Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Sundays after Trinity

Here is the transcript to my latest podcast. The podcast is based on the end of the Gospel reading for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity and the Gospel for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Sundays after Trinity

Reading: Mark 10:13-31

In the Gospel reading for my last podcast we read how our Lord, having taken a child into his arms, said that anyone who welcomes one such child welcomes him (Mark 9:36-37). Jesus said this in response to the disciples’ argument about who was the greatest. Jesus told them that whoever wants to become great must become the least of all and the servant of all. The child in his arms showed them what that looked like. Not the sweet innocent child we normally think of, but a child as a child would have been seen in Jesus’ own time: someone weak, despised, and powerless. If as Jesus’ followers we are to be Jesus’ representatives, that is how we too must become, in the same way he became such a one for us.

In our Gospel for this podcast, Jesus expands on this theme just as he will again in our next Gospel reading for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity. This isn't something to the periphery of Jesus teaching; it is central to Jesus’ teaching about what it means to be one of his followers. Our gospel reading contains two well-known stories.

In the first story, people are bringing little children to Jesus, so that he might touch them. The disciples, who share the same general contempt of children as most people of the age did, try to stop this happening. They see bringing children to Jesus as a waste of Jesus’ time. Rather than being troubled with children, Jesus, they believe, should be allowed to get on with what really matters.

Jesus, however, is indignant, and he orders the disciples to let the little children come to him. Jesus then uses the children who come to him both as role models and to teach about the Kingdom of God and discipleship. It is, Jesus says, to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Jesus says to the disciples:

‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Mark 10:14-15)

Jesus has previously told his disciples that if they want to represent him as one of his disciples, they must become as a little child. He now makes an even stronger statement. No one can enter the Kingdom of God itself unless they receive it as a little child. Anyone who wants to enter the Kingdom of God must receive it in trust and obedience as one who has no right to it and no power in themselves to gain it.

Initially, the next story doesn't seem to be connected. It is, however, an example of the practical application of Jesus’ teaching concerning as it does a person who wants to find eternal life and enter the Kingdom of God. It is again a well-known story.

As Jesus is setting off on a journey, a man runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. The man wants Jesus to know he takes Jesus seriously. The man is not like the Pharisees who only ask Jesus questions in an attempt to trick him and catch him out. The man’s question is simple and straightforward:

‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark 10:17)

In answering, Jesus begins by questioning the man’s use of the word ‘good’. Surely, Jesus asks, it is only God himself who is good? Jesus then continues by pointing out to the man that the man knows God’s commandments. The man replies that he is kept all of them since he was a youth. Jesus doesn't respond by telling the man he is deceiving himself, or that he is lying, or by giving him a Protestant type sermon about the impossibility of keeping the Law. Jesus accepts that the man has kept the commandments just as St Paul is able to write that he kept the law blamelessly (Philippians 3:6).

Instead, St Mark writes that Jesus looks at the man and loves him. Jesus, in looking at the man, sees someone who is genuine in his desire to please God and find eternal life, but Jesus also sees the man’s need. Jesus tells him:

‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Mark 10:21)

What the man lacks is Jesus, and the obstacle getting in the way of him entering the Kingdom of God is his wealth. Jesus tells the man to get rid of his wealth and follow him. Jesus has said that the Kingdom of God must be received as a little child. That means a person must receive it as one with no wealth or status. This goes against everything the man has been brought up to believe. That Jesus has understood the man’s problem is to be seen in the man’s reaction. He is shocked and goes away very upset, because, St Mark informs us, he has many possessions.

It is not only the rich man who Jesus shocks; the disciples are even more shocked by what Jesus says next. In what is a well-known saying, Jesus tells them 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. The disciples ask, if that is the case, who can be saved. If it is so difficult for someone who is righteous, respectable, and rich to be saved, who then can be? For humans, says Jesus, it is impossible, but not for God; ‘for God all things are possible’.

Applying Jesus’ teaching here is a real challenge. At first sight, at least Jesus’ teaching about letting the little children come to him seems straightforward enough.

It used to be the case that the church was rather like the disciples. Children, in the past, were not particularly welcome in church. Sunday School was often as much about providing somewhere for the children to go while the adults went to church as it was about teaching them about Jesus. It kept children out of the way, somewhere where they could do no harm, while adults got on with worshipping God.

This has largely changed. We now in the church try to be welcoming to children. I would like to think this is because we are taking Jesus’ words in our reading seriously. It is, however, as much about general trends in society as a whole as it is about faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching.

