Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pentecost +19

In one way at least, I think I must be a profound disappointment to my wife.  I can't dance to save my life.  Alison on the other hand can boogie with the best of them.  A couple of times we have even taken dancing lessons together, and once I thought I had the hang of it.  We had a very patient teacher, who assumed we were all absolute beginners.  Every dance was carefully demonstrated, every step, every twist and turn carefully described, and she got us to step through the dance in slow motion while she carefully observed and check that we all ended up facing the right direction.  We learned each movement separately, and I carefully memorised every sequence, trying not to stare at my feet but counting furiously, mentally picturing my feet going exactly where they were supposed to go.  Alison, I have to say, was very patient with me considering all she wanted to do was let loose and dance.  Finally, after five weeks of lessons, came the dinner dance.  We arrived on the night, the lights were down low, everybody dressed to the nines and the music was just right.  Let's dance, she said.  No problem, I said, this one's easy, we've been practising it for weeks.  So we walked out onto the dance floor, the music started, I stepped on Alison's feet, zigged when I should have zagged, mentally froze and realised I'd forgotten everything I'd learned over the last five weeks.

I think I over-analyse.  I think my problem is that I think about it too much, that I worry so much about putting my feet in the right place that I forget to have a good time.  I think my problem might be that I'm so hung up about whether or not I'm getting the dance steps right, that I can’t relax enough to let the music get inside me.

And I think today’s reading from Mark's gospel demonstrates that there’s also a religious version of the same problem, the problem of knowing it all in theory but not being able to make the final step of putting it into practice.

The rich man who approaches Jesus has every right to feel proud of himself.  Addressing a wandering rabbi with respect indicates that he recognises Jesus as someone who, like himself, has made a deep study of the Law.  And the question he asks – what must I do to inherit eternal life? – shows that he has some understanding.  He understands, for example, that eternal life is not a commodity to be earned but a birthright to be realised.  What the rich man wants is what God promises and what God also wants.  It’s not a bad start.

So maybe it comes as a bit of a surprise that Jesus is not particularly encouraging.  After all, here’s this educated, serious person taking him seriously as a teacher, wanting a deep answer to a deep question.  This is a very flattering approach – it feels good to be able questions, it feels good to be looked up to.  But the first thing Jesus does is to deflect attention away from himself.  He won’t even accept the compliment of being called ‘good teacher’.  ‘No’, he says, ‘only God is good’.  In itself, that’s something for us as Christians to reflect on – Jesus doesn’t accept the focus on himself that we have turned into a whole religion.  Instead, he replies to his questioner with what religious Jews understood to be the first half of the ten Commandments, the half of the Law summed up in the Shema, the great formula that says God alone is God: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one’.  This is not actually just Jesus being modest, it’s the first half of his answer to the rich man – goodness is of God, so it can’t be divided.  We can’t break goodness down into steps, we have to take it all together as an undivided whole.

And then the second half of his answer, which is to summarise the ethical teaching of the Law, the commandments that on another occasion Jesus will summarise by quoting Leviticus: ‘you shall love you neighbour as yourself’.  And he chooses to frame it as a series of ‘don’ts’: ‘don’t murder, don’t steal or lie’.  Don’t be fraudulent.  Honour those who have nurtured and taught you.  If he had left it at that, the two of them could have had a mutually approving conversation.  The rich man would have approved Jesus’ teaching, and clearly Jesus does approve the man’s obvious sincerity when he says, ‘teacher, I’ve always done those things’.

Like me on the dance floor, this man has been paying attention.  He has learned the moves, he has worked hard at following the rules, you can almost hear him counting out the rhythm under his breath.  But like me, he can’t dance, and he knows it.  Teacher, he says, I’ve always done those things.  But he knows there’s something missing.

Well, says Jesus, now you have to give it all away.  Everything that you’ve carefully built up, everything that gives your life meaning, everything that underpins your self-respect and your social status, everything that makes you religiously upright, let it go and follow me.

