Sermon for the sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 2018
Is there Good News for the rich?
Some years ago – actually more than I care to remember, the then bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard produced a book entitled which caused no little stir amongst the comfortable Anglicans of England. It’s title was ‘Bias to the Poor’, and the Bishop writing from the context of one of the most impoverished cities in the country, suggested that this was indeed the case – that God was biased towards the poor. Well not long after the Bishop of the more typically leafy Oxford Diocese, Richard Harries produced a book which gives us the theme for this week. ‘Is there a gospel for the rich?’
Is there a Gospel for the Rich? Is God biased towards the poor? Well – it must be said if God is biased towards the Poor, it is not in the sense that we assume it ought to be – that is God does not seem as it were to set the system so that the poor a ‘leg up’ so to speak, and then can enjoy the comforts of the rich.
Indeed, the comforts of the rich are called into question . . .
For of course I am rather dodging the pointedness of the question of our theme, ‘Is there Good news for the Rich?’
If there is a shift in the Old and New Testaments, it seems not to lie in that hoary old distinction between the God of the Old Testament who is vengeful and judging, and the God of the New who is warm and loving and generally an indulgent elderly relative. No. A, if not the big difference is regarding material wealth – for whilst if you ignore the New Testament you can make a reasonable if not watertight case for the acquisition of wealth as a sign of God’s blessing (provided of course you avoid the prophets . . .) – there is Nothing to give such comfort in the New.
Nothing – Not a jot . . . James the brother of Jesus howls in protest against the infant church which is treating the rich with special deference, after all he says, it’s the rich who are hauling you into court! ‘Howl you rich he says, howl . . . and it gets worse when we come to the words of Jesus
It is odd, or perhaps it isn’t. The words of Jesus are the most ignored in the entirety of scripture – without a doubt, and perhaps in no greater sense than regarding wealth and money. I recall seeing a live interview on stage with a ‘disgraced’ TV evangelist – it is almost superfluous to use the adjective . . . in which said former TV evangelist who shall remain nameless was speaking of what he learnt from his time in prison for fraud and tax evasion.
He said, ‘I had a red letter bible with me in prison’ – that is one with the words of Jesus in red – ‘I had never realised how much Jesus said about the danger of wealth . . .’ and here was a man who read the bible . . . in order to ply his trade . . . funny what we don’t see.
And still I’m avoiding those words myself . . . the words of the Gospel . . . the words of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”
As I said last week – the encounter with Jesus is not one which confirms us in our comfortable view of the world. Blessed are you who are poor . . . Really??? Blessed are you poor?? Because I am going to change things so that you get the same as everyone else?? Perhaps that is how we might want to interpret Jesus’ words today, that He said, Blessed are you Poor, so we need to make sure that those Poor people are blessed . . . Except he didn’t say ‘Blessed will you be when finally human beings get their act together . . . indeed wasn’t it Jesus who said, ‘The Poor you will always have with you?? Blessed are you who Are poor
Of course we could and perhaps do prefer to listen to Matthew – ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit . . .’ Ah that’s better – how convenient – how we love to separate our the material and the spiritual . . . as if they were two different realms – but even if we do we have a problem . . . if Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed, he also says the poor are blessed . . . not a message to be met with anything but incredulity. Who could take this seriously??? Really . . . come on Jesus . . . probably Luke just missed out the ‘in spirit bit’ . . . except he doesn’t stop there – Blessed are you who who are hungry now, Blessed are you who weep now . . . Blessed are you who are persecuted,
But still . . . I avoid the Gospel for the Rich – . . . ’Woe to you who are rich . . .’ Jesus really does seem to mean it. His words about the blessedness of the poor make no sense to us who are well off . . . His words to us are like a bucket of freezing cold water thrown over us, ‘If you are rich, you are in trouble . . . wake up!
Of all the words of Jesus which the church has desperately tried to avoid over two thousand years, these are the ones we’ve been most creative with. Indeed one writer suggests that ‘the Reformation, . . . —whatever else it may have been—was a movement toward a form of Christianity well suited to the needs of the emerging middle class, and to the spiritual complacency that a culture of increasing material security dearly required of its religion’
Like politicians who won’t tell hard truths to the electorate, to ensure they keep their jobs. Who don’t tell us ‘climate change means we are going to have to entirely change the way we live, we are told – we will figure something out so you don’t have to change . . . and the days get warmer – so too the church all too often has sought to water down the terrible warning in the words of Jesus
And I think that it is those words ‘material security’ which hold the key to our predicament – and if we say we believe in Jesus, then we must also believe that we Are in a predicament.
Blessed are you who are poor, and hungry. The kingdom of heaven is yours – Woe to you who are wealthy and well fed . . . Jesus’s words do not leave any wriggle room – and we are on the sharp end.
Last week you may remember I finished with this thought – ‘what if it is only those who have nothing better to do than to follow Jesus, are the one’s who really discover that there is nothing better to do than to follow Jesus’ – The nothings, the nobodies. Those with little or no say over their lives . . . so nobody were they that leaving their nets, and everything they had seemed like a good idea when Jesus came to call them to follow him.
As we know when he calls others who have riches, a solid career, and family and this and that and the other, they don’t follow.
I wonder how those disciples felt leaving everything behind. . . what did they have? Nothing!
And Jesus lifted his eyes towards his disciples and said ‘Blessed are you who are poor . . .’ well they were certainly that. ‘Blessed are you who are hungry . . .’ I guess that they may well have been that also ‘Blessed are you when you are persecuted and railed for my sake . . .’ well that was still perhaps to come, but it would . . .
They were going to find their life with Jesus – those who had left everything to follow him, as Peter was fond of reminding Jesus 🙂 They had nothing, and then Jesus was crucified – they lost even Him, except for a season in which he taught them, then he left them, and like Simeon and Anna – On the Day of Pentecost, they are utterly destitute – yet giving themselves to prayer they receive the Holy Spirit – they receive, the Kingdom of God, the very life of God – were filled with it, because they had no comfort, no comforter . . .
But you who are full now. . . well you’re full . . . how can you receive anything. Your wealth has cut you off from the Life of God. Unlike the disciples you are not vulnerable – you have no space no time, you have so much else that you think it is better to do . . . you have life on your own terms . . . the life you have made for yourself.
‘Woe to you who are rich for you have received your comfort. . . . The word Jesus uses is ‘paraklesin’ . . . it is the root word he uses to describe the Holy Spirit – the paraclete – the comforter.
You have received the life the comfort you sought . . . the Life of the Kingdom, the Holy Spirit? . . . no those things which moths consume and rust destroys
What of this Good News for the Rich? Is there any?? Well of course yes there is, BUT it is a bit difficult. You see the nobodies followed Jesus at the drop of a net, so to speak, but . . . They obeyed his word and set off to follow Him . . . you see that’s all it takes, taking Jesus at his word . . . Good News for the Rich – The words of Jesus – Jesus himself is the Good News.
Give to everyone who asks of you . . .
Again we hedge and hum and her and haw . . . we come up with a million and one justifications . . . Bishop’s even write books about economic systems and capitalism and lose us in a web of abstraction to get us off the hook . . . but only at the cost of ignoring Jesus
We like to say ‘my wealth has no hook in me . . . ‘ and then Jesus says – ‘give to everyone who asks of you . . .’ Everyone – the deserving, the undeserving – we shall come back to this next week
Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say . . . Ah well, we are saved by faith not works . . . so you believe me?
Is there Good News for the Rich? Well not on the terms we’d like to have . . . but yes there is, in the same way there is the Good News for the poor. Jesus offers us life. The question is, are our hands empty to receive it?