You often see restaurants and hotels advertising themselves as ‘child-friendly’ or family-friendly’, and we in the church, not to be outdone, also want to be ‘child-friendly’ and ‘family-friendly’ in our approach. Frankly, our new openness to children is largely because we have somewhat belatedly come to realise that if we aren't, then no one is going to come to our churches. Many churches are paying the price in the present for the church’s failure to be ‘family-friendly’ in the past. Congregations, in many places, are now predominantly elderly and ageing. Our past unfriendliness is not, by any means, the only reason why families don’t come to church, but it is a part of it.

Thankfully, there are churches that have managed to change, and which have been successful in attracting and welcoming families. But there is more to being child-friendly than becoming a religious version of Disney. It is all very well giving children a welcome, telling them stories, and keeping them entertained. We need, more importantly, to bring them to a place where they can be touched by Jesus.

Yes, we need to teach children the stories of Jesus, and it is certainly true that if they don't hear them from us, they are not going to hear them anywhere else. Schools, even church schools, don't give much time to teaching Bible stories, even though they are an important part of human history and culture apart from any spiritual value they may have.

Sadly, more often than not, the best we can hope for in schools is the occasional Scripture lesson. Schools are too busy teaching what they consider are the more important subjects to be bothered with what they see as something that children can get on a Sunday, if that is what their parents want. Unfortunately, however, even parents who consider themselves church members often think there are more important things for their children to be doing on a Sunday than going to church. If it’s a competition between a parent taking their child to church or their child receiving football coaching, I wouldn’t bet on church winning.

Teaching Bible stories, then, is important, and it is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. There is, however, an even greater need to teach, not only the stories of Jesus, but also the values and attitudes of Jesus which the stories convey. The values and attitudes children are learning at school and in the world, as well as not being the values and attitudes of Jesus, are often quite the opposite and are even hostile to our faith.

The rich man who lived a good life and was materially successful is far more likely to be held up as a role model for children growing up than the ‘little ones’ who have left all to follow Jesus. How many church schools, for example, in giving career advice, warn children that pursuing certain careers in order to become materially well off and successful will make it harder for them to enter the Kingdom of God?

Worse still, children are being constantly exposed to material that is both dangerous and damaging. For example, kids encounter pornography at a frighteningly young age. We want a world that is safe for our children, but the online world, which is as real to them as the physical world, is anything but safe.

Welcoming children and taking them in our arms as Jesus did needs also to be about protecting them from everything that may harm them and keep them from entering the Kingdom of God. It will also mean teaching the values and attitudes of Jesus, so that they have a firm foundation for their lives. This is a huge and important topic, and much more could and should be said. Suffice it for now to say that we must do more, and do it better, if we are to take seriously Jesus’ words here about letting the little children come to him.

Welcoming children in the way Jesus wants us to welcome them is itself then a big challenge, but Jesus wants us to do more than welcome children; he also challenges us to learn from them. Having told the disciples off for preventing children from coming to him, Jesus turns the tables on the disciples and tells them they must learn from children how to enter the Kingdom of God.

This would have been a completely alien concept to the disciples just as it still is to us. We teach children, not learn from them. In the last podcast, we saw how Jesus teaches that we can learn what true greatness is from children. If we want to be a follower of Jesus, we must become a little one like them. Now, in our Gospel reading, Jesus teaches how we are to gain entry into the Kingdom of God. Jesus again says that we must receive it like a little child, that is, as someone in no position to earn or deserve it.

In some ways, this makes it sound easy and most people think that it is easy. Many think that all you have to do is simply turn up at church when you feel like it and generally be nice to people, and then when you die you will go to heaven. So what Jesus says to the disciples after the rich man has gone away sorrowful really does come as a shock. Jesus says:

‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!’ (Mark 10:24)

It is hard for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God and not just for those who are rich. This is something that Jesus emphasizes on other occasions. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus says:

‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

In many ways, entering the Kingdom of God as a child should be easy. Children, after all, are not in a position to earn anything. Eternal life is to be received as a gift in trust and obedience. But receiving it as a gift, trusting Jesus enough to obey him, is not so easy, and the rich man in our reading shows us just how hard it is.

Firstly, receiving the Kingdom of God as a child means humbling ourselves and accepting our weakness and powerlessness. It means denying ourself. Denying ourselves, as Jesus requires, means more than going without, it means rejecting the idea that we can achieve anything by believing in ourselves. We may constantly hear in the world around us that by believing in ourselves we can realize our potential. Jesus’ followers, however, respond by denying that they have any potential to realize. What we have, we have only in Christ.

