It would be easier for a great ocean liner to float on a puddle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
My wife, Helen, is a local preacher and she usually gets me to look at her sermons. She generally writes them before I sit down to think about mine, so it can be very difficult when I find that she’s used some excellent illustrations because then I find that I want to borrow them. Fortunately she’s in another circuit, so I can go ahead with a clear conscience - anyway - and share with you two of her illustrations about today’s Gospel passage.
The first is from the television series Downton Abbey, so I hope you’re some of the many millions who tune in faithfully every Sunday night! The central couple in the story of Downton Abbey, around whom all the others revolve, are Lady Mary Crawley - the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham - and her cousin Matthew Crawley, Lord Grantham’s heir. Throughout the different series they have had a stormy, on - off sort of relationship, and that’s chiefly because of Lady Mary’s biggest character flaw. She has a number of character flaws actually. She can be flirtatious, bossy, spiteful and impulsive, and some of these character flaws have got her into trouble in the past. But her biggest flaw, which has nearly ruined her relationship with Matthew on more than one occasion, is her love of money. It can be easier for a great ocean liner to float on a puddle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
Now, in fairness, one of the reasons why Lady Mary wants to have money is to be able to better protect the family inheritance. She’s not just a spendthrift. But on the other hand she can’t contemplate a life of genteel poverty, or even middle class affluence. She needs to be filthy rich.
When, briefly, it looked as though Lord Grantham and his wife Lady Cora, the Countess of Grantham, might have a baby son who would disinherit Matthew, Lady Mary wasn’t sure she wanted to marry him after all. How hard it is for a rich person to do what’s right, what will make them happy even, when money is at stake. Their first care can so easily be for security, and for the little inconsequential luxuries which they have come to expect as an everyday part of life!
And are we so very different from Lady Mary? The days of great country houses, where the aristocracy whiled away their time in genteel pleasures like huntin’ and shootin’, or attending dinner parties and balls, may be a thing of the past, but don’t we all face the same challenges on a smaller scale? How can we be truly happy? And how much money, or how many possessions, do we need to make us happy? Do we need a little, or quite a lot, or are we the sort of person who must have the very latest thing?
Last week we were talking to a family friend, a young man who has just landed his first job after university. We congratulated him on his success, which had come only after a lot of interviews and heartache. ‘Next time I see you I’ll be in my Porsche,’ he said. Of course he was joking, but as the Poet Horace famously said, ‘Many a true word is spoken in jest.’
And so to the second illustration, which is not about rich people as such, but about people who are tempted by riches. The Million Pound Drop is compulsive viewing on Channel 4 around bedtime. Avoid it if you can.
The compulsion doesn’t stem from the game itself, which involves answering eight fairly trivial questions where the answers often have to be guessed - because the question could be something like, ‘What was such and such a famous person wearing when they walked down the red carpet at a London gala premiere tonight?’ Instead, the fascination lies in watching the reactions of the contestants. They’re not generally clever people battling their way to a well deserved prize, because cleverness can only get you so far in this game. Rather, they’re gamblers, people ready to stake all on a hunch. So the real compulsion of the programme lies simply in watching them as they go through an increasingly stressful and gut-wrenching experience, which almost always ends in disaster although it might end in a big, big win.
Only the other week a very lucky couple went home with £300,000. It was the biggest amount that anyone had ever won. And it is always a couple who are competing, never an individual, so not only do you get to watch the stresses experienced by each of the competitors, you also get to see the strains put on their relationship as they try to decide the right strategy for the next round of the game.
The rules are these, a security guard solemnly gives the couple a million pounds, in bundles of £25,000. They have to spread this fortune over a series of trapdoors, each one linked to a different multiple choice answer to the question. They can’t spread the money evenly over all of the trapdoors because they must always leave one hatch uncovered. And anyway, the more evenly they spread the money, the less will be left at the end, because once they have decided how to spread their bets all but one of the trapdoors opens, swallowing any money left on top of it.
As the bulk of the million pounds disappears from their grasp, or even if they are lucky and it’s still there after all the incorrect trapdoors have opened, we get to see the nervous looks, the anxiety, the desperation, the naked greed etched on the faces of the contestants. Often they begin with a devil-may-care attitude. After all, they came into the studio with nothing so, if they leave with nothing - as they often do - what does it matter? But as the game proceeds gold fever begins to grip them. They scream - in horror or delight. They weep uncontrollably - tears of joy or despair. They cling to one another or - while they’re trying to decide how to place the bundles of money - they argue.
It’s riveting television, but it’s an undignified spectacle. You get to see what it would be like if someone accidentally opened a suitcase full of money in the High Street on a windy day. As it swirled into the air everyone would be after it, passers-by scrambling to get a piece of the action.
