Our text from the Letter to the Hebrews today begins with a vivid image:

The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together.

A sharp sword was the deadliest weapon of ancient times- the Kalashnikov of the Roman era. So this image is like something from a very bloody battle- or a very graphic horror film. A sword that cuts through flesh, joints and marrow is an unsettling thought. And it is used to describe the word of God.

‘The Word of God’ is a phrase which trips lightly off a churchgoer’s tongue. We hear a lot about ‘The Word of God’ in church- just look at our Order of Service. ‘The Word of God’ is the central part of our service- the bit with the Bible readings and the sermon. The latter part of the service is about our ‘Response to the Word of God’. As we read the Bible readings, we are trying to listen for ‘The Word of God’. This sermon, like all preaching, is attempting to bring ‘The Word of God’ home to you.

At the start of the Bible, the Book of Genesis’s story about the origin of the universe, we are told that God speaks, and the world comes into being: the Word of God is a creative word. The prophets of the Old Testament often said to the people: ‘Thus says the Lord’: the Word is a prophetic word. Jesus says his message about the Kingdom is like a farmer sowing seed- a message which might land on good ground, or on rocky ground: the Word of God is fruitful word when people respond to it. John’s Gospel tell us that in Christ, ‘The Word became flesh, and lived among us’: the Word is embodied in the human, Jesus Christ. For our God is a God who speaks: ‘The word of God is alive and active’ in our world, in the Church, in individual lives.

And God’s word cuts through us, through flesh and muscle and bone, exposing what we would rather keep hidden. Quite often, people thought they saw in Jesus someone who seemed to have deep insight into people. He seemed to understand the hidden motives which shape our lives in ways we hardly recognise. And so his words often cut through to what was really going on in a conversation.

Today’s Gospel reading features a man into whose soul the word of God will cut into, like a sharp edged sword. Matthew’s Gospel says he was a young man; certainly he was well off. This rich young man comes to Jesus with a question, the question which many people wanted to ask Jesus:

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

And as was often his way, Jesus does not answer his question, but, instead, asks him a question in return:

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone.

It’s as if Jesus has taken offence at being called ‘Good Teacher’. Does he think the young man is trying to flatter him? And then he asks another, implied, question: ‘Don’t you already know the commandments?’ ‘Oh yes’, says the rich young man, ‘I’ve always done all that stuff’.

And then, Luke the Gospel writer tell us that ‘Jesus looked straight at him with love’ and said words which were excruciating for the rich young man to hear: ‘you only need to do one more thing: sell all your property and give the money to the poor; that way you’ll have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me’.

And that is too much for the young man:

When the man heard this, gloom spread over his face, and he went away sad, because he was very rich.

We all enjoy the stories about the people who follow Jesus. Peter, James and John leaving their fishing nets, Zacchaeus being called out of his tree, Matthew being called away from his tax booth. This could have been one of those stories, with a happy ending. But there is no happy ending to this story.

This rich young man was, we can assume, a child of privilege. Ancient Palestine was not a land of golden opportunity, where you could pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you worked hard enough. For most people, life was simply a struggle to scratch a living off the land, as farmers, shepherds, or fishermen. By the time you’d paid the rent to the landowner, the tax to the Romans, and the tithes to the priests, you would barely scrape a living. There were no internet entrepreneurs who started their business in their bedroom. It was a hierarchical society, where a few were very wealthy: landowners, and a few others with good connections, living off the labour of the mass of people. We may assume that the very rich young man in today’s Gospel had inherited his wealth.

It’s not that Jesus hates this young man: Jesus looked at him with love, even if his words were to disappoint him. Jesus is speaking out of love for this rich young man when he tells him that he must give up all he owns for the sake of the poor.

And as he goes away, Jesus makes that remark to the disciples who have decided to stay with him; a remark which, we are told, shocked them:

“How hard it will be for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God!… It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”

For some Christians, the answer to the question, ‘what must I do to receive eternal life?’ is very simple. All you have to do, they say, is to follow Jesus, take him into your heart, call him your ‘Lord and Saviour’. Which is all true, up to a point. But this Gospel story does not point to any such easy formula. The rich young man wants to follow Jesus, wants to find eternal life- but he can’t.