This of course is one of the hard teachings of the gospel, especially if you’ve got a few dollars.  For those of us who feel that we’re just making ends meet, it’s hard to resist a smirk of self-satisfaction.  And of course for centuries Christians have argued over what exactly Jesus means.  Is he just talking metaphorically?  Surely there’s nothing wrong with wealth so long as it’s used wisely?  The Church, of course, wouldn’t be here today of it weren’t for the generosity of wealthy Christians.  In the ancient world wealth was regarded as a sign of God’s special favour, a sign that the man kneeling in front of Jesus was righteous and so had been blessed by God.  Is Jesus just trying to teach him and us a new way of looking at the world?  And Bible scholars have analysed the cryptic saying Jesus comes out with next – it’s harder, says Jesus, for a rich person to be right before God than for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle.  And Bible scholars have fussed over this – did he mean an actual needle or was it a name of a specially low gate in the walled city of Jerusalem where the camel traders had to take the packs off their animals so they could squeeze through?  Did Jesus mean an actual camel, or did the ancient copiests get it wrong – should it actually have been kámilos, which means rope, not kámelos, which means camel?  So maybe Jesus meant it would a bit of a tight squeeze for rich people, they might have to wriggle a bit or find a really big needle, but they could get through.  Or maybe Jesus really means it - but it only applies to merchant bankers and whoever was responsible for my shares crashing last year!

Somebody pointed out to me a while ago how strange it is that some Christians invest a huge amount of energy in trying to prove that absolutely everything the Bible says is literally true – except for this passage.  Liberals and fundamentalists alike, we all want a bit of room to manoeuvre on this one.

So what if Jesus does mean it literally?  And what if we also reflect, that, if you lined everybody in the world up in order of wealth and comfort and quality of life, with the poorest of the world’s poor at number one and Bill Gates at number ten – then every one of us here at St Michaels this morning would be sitting around about number nine.  If you ate yesterday, and you expect to eat today, if you slept in a bed last night, if you can read, if you have access to clean water and medical attention, then you’re amongst the world’s wealthiest who find it hard to wriggle through the eye of a needle.  That’s fairly sobering, and it means we have something to give up.  It means we need to put into practice what we think we know in theory.  That to dance the dance Jesus wants to teach us, it means we can’t just listen and approve of what Jesus says and we can’t just agree that Jesus has the words of life - we have to let them get past our defences, to sink into us and change us, and the only way we can actually do that is by letting go of some of the other stuff that we have been holding onto a bit too tightly.

We need to be in no doubt that Jesus is teaching us here about giving.  About giving of ourselves and about giving our money.  About noticing the needs of others and learning to let go of what we thought we needed for ourselves.  The sort of giving Jesus is talking about is not the giving of whatever is left over at the end of the week but the sort of giving that ensures we ourselves need to go without something.  The teaching on tithing that we encounter in the Old Testament is not watered down but confirmed by Jesus own practice and teaching.

But we should also notice that Jesus is teaching here about giving for the sake not only of those in need, but for the sake of those who give.  Hope, for those who have nothing, is the promise that hunger and sickness and poverty will not have the last word.  Hope, for those who have enough, is also the promise that hunger and sickness and poverty will not have the last word.  And so we need to learn to give ourselves away. 

It’s about money, but it’s about more than money, it’s about learning to let go and trust in the rhythm of the dance.  There’s a basic teaching here, I think, about our spirituality.  Yes, Jesus is saying to the rich man, and to us as well – you’ve learned the steps, but can you dance?  The do’s and don’ts of faith are not enough – if you want to get it, at the deepest level, you just need to let go and dance.  What we’re holding on too tightly to might be different for each one of us – politeness, social inhibitions, fear of failure, fear of standing out, fear of looking silly, fear of getting involved – fear of what it might cost were we just to give it away and go where Jesus leads us.  Just – what might it cost us if we don’t?