Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Trinity: Who is good?: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 10 October 2021 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Hebrews 4: 12 – end; Mark 10: 17 – 31)
A couple of American Football games are being played in London in October. Rather like our soccer players the surnames of the players are displayed on the backs of their kit but the American ones are in bold lettering and so even more visible. Some of them are delightfully obscure. One player in the Las Vegas Raiders team is named “Incognito”. You might imagine the conversation inquiring about what he is called: “Hello, what is your name?” “Hi. I’m Incognito.” “Oh, you don’t want us to know, eh? What, are you working for the FBI or the CIA?”
Then another player is called “Good.” Imagine another enquiry: Hello, what is your name?” “I’m Good” “Congratulations – we would all like to be good!”
Except, of course, Jesus, whom we reckon to be the most likely person ever to be good, is surprisingly evasive about having the adjective applied to himself. The rich young man calls Jesus good but Jesus tells him that God alone is good. Just as we are unnerved by this exchange between the two of them so St. Matthew also seems to have been disturbed by it. He does a little editing as he makes use of St. Mark’s gospel for his own work. The young man, in St. Matthews gospel asks Jesus “What good do I need to do to enter the kingdom.” Jesus is then able to direct the young man towards God to help him discern what is good.
We might ask why it was that Jesus, in St. Mark’s gospel, refused to let himself be called “good”. Did he see it as a bit of unnecessary flattery? Or was it an attempt to place upon Jesus expectations which the young man doubted that he himself could fulfil? If the latter then his fears were soon justified when Jesus suggested that he get rid of all his wealth.
Another oddity follows in the conversation Jesus and his disciples have after the young man walks away, sorrowful. Jesus tells them that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. There have been a number of attempts to explain this saying – that, for instance, the eye of the needle was the name for a particularly narrow gateway. But I think it was a picturesque way of saying that something was impossible. The disciples are very surprised and indeed the church over the years has had an awkward relationship with wealth.
I’ve been reading a book recently entitled “Going to Church in Medieval England.” It tells us that, in 1475 a book gave its readers the duties of a chamberlain of a Lord or at least a very important wealthy gentleman as: preparing his pew before he went to church with cushion, carpet, curtain, beads and book. Sometimes the lord of the manor would have a special area in the church nicely furnished and sometimes even with a fireplace to keep him and his family and attendants warm in the depths of Winter. Sometimes their area had high enough partitions or curtains to prevent them being seen by the rest of the congregation. We might speculate that this would prevent them being observed if they dozed off during the sermon. I hope you are all sitting comfortably on your pew cushions – but not so comfortably that you are in danger of falling asleep!!
In response to Jesus’ words about camels and eyes of needles the disciples say: “Then who can be saved?” That seems an odd thing to say as though, if the rich can’t make it to the kingdom, then what hope is there for the rest of us. That doesn’t seem to fit in with the way in which Jesus implied that the poor were less encumbered with goods and money and the anxieties they bring and especially the worry over losing it all and so were closer to God.
That was rather in contrast to the OT attitude which was that riches were a blessing from God and a sign of his favour. The book of Job in the OT explores these ideas but ends with Job having even more goods and wealth than at the beginning of the story.
St. Paul tells us that it is the love of money which is the root of all kinds of evil rather than money itself. In themselves riches are neutral and may be used for good purposes rather than evil ones. May we use our wealth to do good.
“Then who can be saved?” I would suggest that this is saying that all of us are in the same boat. Whether rich or poor we all have barriers in our lives which keep God out. None of us is able to achieve salvation by our own efforts. The rich young man had kept the commandments but still felt that lack of oneness with God. Jesus gave him one additional task but he couldn’t manage it. “Who can be saved?”
Jesus answers the question. We can’t do it, but God can. He knows who we are – to him we are never incognito. It is God who bring us salvation and God wants us to recognise our indebtedness to him. We are not in a position to claim the name “Good” and to demand that God gives us the prize which is our due. We can only acknowledge how much we owe to God and accept that it is he who saves us. “For God, all things are possible.”