How many billy cans is too many?

Week of Sunday 14 October - Pentecost 20
Gospel: Mark 10:17-31

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

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The old woman had a billy can. He had three spears and a woomera. No clothes. They were happy. Deaconess Win Hilliard used to talk about this elderly Pitjantjatjara couple she had once met on the road. They had affected her profoundly; she often spoke of them.

We were sceptical. We wondered if they were really happy; and rehearsed the situations in that remote desert country, where possession of only a billy can and spears would probably mean death. We reflected that notwithstanding Win’s romantic attachment to this couple, we still had to live in the real world. Money was necessary.

Except it isn’t.  This couple were not rich; they had no money. They had few possessions, even by 1950’s Pitjantjatjara standards. We are so enmeshed in our culture of acquisition we dismiss them as an oddity. Instead of seeing them as an example of Jesus’ teaching, we dismiss them. We even feel sorry for them!

We do not understand them. We cannot afford to understand them, for if we did, we would have to give up what we have.

At funerals we re-establish ties of friendship and family for a few hours. We live out the myth of family at Christmas. But the glue of our culture, day to day, is acquisition. Life is based in having more things, in ownership, in material security. It is how our society and economy work. If we stopped wanting, society would collapse! Half—  more than half— the businesses in town would fail simply because there would be no need for them.

We can scarcely imagine how it would be. Jesus telling us that it is impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven is like saying we should stop breathing. We are so immersed in the need for things, and so defined by our things, that we simply cannot understand him.

I think that we need to be honest about this. Everything else is a work around, and an avoidance of the truth he is telling us.

In our efforts to take seriously Jesus' teaching, we institutionalize, generalize, or spiritualize the message of Mark 10:17-31, and in the process we may say many things that are true and helpful. Yet the tension of this radical text resists resolution in any way that removes its pressure on all disciples relative to wealth. After we have done our best to make this text say something less upsetting to our system of values, Jesus looks intently at us and continues quietly to affirm that life is to be had not by accumulating things, but by disencumbering ourselves. Contrary to the dominant voices of our culture, but in keeping with the entire section on discipleship in Mark, this text proclaims the good news that the way to be really rich is to die to wealth.

If this message does not take our breath away, if we are not shocked, appalled, grieved, or amazed, we have either not yet heard it or heard it so often that we do not really hear it any more. [Williamson, Lamar, Jr. Mark.  Interpretation Commentaries.  Louisville: John Knox, 1983. p. 188 Quoted by Brian Stoffregen]

When I try and hear the text this is what I find:

Jesus is travelling on the way. (17) The ‘journey’ that is mentioned in the NRSV is the eis hodon, the being called to follow Jesus on the way. All that will be said about riches must be accepted—  seen—  if we wish to follow on the way, or we are more blind than Bartimaeus.

This man who came to Jesus was a good man. He knelt before Jesus; he understood something of who Jesus was; he was genuine, not some Pharisee bent on trickery. He had kept the law; if anyone would be rewarded for their efforts, it would be this man.

In fact, Jesus lists a commandment which is not in the Ten: do not defraud.  This man has done that too. His wealth is ill gotten. (Brian Stoffregen alerts me to this possibility.)

Jesus loved this man. I have learned today that this is the only place in the synoptic gospels where it says Jesus loves someone. He looked at him; there is a sense of Jesus seeing the depth of his desire to enter the kingdom. He says, “But you lack one thing...”

Bill Loader says

.... Jesus’ challenge to the man to sell his possessions, give to the poor and follow him, was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments. Admirable as his effort had been, he had missed the point of the commandments. Jesus’ challenge exposed what was missing: a sense of compassion for the poor. The man needed to understand (follow) the commandments the way they are truly to be understood, the way Jesus interpreted them, not as a series of  commands to be obeyed or boxes to be ticked. He then needed to follow Jesus, not as an alternative to the commandments, but as the way of understanding them and the scripture.