Having to receive the Kingdom of God as a gift is a humbling experience. It is humbling to discover that there is nothing that we can contribute to our salvation and that we have to let go of our pride and our confidence in our own self-sufficiency. But unless we do, we will not enter the Kingdom of God.

Secondly, if we are to enter the Kingdom of God, we need to get our attitude to money and possessions sorted out. The church, I think it is fair to say, has found it hard historically to strike the right balance in its attitude to material wealth.

On the one hand, there have been those who have argued that the church should take a negative view of wealth and riches. St Francis, for example, famously renounced earthly possessions and voluntarily embraced a life of poverty, surviving by begging.

On the other hand, there have been the so-called televangelists and the preachers of what is known as the ‘prosperity gospel’, who argue that believing in Jesus will make you happy, healthy, successful, and rich. They boast of their extravagant lifestyle, which, they claim, is a reward for their faith.

Those who are sympathetic to the approach of St Francis can point not only to what Jesus said to the rich man in our Gospel reading, but also to what Peter says to Jesus. Peter says:

‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ (Mark 10:28)

Ironically, those who are sympathetic to the second approach can point to Jesus’ response. Jesus replies to Peter:

‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’ (Mark 10:29-30)

Jesus words could be interpreted as Jesus saying ‘give to get back’. In other words, if you give what you have to Jesus, you will get much more back, and in this life not just the next. Indeed, this is what the preachers of the prosperity Gospel do say.

To understand Jesus’ teaching, we need to look at the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching, and not just quote isolated sayings from it. It is impossible once you do that not to see that Jesus warns his disciples repeatedly about the dangers of wealth.

Nevertheless, there were rich people with possessions among those who believed in Jesus. Jesus didn't ask everyone to give up everything. Jesus and his disciples were themselves supported by women of significant material means and the early church was financed by rich benefactors such as Philemon, for example, who often also hosted church meetings in their houses.

We need, however, to be careful not to use this as a way of justifying greed and the pursuit of riches and wealth. Jesus has some harsh things to say about those who do just that. Jesus not only says ‘blessed are the poor’, he also says, ‘woe to you rich’. And the fact remains that, as Jesus says:

‘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.’ (Mark 10:25)

As we see in our Gospel reading, Jesus does call some to a life of voluntary poverty. Some are called to sell all that they own. Equally, however, all are not. But even those of us who are not need to take seriously the spiritual danger posed by money and possessions, and be on our guard against it. As St Paul puts it:

‘… in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.’ (1 Timothy 6:10)

Thirdly, and finally, you cannot receive a gift while you are holding on to something else. What we hold onto varies from person to person. For many, like the rich man in the Gospel reading, it is money and possessions. Or, if not the money and possessions themselves, the desire for them. The time spent trying to acquire material wealth can itself be the very thing that keeps us from entering the Kingdom of God.

Invariably, we all have something in our life that threatens to get in the way of following Jesus and which creates an obstacle that prevents us entering the Kingdom of God. We each need to ask ourselves, ‘What is there in my life that is holding me back from following Jesus?’. As Jesus said:

‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell …’ (Mark 9:43-47)

And so again we need to ask ourselves, ‘What do I need to cut off or tear out in my life?’

We need to stop suggesting that following Jesus is easy and, like Jesus, start explaining to people how hard it really is, even if it means that only a few will join us. The reality is that many of us have bought into a version of the prosperity Gospel. Not the crass version that sees faith as a way to get more money, but one that assumes that faith gets you more happiness.

We often talk as if God wants us to be happy, whereas the reality is that he wants us to be holy. Not the sanctimonious holiness that is often parodied and mocked in the media, not the hypocritical holiness of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus criticizes and condemns, but the holiness of being wholly committed to him and which means that we give the whole of ourselves to him.

How we pray shows how we think. If we think that what matters most is that we are happy, we will pray for those things that make us happy. If we think that what matters most is our relationship Christ, we will pray for what brings us closer to him. This, of course, is not to say that being happy and being holy are always incompatible, but that our priority should always be to follow him - wherever he may lead.

Put like this it can sound not only hard but impossible. And if we try do it on our own it is impossible. But, as our Lord says, it is not impossible for God; ‘for God, all things are possible.’

May God make the impossible possible in our own lives.


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