“For a man who lives in No. 10 Downing Street, has two multi-million pound homes and an upbringing steeped in privilege, it was the one question which stopped him in his tracks.” So wrote The Daily Telegraph when David Cameron was asked a particularly difficult question during a question-and-answer session recently. For the question was this: “What would your response to Jesus be on his instructions to us to sell all our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor?”
David Cameron, having to respond to such an awkward question, according to The Daily Telegraph went on to say that he thinks the Bible is “not a bad handbook” for life – perhaps understating a little the importance of the Bible for Christians – but admitted that it would be “a little more difficult” to follow the scriptures to the letter and surrender his belongings. He said: “I’m a Christian and I’m an active member of the Church of England, and like all Christians I think I sometimes struggle with some of the sayings and some of the instructions.”
I assume that the questioner was referring the words of Jesus from today’s gospel reading. And to be fair to David Cameron, the questioner did slightly misquote. For Jesus doesn’t say “Sell all your possessions,” but “Sell your possessions,” – which might mean “all” or could simply mean “some” – it’s difficult to be precise about what Jesus meant except that he was clear that those who have need to get rid of some of what they have to help those who have not. And the fact is that when we hear these words of Jesus we all feel the same difficulty that David Cameron felt when asked the question. For we all know what we ought to do, we all know what Jesus said, but we find it a little difficult to surrender our belongings. Because we all value our security – and that sense of security that our possessions give us now and especially for the future. What would your response to Jesus be?
Of course, it’s only natural to worry about the future, and to want to do what you can to make your future more secure. We all like to have a sense of security, about what lies ahead. Whether it’s our health, or our employment, or how we are going to spend our retirement, or the welfare of our immediate families, we like to know that everything is going to be alright. So most of us take steps to ensure that we can have a secure future. And even if we don’t there are plenty of people out there ready to tell us what we should be doing to ensure security for ourselves and our families.
- To be secure requires a good job, so we need to get a good education or to learn a good trade.
- To be secure requires insurance to protect us against catastrophe – life insurance, health insurance, car insurance.
- To be secure means financial security – enough cash in hand to tide us over in an emergency, money put away into a pension fund.
- To be secure requires good health, so we need regular medical checkups, a healthy diet, regular exercise.
- To be secure requires protection from accidents. Quite a number of people drive large cars because, in the event of an accident, the person in the larger car wins.
Security can mean all kinds of things. And yet, in the end, it all boils down to money, as Jesus was pointing out. In today’s society if you have money you can pay for a better education, afford better life insurance, pay for private health care, afford a decent home of your own. And yet, however much you or I may have done to ensure our own security there are so many things we cannot protect ourselves against. How do we protect ourselves against drunk drivers? How do we keep our children from doing something stupid? How do we protect ourselves against a sudden and unexpected illness. As much as we may believe in being prepared, we cannot shield ourselves for every ill, and we all of course have to race the hour of our death however wealthy we may be.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus takes a different approach to the issue of security. He has been talking about money and the security that it offers – or fails to offer. As we heard in last week’s gospel reading he has just been telling the story about a rich farmer who, upon becoming even richer, said, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said, “You fool! This very night your soul is being demanded of you.”
But Jesus has something quite different to say about security for the future. Jesus’ point is that money doesn’t buy total security. He advises us not to not to be consumed by money, but to be rich toward God. He advises us not to be consumed by concern for security in this life, but to store up treasure for eternity. And so he says: “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Does Jesus mean that we must give away all our money? Probably not – although in at least one instance he did tell a man to do that – but the inference is that we should be giving away more than we would probably like.
Does Jesus mean that we shouldn’t take reasonable precautions to ensure our welfare and that of our families? No, he isn’t.
Does he mean that we should change our attitude to money? Absolutely! And he reminds us that the only true security in this life is that of knowing we have an everlasting home in heaven, for the security we try to achieve for this life is so often an illusion. And his one bit of advice on how to do that is this: “Sell your possessions, and give alms.” Which is where we all start to feel a bit uncomfortable! Sometimes we think that we cannot afford to give any more away. Or that there is no point because the little we could give wouldn’t achieve anything. Or we convince ourselves that it is the government’s responsibility to do more, not ours. We are always good at finding excuses for not giving more.
Jesus often emphasizes the special place that God has for the poor and the powerless – for widows and orphans, for the sick, for marginalized people. Jesus tells us that, if we want to show our love for God, one of the best ways to do that is by taking care of people in need. And he says to us, “Sell your possessions. Give alms.” Most of us look at the world in which we live and recognise the deep needs of so many of the people in it. Most of us wish that so much more could be done. Most of us feel that we ought to do more to help but don’t know what. And many of us, while we give financially, could give more. Not necessarily in money, but in time – perhaps helping with a local charity, acting as a link person in church to encourage support of a particular charity, joining a charity support group – many national charities have local groups or need volunteers in charity shops.
To go back to David Cameron and his comment that it would be “a little more difficult” to follow the scriptures to the letter and surrender his belongings. We all know that feeling. However, whether we interpret Jesus’s reference to our possessions as meaning our money our physical possessions, or other things we own like our time, Jesus presents us with a real challenge today.
Jesus doesn’t expect us to give what we don’t have, but he does expect us to use what we do have for the benefit of others – whether a little or a lot. If we trust in Jesus for our security, rather than trusting in our own finances, then a little becomes a lot. He expects us to stop building up treasure troves in this world so that we can feel financially secure, and to start building up our treasure trove in heaven where security is not an illusion but an absolute certainty!
John Sutherland Bonnell put it this way: “Take that gift that God has entrusted to you no matter how humble it may seem to be, and use it in the service of Christ and your fellow human beings. Christ will make it glow and shine like the very stars of heaven.”
Someone else – and I don’t know who – put it this way, words we might all take to heart:
I am not everyone but I am someone.
I cannot do everything but I can do something.
What I can do I ought to do.
What I ought to do I will do, by the grace of God.