The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil. And perhaps it’s the love of money, rather than wealth itself, which is the real obstacle to entering the kingdom of God. Certainly, generations of Christian commentators have veered towards this seductive solution in their attempts to water down the impact of what Jesus had to say about wealth. It isn’t money that’s the problem, they insist, but it’s corrosive impact. If we can guard against trusting in money - and just use it as a means to an end - we will be all right.
That’s the attitude of the people who enter the studio to play The Million Pound Drop. They’re not going to let the game wind them up. They just want to win a few quid, it doesn’t have to be the whole million. If they do win a lot, they’ll probably give some of it away anyway. And so on. But it’s very hard to have money in your grasp, even a comparatively small amount of money, without finding yourself drawn to its siren call. Why should we not put our trust in its power to make our lives easier? Why not stake everything on the security it appears to offer?
Why else do some people insist on huge salaries or obscenely large bonuses which they know will make them unpopular with everyone else? Why do they want bigger houses than they really need, or more than one house, or other inflation beating investments of various kinds, from fine art to gold bars?
The disciples were dismayed when Jesus said that a rich person cannot easily enter the kingdom of God, not because they were rich but because they were thinking, ‘If rich people are in trouble, then who can be saved?’ They lived, after all, in a culture which saw wealth and status as signs of God’s approval. But Jesus will have none of it.
Of course, the million dollar question is, ‘When does it become harmful to have money and possessions? When does the acquisition of wealth tilt over from being reasonably prudent to becoming a dangerous obsession? Is a modest pension all right? Is a desire not to be a burden on others compatible with Jesus’ call to follow him? Is a determination to look after yourself - and not rely on others - a good attribute to have, or does it tend to encourage an unchristian degree of self-reliance?
There was a party political broadcast the other night in which the prime minister was extolling the virtues of making our own way in life and not being dependent on state handouts. He insisted that most of the population agree with him about this, and they probably do, but of course when we get ill, or frail, or fall on hard times , we do want a safety net to be there, don’t we? Being self-reliant has its limits. We still want a helping hand when all the other options run out. It’s only scroungers and work-shy people that the electorate wants to cut out of the deal.
And there is a further problem with self-reliance. As we acquire more and more possessions, and surround ourselves with a stronger and broader safety net of our own making, does that perhaps make us less willingly to share with the unfortunate and the deserving? Do we become harsher, more judgmental, more certain about where the boundaries should be drawn between those who ought to be helped and those who ought to fend for themselves? It’s not inevitable, but it’s a very real danger that our attitudes can harden to an unchristian degree.
Of course Peter and the first disciples were radical followers of Jesus. They had left everything to follow him and Jesus recognises this - he refers to home, family and ancestral lands, all given up for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel. We are told that they will be rewarded a hundredfold for their commitment.
The Prosperity Gospel, or Health and Wealth Gospel, is an interpretation developed in the United States, by people who take absolutely literally Jesus’ saying that his disciples will be rewarded one hundred times over for following him. They believe that God wants Christians to prosper and will make it so for them if they have enough faith. Of course, believers have to invest in order to accumulate, so tithing to the church is compulsory, otherwise how is the minister going to prosper? But the basic principle is that, in the end, the disciples of Jesus will make good.
The problem with the Prosperity Gospel is that it ignores the last part of the saying: ‘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.’
It would be possible to imagine that Jesus wants to give his disciples a free entry to The Million Pound Drop competition, if it weren’t for the mention of persecutions. What’s healthy and wealthy about being persecuted a hundred times more than other people? And that suggests, of course, that the houses and fields which come as part of the package might be metaphorical ones - mission fields, preaching houses, and so on - and the new family members might be members of the family of God. Because the health and wealth which Jesus is offering here belong to the age to come. He promises riches beyond our imagining, but they are riches which rust and moth cannot attack. Peace, joy, hope, love - these are the rewards of enjoying eternal life.
Last week there were a lot of stories in the news about the poor harvests around the world this summer. ‘Did this mean,’ journalists asked, ‘That there will be a shortage of food?’ One of the experts wheeled out to comment said that there was no need for anyone to go without enough food. All that is necessary is for western consumers to let go of some of our greedy habits. If we eat less meat and waste less of the food we grow or buy the problem could be solved. Of course, one or two other commentators said this was a touch simplistic but they couldn’t disagree with the general tenor of the argument. If we gave up some of what we enjoy - endless supplies of cheap, perfectly shaped food of all kinds - the poorest people on earth could have enough to eat.
Similarly, some economists now argue that, if everyone in employment agreed to work shorter hours - perhaps three days a week - we could put an end to the scourge of youth unemployment and longterm unemployment. There would be a price to pay. We would all have to settle for lower wages and fewer rewards, but the whole of society could be more content.
Jesus’ challenge to the rich man, ‘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,’ is as relevant now as it was then. Is it a challenge which shocks, grieves us, or perplexes us, or is it an exciting opportunity to discover an entirely new value system which we find ourselves willing to seize?