I’ve added the italics to what Bill has said. He locates the failing of the rich man in his lack of compassion. Com-passion for the poor can only really happen when we are poor. We can only really understand with, and feel with, if we suffer with.

I wonder if my failings are not more about my fear of my own mortality. Maybe I cannot enter the kingdom because I trust in my riches to keep me safe.  We ended up in a different financial situation than we planned. Some days it feels guaranteed that we will be on a full pension, and that we’ll be lucky to pay off the house before we retire. On these days I fear I will not be able to retire.

These are not pleasant thoughts. Yet in the strangest way it has also been marvellously freeing. I look at some of the pointless things over which people fret, for which they long, and realise I am rather fortunate. They are things; things I might have once wanted but have abandoned all thought of, by necessity. It means, as Wendy said to me, that although we have not had access to many things, we are incredibly well off.

Feeling so fortunate, we went to the public hospital. Accident and Emergency was full of poor people not able to afford a doctor. The attitude of some staff was appalling. Poor means bludger, not deserving of respect, and probably on drugs...

I experienced a cold chill. This will likely be me. No calm and peaceful private hospice. No nurses paid to be nice, but six in a room. People lying dying among loud mouthed malcontents seeming to do their utmost to prevent any peace. Security guards sitting over the mental cases who leer at you and rant.  I regretted my poor superannuation.

Yet even I am not poor. Not really. And even if I were, how hard it is, anyway, to enter the kingdom of God, said Jesus.

In our passage Jesus talks about the difficulty of entering the kingdom of God three times. The first time (verse 23) he says how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom. The second time (verse 24) he says this about everyone; all of us. The NRSV says that “Other ancient authorities add  for those who trust in riches to this verse, which is a polite way of saying that some of the early copyists of Mark were disconcerted by the saying, and changed the text. Like the disciples they said, “Then who can be saved?”

The point of the illustration about the camel, the third saying about entering the kingdom, is that a camel cannot get through the eye of a needle. Neither can we. ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible,’ (27) said Jesus.

This is heresy, both now and then. Riches are a sign of God’s blessing and our own inherent goodness. But Jesus is clear: ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!’ (24) Mark deliberately leaves speaking to the disciples (23) and has Jesus call them children. He is harking back to the saying from last week, that ‘whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (10:15)

I was struck last week by words from Pheme Perkins which I paraphrased like this in my sermon draft. When he talks about children, he not talking about innocence. The innocence of children is a modern idea which it is unlikely Jesus would have recognised or understood.

 The child in antiquity was radically dependent upon the [father of the household.] The father decided whether the child would even be accepted into the family. Technically a father could say, “Too ugly. Not one of mine! We’re not keeping it.”

Children belonged to their father and remained subject to his authority even as adults.

The saying "to receive the kingdom like a child," refers to the absolute dependence of a child on its father for any status, for any inheritance, and even for life itself.

Perkins says that this saying warns the disciples that they are absolutely dependent upon God's grace -- they cannot set their own conditions for entering the kingdom, no matter what they try.

When it comes to money, I cannot enter the kingdom. I cannot enter the kingdom under my own steam in any event, but money makes the whole situation worse. I am forever a camel facing the eye of a needle. No matter what I do, I will always be too dependent, too attached to some possession or other. I need God’s letting me in, despite who I am.

Am I saying then, that money and possessions don’t matter? Am I saying, why bother about money, who can do anything anyway?


If we are not discomforted by our possessions, and are not seeking to disencumber ourselves, we have understood nothing. Every time I give in to wanting more, I am like the rich young ruler, walking away from Jesus, and walking away from the kingdom.  Money and possessions are one more drug— perhaps the worst—  from which I must wean myself if I am to find that freedom of the kingdom of heaven which is at hand.

Or to put it another way...

... some of the goats in Matthew 25 were those who did not give Jesus money when he needed to buy food.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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