Ouch!! Jesus really has some sharp words here. Perhaps the writer to the Hebrews has this sort of thing in mind when he writes, "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword."
Jesus, the word made flesh is approached by a rich man with courtesy and deference. He honours Jesus and engages in religious discussion about eternal life.
We do this sort of thing a lot in church. We honour Jesus, we reflect on important religious questions, so it is very sobering to realize that, like the young man in the story, we can do these things and still entirely miss the point about Jesus.
And Jesus looking at him, loved him and said, "you lack one thing, go sell what you own and give the money to the poor".
It's a very tough word! I have a suspicion that we would probably all fall asleep in our complacency if the only message we heard from the Bible was about God's wonderful love and grace, it's warmth and security, it's peace and comfort could lull us off to the land of nod, where as self satisfied Christians we could all be the faith equivalents of couch potatoes.
But not so if we really dare to listen to the words of Jesus. Mark tells us that because Jesus loved this rich young man he put that awe-ful demand before him, he had to make the tough choice, it wasn't a demand given out of spite or jealousy or outrage. Jesus real care for that person meant that he put the call of becoming a true follower before him in all it's force and reality.
Jesus says to this rich man something like, to hope for eternal life means a whole hearted commitment which means that nothing can be put before it, not even great riches.
Does it astound you that Jesus loved him and still made that demand, "sell all that you have". I wonder what I would do faced with the same situation, I might ask for a generous donation for the work of the church, we are in a bit of a spot with some extra needs, I might have talked to him about his feelings and his needs. I would most likely try to be sensitive to his limitations, his need for some security, to think of something practicable and workable.
Yet Mark tells us that Jesus spoke that unpleasant word to the rich man because he loved him. Jesus love is more farsighted than our own love so often is.
For this man there was to be no gain without pain.
A church leader named Cyprian, from Northern Africa wrote this of the affluent people of his city. "Their property held them in chains ... chains which shackled their courage and choked their faith and hampered their judgement and throttled their souls. They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they who are owned; enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not masters of their money, but its slaves."
Cyprian wrote that early in the third century, things don't change. The commandments Jesus summarized are still the central tenets of Christian faith. And the temptations of wealth and materialism just as gripping. Im sure youve heard before all about camels and the eye of the needle and the city gate the clear point Jesus makes is about priority.
Its about having or giving, collecting or sharing, piles of things or good for people.
The disciples have trouble with this teaching, not because they were wealthy or indeed stupid, but because wealth was seen, almost universally as a sign of Gods blessing.
"Who then can be saved?" they ask, in amazement.
A little closer to our time, John Wesley often gave this advice concerning money; "Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can....."
The rich young man's attitude to money was his barrier to being a disciple and Jesus sees this in many people who would follow him "how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom" he said to the disciples.
Whats your attitude to possessions? Heres a story.
Two jewel merchants arrived at an oasis in the desert at about the same time one night. Each was quite conscious of the other's presence and while unloading his camel, one of them could not resist the temptation to let a large pearl fall to the ground as if by accident.
It rolled in the direction of the other, who, picked it up and returned it to it's owner, saying "That is a fine pearl you have there, sir."
"How gracious of you to say so," said the other, "as a matter of fact, that is one of the smaller gems in my collection."
An old Bedouin who was sitting by the fire and had seen this drama, invited the two to eat with him, As they began to eat he told this story:
"I too my friends, was once a jeweller like you. One day I was overtaken by a terrible storm in the desert so that I became lost and alone. Days passed in great desperation, panic stricken I realized I had been wandering in circles with no sense of direction. Then, almost dead with starvation, I unloaded everything from the camel for the hundredth time. Imagine my excitement when I came across a pouch that had escaped my notice. With trembling fingers I ripped it open in the hope of finding something to eat. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that all it contained was pearls!"
Do you have anyone that you love so much that you will tell them the truth and fully expect that they will do the same to you? I don't mean being nasty under the guise of truthfulness, I mean caring enough to risk yourself for the benefit of the other, exercising this compassionate, confronting love.
Tough choices, but Jesus says, "with God all things are possible." And to emphasize the difference between our common expectations and the values Gods kingdom operates by, Jesus concludes, "many who are first will be last and the last will be first."
Jesus scope is not just us and our friends. This is a towering kingdom statement of faith. It speaks to a sad reality, both in his time and to now. The reality that many people are left to last; in poverty, suffering and exploited and that many call on Jesus but miss the point entirely that following Jesus is meant to make a difference in the world, not least, economically. Sell all you have and give the money to the poor."
Mr and Mrs Hong are a couple who have been long term members of the Malvern Korean Uniting Church. After retiring they decided to devote themselves to making a difference in North Korea as their Christian witness. I heard them speak about their pig farm five years ago, stymied by government intransigence.
This year in Presbytery and at Synod we heard about the orphanage in Rasun city, far Northern Korea, run by Mr and Mrs Hong, which had just been opened and taken in its first 40 children.
Its a joint project of the Malvern congregation, with help from South Korea and our Uniting International Mission. It is a rare and incredible sign of hope in a starving , depressed and extremely repressive country. The poor of North Korea are certainly among the worlds last and least. Of the 40 children taken in, 30 something were found to have TB as well as malnutrition and many other signs of neglect.
If we hear Jesus sharp words of challenge to make a difference with our resources, for the last and least, we could do a little to help this Christian mission really make a difference by helping with their ongoing running needs.
Jesus love demands our response. "Many who are first will be last, and the last first." To live with his questions, .... to grapple with the challenges, ... and to work them out in our lives with all its tough choices, this is how Jesus calls us to live. Amen.