


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