Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts
I wonder if you’ve ever been poor?
I don’t mean the kind of poor when things get a bit tight towards the end of the month and you can’t wait for payday, or when sometimes it’s a struggle to afford the kind of holiday you’d like, or when you travel around London and see houses and apartments and cars and other things many appear to be enjoying but you know you’ll never be able to afford.
I mean poor. The kind of poor where you work more than one job and still have to use a foodbank, or where the choice each month is whether to keep the roof over your head or buy basic supplies for your children, or where your mental and physical health – and that of your family – is constantly eroded due to the fear and anxiety evoked by real poverty.
Some of us here this morning will never experience this, and some of us here are more acquainted with poverty than we’d like, or that we’d like others to know. But whatever our own situation, we live in a city where there is a vast gulf between those who have plenty, and those who can barely survive; where rich and poor live cheek by jowl. And this gulf seems to be ever-widening.
I have been struck recently by the increasing anger over the government’s Universal Credit scheme, and the effects predicted when it is fully implemented. How it will inevitably affect those who already have very little, and punish some of the most vulnerable members of our society: those with low literacy levels, those with learning disabilities, those who are unsupported and confused and afraid. Nearly 4 million people are estimated to be affected by this new scheme, and even its most ardent supporters are beginning to admit that some will be worse off as a result.
None of us would wish to be ‘worse off’; but when you have close to nothing at all, any further deprivation risks genuine human catastrophe.
The prophet Amos has much to say about our treatment of those less fortunate than ourselves. He makes it clear that there are grim repercussions for those who ‘trample on the poor’; that not only will they be deprived of enjoying their riches, but that God’s mercy towards his people depends on their determination to ‘hate evil and love good, and establish justice’. He proclaims to his listeners that they are living in ‘an evil time’ in this regard; and when we read the news we might wonder if very much has changed in the intervening centuries.
Jesus had a particular love for the poor, which should hardly surprise us because throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we are told by Amos and others, again and again, that the poor are especially beloved by God, and his people judged – often very harshly – by how they treat the least of God’s children.
In our Gospel passage today we read about the rich young man who has so much going for him, and the devastating demand that Jesus makes of him. In a prime example of ‘be careful what you wish for’, the young man approaches Jesus with enthusiasm, humility, and earnestness. He appears obedient to the law – pious, even. We learn, later, that he is very wealthy. He was probably the subject of considerable admiration and envy.
And yet, looking at him, Jesus immediately sees him in his totality – his past, present, future; his hopes, his dreams; his griefs, his struggles. All are laid entirely bare before Jesus’ gaze. And Jesus sees that, in the midst of his riches – his money, possessions, influence, status, holiness – he still lacks.
In this particular man’s case, his possessions are getting in the way, and only if he rids himself of his wealth by giving it to those who have very little will he properly enjoy fullness of life.
It’s important that we understand that Jesus’ instruction to this young man is not designed to be punitive. He isn’t prejudiced against the wealthy, nor does he begrudge the man his riches.
I think it is the quality of the seeing that defines Jesus’ request. By knowing this man fully, more completely even than the man can know himself, he immediately perceives his lack, his internal poverty, that which stops him experiencing the full mercy and grace of God; treasure in heaven; eternal life.
Jesus is the Word of God we hear about in the letter to the Hebrews, ‘living and active’. His sight, then, is ‘sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.’
The young man is shocked and grieved by Jesus’ response because he doesn’t realize that he, too, is poor. He doesn’t understand that to address his own poverty he must attend to the poverty of others. He hasn’t grasped – and, for the most part, nor do we – that spiritual poverty and material poverty are inextricably linked; if we tackle the first, we inevitably affect the second.
Jesus, the living, active Word of God, can, of course, see this with dazzling clarity – he is always, in love, in care, in mercy, always addressing the ways that we are poor, showing us our individual areas of poverty and lack, leading us to truth and riches beyond our wildest imaginings if we will only respond in faith.
Before him, we are all laid bare, and seen, and truly known.
We learn from Jesus that the way to become truly rich is to ensure that all God’s people are sufficiently cared and provided for. We are shown that our inner life is not separate, not at all, from our outer. That our prayer, worship, relationship with the divine life is balanced and ultimately determined by how we view, think about, and treat those around us, all of God’s children.
Or, if you like, that faith without works is simply pharisaic, and will leave us unsatisfied, unfulfilled, vaguely aware of our lacking something vital, but unable to fix it on our own.
But let us remember, again, the rich young man: Jesus looked at him, knew him, and loved him, despite his lack. The same is true for us. We are loved regardless, but if we ask Jesus what we need to have eternal life, if we ask where our real poverty lies, we will be shown. It will be different for each of us, but, as Jesus demonstrated all too clearly, will likely involve sacrificing something. Yet this is how we gain everything. It takes courage, but so do most things that matter a great deal.
So let us, this morning, come before the one who looks at us, and loves us more than we can ever comprehend; and, in faith and trust, say to him: Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?