Cotham Parish Church 14 October

Amos 5; 6-7, 10-15

Hebrews 4; 12-end

Mark 10; 17-31

Jesus, looking at him, loved him”

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

All these three passages we’ve just read are spine chilling in their directness and their challenge, but the gospel reading seems uncompromising.

Who is this rich young man we hear about? Hugely eager, he runs up to Jesus, and despite his status, kneels down before him.  He really wants to know what he has to do to inherit eternal life. He really wants to know because he needs to know, and he will not go away unless he gets an answer.  There is a desperation in his questioning- perhaps he had begun to realise that his great riches did not bring him happiness and contentment. Or perhaps the contrast- he enjoyed his lifestyle so much he wanted it to continue forever.

Jesus brusquely tells him that no-one is good except for God and tells him to follow certain commandments and the young man simply tells him that he has always followed them. Is he arrogant and self-righteous?  Or is he just being truthful?

And then we read the pivotal part of the whole passage.  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him”.  I think the syntax of this phrase tells us something.  Jesus didn’t look at him THEN decide to love him. It was in the looking, the seeing of his raw humanity that caused Jesus to love the man.  What was it that Jesus loved- was it his urgency and insistence and his transparent longing?  We don’t know what it was that he saw and loved. But everything we try and glean from this passage has to be seen in the light of this man being deeply known and deeply loved.

And then Jesus gives him a command that rocked the foundation of this man’s world – he utters the fateful words that separate the young man from his hopes and his longings. “You lack one thing; go sell what you own, give the money to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven; then come and follow me” And the man goes away, shocked and grieving. It is a very sad sentence.

But the die is cast, and we never know what happens to him.

When I was a medical student, I spent three months in Cameroon, West Africa at a Catholic Mission Hospital.  My mentor was the father of a friend who had retired early and gone to work there. I remember discussing the inequality that we saw daily in the lives of the patients there.  He told me about being brought up in a privileged background where his family had servants who sometimes did not have any shoes. I asked him whether he felt guilty about the privilege that he had. His response was surprising to me- brought up with middle class guilt. “Not a bit of it” he said. “I was furious that such injustice still existed, and it made me committed to try and change things”.

And I have always remembered this. This passage can evoke guilt that we don’t do exactly what the young man does. But guilt is a waste of time and means that we end up just focussed on ourselves and our own little worlds- and fail to see ourselves as part of something much bigger. The gospel reading is such a challenge, but it is not about being paralysed by inadequacy because we don’t immediately give up everything we possess – although at some time in our lives we may do this.

I think this passage is more about what might happen to us when we learn that we are loved and when we begin to glimpse what the Kingdom of God might be like here on earth.

The film “Babette’s feast” sums up something about what this passage might be about. A woman in flight from political oppression in France in the nineteenth century becomes a servant in a dour protestant family in Sweden. She then inherits a considerable sum of money- and uses most of it in providing an amazing meal for the family she works for. You have to watch the film to really experience what I am talking about – how this suppressed joyless community becomes transformed- they share, laugh, begin to forgive and celebrate each other. It’s really magical!

This film for me shows a foretaste of what the Kingdom of God might be like- to know that deep down we are loved to our depths- just as Jesus loved the young man- and that by our sharing we can move beyond ourselves. Money, power and possessions become secondary- we glimpse that we can act from love rather than self-preservation and that we need each other. No-one can make it on their own.

That glimpse of that kingdom of love and sharing can sustain us individually – but also sustain us as a country so divided and threatened – where decisions are made on what is best economically for those who have the most.

Somehow, we have to keep grasping just the faintest notion of God’s unlimited love and justice, and align ourselves to that.  We will mostly fail, but perhaps we can trust that our true home can never be separate from that kingdom, and that our hearts are truly restless till they find their rest in God, with whom “all things are possible”.