I heard the story recently of a priest whose church features a list of the ten commandments on display. A visitor to the church was looking forlornly at the list and said to the priest: ‘I’ve broken all of these… oh, except murder’ he hastily added. To non-Christians, Christianity can often seem like a religion of rules. Ask someone whose encounter with Christianity began and ended with primary school to quote a Bible verse and it’s highly likely their guess will begin ‘thou shalt not.’ Christianity and by association Jesus Christ, seems to be all about limits on life.
The rich man in Mark’s Gospel clearly wants more. He comes to Jesus saying, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He says he’s kept all the commandments, which, for those of you who have parented teenagers, will perhaps find that claim a little hard to swallow with regards the fifth commandment! Jesus looks at him, loves him, and says ‘‘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.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.’ Jesus loves, the man grieves. What a response to God’s love; as the Psalmist says ‘satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.’ Jesus loves, the man grieves. Jesus offers a love without limit and a life without limits, but the man can’t see it. In what he must let go of – his money, his possessions – he won’t do it. He won’t limit his life like that, and in doing so, limits his life completely.
The fallen world makes us believe that security and freedom are found in power and things rather than in the person of Jesus Christ, rather than in the justice of God Almighty. There are over 2000 verses in the Bible that address poverty and justice, and the Book of Amos is particularly known for its strong emphasis on social justice that God commands. The prophet declares ‘seek the Lord and live…seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you…hate evil and love good, and establish justice.’ But we so easily seek other things, things which promise freedom, but slowly kill us and, sometimes not so slowly, kill those less fortunate than us.
I live in Oxford, a city known for its fancy university, a site of great thinkers having major breakthroughs; it’s produced 150 Olympic medal winners, 27 British Prime Ministers, and 20 Archbishops of Canterbury. But it’s only one small side to Oxford. 1 in 4 children there live in poverty, there are ongoing issues with child exploitation, and for A Level students in the area of Barton only 20% of them will go to university, whereas for their peers five minutes down the road in Summertown, 80% of them will go. The city of Dreaming Spires is actually, for many people, a bit of a nightmare.
There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between British society today and Israel in the Sixth Century BC, where the prosperity and wealth of some Israelites was side-by-side with exploitation of the poor and the vulnerable. It’s part of the reason why the Church has waged war on Wonga, because using your privilege and power to the detriment of others leads both you and those you perceive as beneath you, to destruction. On that day, you will be ‘laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom you must render an account.’ So why do we do it? Why, when we have so much already, do we seek to gain more at the expense of those who have nothing?
The rich man who game to Jesus wanted more. Something within him obviously new that he was not satisfied; wealth might have brought him some freedoms, but there were limits to that freedom. He claimed to have kept the commandments not out of humility, but out of hubris, out of a belief that he could earn the unearnable. It’s impossible, it’s like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle. When we think that we must earn our way into God’s love, we effectively put ourselves in cages. We believe the lie the fallen world tells us that freedom is to be found in possessions and power and that once we have them, we must not let go of our grip on them. That fear makes us selfish, it causes us to mistreat people, and it takes us further and further away from God. The rich man wanted eternal life, he wanted the ultimate freedom, but rather than the seek the Lord and live, today and for forever, he sought a way to freedom that he could control. Jesus asked him to lay down everything so as to gain everything, to limit what he owned so as to gain limitless life. And he wouldn’t do it.
Seek the Lord, says the prophet, Amos. Follow me, says Jesus. It’s scary, it’s costly, and it looks limiting. But in seeking and following, Jesus gives us the ultimate freedom.
Seek the Lord and live today and for forever.
In that famous hymn, ‘Rock of Ages’ it says, ‘nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling.’ Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling. And in that moment, you have everything. You hold nothing, rather you are held by perfect love, perfect justice, and perfect peace, and you are carried into eternal life.
What is it you are carrying that you think brings you freedom? Maybe you are like rich man, maybe it is something else. Whatever it is you cling to, Jesus wants you to lay it down and cling to him instead. When you come to the altar, as you hold Christ’s body, know that he holds you and that in letting go, you’re not losing everything, but gaining everything that matters. For salvation is impossible for us to earn, but not for him, not for the God who loves you, for God, all things are possible.
Seek the Lord and live, today, and for forever.