It’s confession time again. I am rather addicted to the quiz show ‘Pointless’. My husband would probably say that I am completely addicted to it! If you ever watch it yourself, you’ll know that when the final couple reach the last round, Alexander Armstrong always asks them what they would do if they won the jackpot. Most of them say they would put the money towards a holiday. Engaged couples often say they would put it towards their upcoming wedding. A young student who’s come with his father sometimes look sheepishly at him and says he should really use it to pay back his student loan…but, actually, he thinks he would go travelling. Just once, there was a completely different answer. The final two were two brothers and one of them obviously had a disabling condition of some sort, for he sat in a chair throughout the show rather than standing as all the other contestants did. Just what it was, was never mentioned. When his brother was asked that question, he said that they would both give all the money to the hospital where his brother had been treated. I’m glad to say they won the jackpot.
You’ve probably seen stories on the news about people who’ve won an even bigger jackpot, people who’ve won the lottery. Sometimes they win an almost unimaginable amount of money. Very often they are people who never had very much money before, which is probably why they were drawn to buy lottery tickets, and if they don’t have very good advice, the money may end up causing them more misery than joy, after they have taken, instead, the example of the prodigal son and squandered their riches on riotous living; or if they don’t opt to remain anonymous, they are often bombarded by people, sometimes family or friends, but often strangers, hoping for a handout. They may learn the hard way that what Jesus says in the first part of today’s gospel reading is true: money is not just an ungodly master, it can be a cruel one.
Nevertheless, there can be times when we feel we have to worry about money. Some people get into terrible debt; the unemployed sometimes find their benefits are sanctioned and then find themselves relying on foodbanks, or becoming homeless. Worst of all is the situation of refugees, those living in camps in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon or Calais the starving in South Sudan and Yemen, the poor farmers in Africa, Asia or south America who do not receive enough for all the hard work they do to provide adequately for their families? If I were to read them what Jesus says: ” Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” They might say, “What does he mean, don’t worry? Life is nothing but worry.” And I don’t think Jesus is saying that the basic necessities of human life don’t matter, nor that he is saying that these necessities will magically appear if we believe in him correctly. He is talking to people who have enough, I’m guessing; otherwise his encouragement not to worry would simply be cruel.
Most of us here have enough. But what about those who truly don’t have enough? How can they hear good news in today’s gospel? I think we have to start by understanding the connection between the two parts of today’s reading. “No one can serve two masters;” says Jesus, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
There is a link, I think, between what Jesus says here and his encounter with the rich young man who asks him what he needs to do in order to serve God properly. Jesus starts by reciting some of the commandments of the law, which might remind us of the fact that Jesus has been talking about the importance of the law throughout the Sermon on the Mount, which we have been following these last few Sundays. The young man said that he had always followed all of those his whole life, and wonders if there is something more he needs to do. In Mark’s version of the story, it says that Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Perhaps he thought he was almost there, almost ready to be one of his disciples. But he knows he needs to take one more step. He needs to do something really hard. So he says he must give all of his wealth away. “Then, come follow me.” But the young man turns away sadly. He just can’t do it. He is trying to serve two masters: God and his possessions. He can’t serve both, and his possessions win.
Some years ago there was a series on television during Holy Week that told some of the stories about people who were attracted to Jesus, but ultimately turned away. This story was one of them. The television dramatisation gave us a possible follow-up to the young man’s story and shows him, ultimately, not just possessing wealth, but being possessed by it. He sits at a table surrounded by gold and jewels and more food and drink than he can possibly cope with, but they don’t make him happy, and they are never enough. He is alone: without friends or family and, we might guess, without God.
After Jesus tells us, rather sternly, that we can’t serve God and wealth, he says, ‘therefore’ , therefore, don’t worry. God has given us, and will give us, everything we need to have a good life. Worrying will get us nowhere. Focussing on God, instead of our individual needs means, I think, not just that we as individuals, but the community of the world is more likely to have what each one needs.
You may have heard what more than one aid agency has said: that there is enough in the world for everyone to have what is needed, if only we would share it fairly. We might not have everything we want, but we will have everything we need. But that’s a hard thing for most of us to believe. At the beginning of the First World War, people were warned that because it would become difficult to import food, there would be shortages, so many people did what you might expect: they stockpiled as much non-perishable food as they could, until there was a danger that there really wouldn’t be enough to go around, and rationing had to be imposed. It had to be done again during and after the Second World War.
In our own day, we don’t have to worry about shortages in that way, but there are people out there who do, people in our own country and, which is what I want to focus on today, people in the developing world who don’t have enough, and there are two major reasons for that, but they both, ultimately, go back to the two things that Jesus tells us about in today’s reading: too many people, especially the large multinational companies focussing on maximizing their own wealth, to the detriment of the poor; too many of us in the rich world thoughtlessly using up the world’s precious resources, and, secondly, the poor worrying about survival which often leads them also to use them up, exacerbating the effects of climate change, which impacts disproportionately on the poor.
Tomorrow sees the beginning of a campaign which happens every year, by which we can all do a little something to ensure that the world’s resources are shared more fairly: Fair Trade Fortnight. You’ll know from the notices that I am holding a fair trade coffee morning tomorrow, and you’ll be very welcome, of course, and it will be an opportunity to support some of the world’s poorest farmers and learn more about the work of Traidcraft. You can look out for fairly traded products when you shop, or look out for cafes that serve fair trade tea and coffee and sugar. The St. Andrews Fair Trade group has produced a leaflet detailing the places in St. Andrews that do that.
But Jesus, I believe, wants us to do more. For the past few weeks we have been hearing a succession of readings from the Sermon on the Mount, and they have been pretty challenging. They are challenging because Jesus is suggesting we need to go beyond what the Jewish Law says, and change our whole attitude. Don’t just refrain from murder; rid yourself of hate. If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek, if someone steals your coat, give him your cloak as well. If you’re married, don’t just refrain from having an affair with your neighbour’s wife or husband, don’t even think about it!
All these are hard challenges. So, too was the challenge he issued to the rich young man: revamp your whole relationship with your possessions. Don’t clutch them close. Let them go; rely on God and don’t worry. He loves you more than the sparrows, more than the flowers of the field. And, if we’re honest, that, too, is a hard challenge for all of us: a hard thing not just to believe, but to act on. But as Fr. Ian said last week, maybe we can’t do it all at once; maybe in this life we can’t be perfect, but we can take small steps in that direction, and each small step will bring us closer to Christ and the world to the realisation of what we pray so often: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.