It’s quite clear that Jesus followed in the footsteps of the Old Testament prophets; like them, he speaks the word of God. And often, when the prophets said, ‘Thus says the Lord’ the word they spoke was a word of judgement.

For example, the prophet Amos preached that Israel was under the judgement of God for sinning by ignoring the commandments of God. And he names the sins: poor people sold into slavery, or even having the clothes taken off their backs, because they cannot pay unfair debts[1]; judges bribed to ensure the law favoured the wealthy[2]; wealthy merchants used false measures and cheated their customers[3]. Oppressing the poor was seen by the prophets as being as wicked as worshipping other gods or sexual immorality.

And in the tradition of the prophets, the word of God which Jesus speaks tell us that wealth is at odds with the Kingdom. Christ often speaks of how earthly treasure is no good; only treasure in heaven is eternal, so you may as well sit lightly with earthly treasure[4]. ‘Where your heart is will always be where your riches are’- so set your heart on Kingdom, on riches in heaven.

It’s not just that the rich young man made an idol out of his riches. For Jesus could have said to him, ‘Oh yes, do come and follow me; but try not to think about your wealth too much’. No- Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor. It is not enough for the rich man to put God first and his wealth second. He has to get rid of his wealth entirely. He’s to give it away to the poor- those who are in need, because he has too much.

Perhaps the rich young man couldn’t imagine life without his wealth. But his real stumbling block is that he can’t see himself giving it away to the poor. He is living in a time where the only way those on the breadline can survive is if people are generous to them- for there is no social security, no pensions, no sickness benefit. And so it is not enough for the rich young man to say he wants to follow Christ. A theoretical commitment to following Christ won’t do. He must follow through by committing himself to the cause of the poor.

We all know that we are supposed to love our neighbour. But when Jesus wants to tell us what that involves, he tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan, The priest and the Levite theoretically believe in God, but they pass by the man who was robbed, on the other side of the road. But the Samaritan sees the need, and goes out of his way, spends time and money, looking after the victim who’s in need. The Samaritan is the one who understands what the Word of God requires of him.

If we say we are people who live by the Word of God, then we cannot, even tacitly, be silent about or ignore the things which keep people in poverty. I’ve a feeling that, until he met Jesus, the rich young man had never quite made the connection that his wealth was the result of an economic system that kept other people in poverty. What paid for his lifestyle was the sweat and tears of people such as the farm labourers or the fishermen we hear about in the Gospel stories. He had ignored the sufferings of the oppressed; so it would be quite hypocritical of him to seek eternal life. Christ tells him that what he really needs to do is to give it all away: and his words cut him to the bone.

This story has worried some people so much that they have tried to get around it. For example: you may have heard it said that there was an arch in Jerusalem called ‘The Eye of the Needle’ which was big enough for camels to get through[5]. Well, I’m afraid there was no such thing. Jesus meant what he said about the rich, the Kingdom, camels and needles.

God’s mercy is, of course, wider and more generous than we can possibly conceive of. For God, all things are possible, says Jesus. And the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that, in Christ, we can ‘receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it’. Because, in Jesus Christ, God has been immensely generous to us. Despite our hypocrisy, our selfishness, God offers us his grace and mercy.

And that’s why greed is incompatible with the Kingdom. Christ is trying to tell us that God is generous, that God’s care is abundant. But too often, the world praises not generosity, but greed. There are people who could not imagine why they would want to be generous to those in need. They make up all kinds of reasons stories about the poor- claiming that the poor are lazy and feckless. Too many people tell themselves that they really have no responsibility for the oppressed and needy. But the Word of God cuts through the marrow to the bone, and lays bare their hypocrisy.

The very rich young man could not see his way to living generously. Yet unless we are willing to be generous, unless we are willing to put ourselves out for those in need, unless we are willing to challenge social structures and economic policies which are not generous to people in real need, we cannot really claim to be true citizens of the Kingdom.

With us, or without us, however, the Kingdom is coming. God’s generosity is not hindered by our greed and selfishness. For the Word of God, embodied in Jesus Christ, is good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed[6]. The Kingdom is among us: we just have to choose whether we will be part of it. For we are all invited to join in, and to do so with generosity and joy!

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] Amos 2.6f

[2] Amos 5.10f

[3] Amos 8.4f

[4] Luke 12.32-34

[5] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2016/08/the-eye-of-a-needle.html

[6] Luke 4.18,19