Would that the Bible only said what we wish it did! Truth be told, the most ardent biblical fundamentalist secretly wishes that the story of the rich young ruler, the traditional name given to the character in today’s gospel, really didn’t say what it does. So what do we do with Bible stories and pronouncements of Jesus that we viscerally disagree with? We doctor them up so that we can agree with them. Or, I suppose, alternatively, we just choose not to listen, telling ourselves that it can’t matter much anyway.
Most of the time a sermon addresses the obvious. Today I want to address something not so obvious. Rather than look at the rich young ruler (so called because Matthew says he was young and Luke says he was a ruler and all of them say he was rich), who to my mind is a very attractive fellow—Mark says that Jesus, looking on him, loved him—I invite you instead to study the disciples. Mark pictures them as within earshot of the conversation between Jesus and the young man. He does not tell us if the disciples were paying attention or not, or how they reacted to the incident, whether shocked or nonchalant. What Mark does tell us is that Jesus uses the incident as a “teaching moment.” He looks around and says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples are astonished, perplexed, puzzled at his words. Why? Some things never change. And one of them is that cultures the world over fix it so that the rich and powerful appear to be the darlings of God. People get to believing that. Hence we get the religion of prosperity, which you may see in full display in the religion section of Barnes and Noble or on a special book rack in your local Giant. Get close to God and you will prosper: that is the message. And the corollary is if you prosper, you must be close to God. To tell a rich person today (and, by the world’s standards, practically everyone in this church today is rich) that wealth blocks the doorway to the kingdom of God does not go down any better than it did in the first century. The decks are loaded in favor of the rich, and everyone with any gumption knows it.
So what is with Jesus? Well, let’s not ask that question, at least not yet. Let’s ask another one. What is with the Kingdom of God? That is what this story is really about. Wealth would not be important at all if it weren’t somehow implicated in keeping someone out of this utterly desirable “kingdom.” Well, in the first place, what Jesus calls the “kingdom of God” is not a piece of geography either in this world or in any other. It is not “heaven” if by “heaven” you mean life after death. Even in Matthew’s gospel where the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is used, neither Jesus nor the gospel writers are talking about the afterlife. The realm of God, the commonwealth of God, the reign of God is a transformed life, a transformed world, a re-created society of re-created persons. The domain of God is a vast realignment of relationships, a rearranging of values, the trump card played that whisks away the tricks of humans to protect ourselves, to insulate ourselves, to survive. First among those tricks is acquisition. Whatever we acquire, we tell ourselves, is what will help us to live, to win, to be acceptable, and ultimately to survive, maybe even to be like gods. That is what snatching that fruit in the Garden of Eden story is about. That is why Pharaohs were buried with the treasures. That is why the poor spend the few crumbs they have on lotteries, not out of desperation so much as to participate in a society that tells them relentlessly that to acquire is to survive. That is what drives the drug trade, what fuels organized crime, what our entire political system is built on. That is, in fact, what most—not all—people mean when they talk endlessly about “the American dream:” it is the dream of acquiring what one wants and thinks one needs in order to be successful.
This trick of acquiring tricks us into thinking that not only things but spiritual qualities can be acquired, like outfits in a wardrobe or necklaces in a jewelry box. Hence, we not infrequently imagine, as does the man in the gospel story, that we can rack up spiritual points too. “I have kept all these commandments since my youth,” we might say. We are in good shape. We have the grades to prove it.
That is the way our human world is constructed. And that is why the disciples are so shocked when Jesus says that it will be hard for those with riches to enter the kingdom of God. That kingdom is a present reality. It is here. It is now. It transcends time and death for sure, for it is clearly not of this world. But God has pitched tent in the field of human history and started serving a huge banquet in that tent, to which you have been invited. The only hitch is you have to go through certain “insecurity” procedures to get in. Empty your pockets. Take everything out of your briefcase. Computers, iPods, iPads, iPhones, checkbooks, stocks, bonds, insurance, licenses, diplomas. No belt, no shoes, no backpack. I’m not even sure that to get into the kingdom we can hold on to our rings and earrings. I’m not even sure that we can hold on to our clothes! (Now are you beginning to get nervous?) Seriously. Jesus was not joking when he said, “Except you become as children, you will never enter the kingdom.” Nor was he joking when he told one person, “You must be begotten from above,” meaning, “You have to begin all over again.” In the realm of God we live totally differently.
Jesus does not say that it is impossible for the rich to enter that realm, but rather that it is quite hard for them (us?) to do so. Some point out that the little tiny passageway in a Jerusalem gate big enough for one or maybe two small persons to walk through, called a “needle’s eye” is what Jesus meant when he imagined stuffing a camel into one. The camel would hardly think it a possibility, or even a good idea, but rather a stupid thing to try (if I may speak for camels). But I think Jesus probably meant something more like an actual camel being squeezed through something as small as a real needle’s eye: not only is it hard, it is something you just don’t really have any business trying to do. It does not fit.
So what does fit? What is fit? Who is fit for the domain of God? Believe it or not, you are. You get to choose what you will do when you go through “insecurity” checks. Just like the rich young man in the gospel story, you and I may either empty our lives and ourselves, or we can go away grieving because it is just so hard to do that. Either response, of course, assumes that we really want to live the life of God. You must be thinking, “So where is the good news in any of this, especially for us relatively affluent Americans?” The good news is that all things are possible to God. And this generous, loving, beneficent God who sends rain on the just and unjust alike, has no agenda to kick you out or keep you out of God’s life. It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, as Jesus once put it. Nothing that I read in the gospel or elsewhere tells us that Jesus gave the young man twenty-four hours to dispose of all his possessions. What might have happened if the young man had said, “OK, Good Master, I’m going to start today. Don’t know how long it might take me to get there—but let me get started.” That is not in the Bible, but suppose it were. Might the young man have ended the story differently?
I once was reading a book that suggested it might be a good idea to go through my house and look at all the things I was attached to with the thought of giving them away. So I did. At first it scared the bejesus out of me. I looked at paintings I adored, furniture I treasured, and cases and cases of books I could never live without. I imagined myself giving a particular painting (still my favorite) called “The Juggler” to a young man in my parish who was a pretty good juggler. I imagined parting with my books, and giving away Mama’s antique love seat. Just the very thought of doing all that began to make my heart feel lighter. I took a step that day towards the kingdom. Since then I have discovered what the sages of the world have long been saying—that letting go is the only human problem there is, and when we do it we begin to approach that splendid place of nothing which is true freedom. Katzanzakis’s tombstone bears the words, “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.” That, ironically, is what the kingdom of God is about, and why it is that at the center of our faith stands a naked man on a cross. That cross hangs over our altars and over our doors because at every possible entrance to the kingdom we are reminded that the quintessential quality of God’s life is giving—to the point of giving one’s very life—profligate, prodigal, limitless giving. And we generally don’t become like God in one leap, but rather in incremental steps. Two per cent of our income this year, five next year, ten in a few years, and more and more as time goes on in proportion to how much we are blessed to get. We take a step and get better at it. We take another step and get even better at it. Gradually we begin to feel the joy. We find ourselves tipping waiters more generously, looking for causes that we can support to make our world better, seeking out occasions to affirm a young person or to support an older one. Step by baby step, we have become children, taking on the characteristics of our Creator Parent.
Then one day, when Jesus turns and glances at us, we might find it in us to speak this truth: Lo, we have left everything and followed you. And that day will be the day when we will truly have come home to that surprising kingdom where many who were last shall be first.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012