Today’s reading is one of those readings pastors are often told to “manage.” Manage it – don’t tell your congregation to be aesthetics and own no possessions. Don’t tell people to live in communes and hold all things in equal possession. Don’t advocate communism, or socialism, or speak of the writings of Karl Marx. No word of the groundbreaking work of Max Weber in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”
Manage it, and don’t let the genie out of the bottle!
A lot of pastors listen to the advice and try to manage the story.
Have you been told the story before that there was a gate in Jerusalem named “Eye of the Needle.” After dark, the big gates were closed and this little gate left open. The only way to get a camel through it was to unload the camel of all their baggage. Then the camel could get through on his knees. Therefore, Jesus must mean that the rich can get into heaven on their knees once they’ve gotten rid of their riches that are burdens.
It’s a great story.
It’s also utterly false. A monk made this up in the 9th century. No such gate existed.
And most rich I know don’t feel burdened by their wealth. Do you feel too wealthy?
Managing Jesus with the gate story – makes the rich hopeful, does nothing for the poor. That’s not the way of Christ.
I’ve heard this story managed by explaining the word translated as camel was actually supposed to be the Greek word for cable – like a ship cable or very thick rope. Sounds awful hard to get that through a needle… but you could get part of it through, or a little bit over time, or even could get a bigger needle. Big, big needles are used to sew ship masts.
We could manage the story this way and argue that the rich slip into heaven with difficulty, but heaven grows to accommodate them. Or the rich leave behind all their extras when they die and just the soul slips through. Just the center piece of rope.
More hope for the rich. Again – nothing for the poor. This is not the way of Christ. Christ came preaching good news for the poor.
In the history of the church, the church once became more powerful and rich and influential than kingdoms. As the wealth became accumulated, popes and bishops and archbishops and even local clergy lived in homes better off than their neighbors. Monasteries became little kingdoms unto themselves owning large tracks of land with serfs – almost slaves – renting the land from them to scratch out a living. The more power and wealth was concentrated into the church, the more corruption and sin snuck in. Eventually, all you needed was money to be made a clergy member. No skills at preaching, no calling from God, no commitment to living Christian needed. Just money.
How did they manage this passage? By not reading it. By controlling who could read the Bible. By reading the Bible only in languages the common people didn’t understand. The King James Version, understandable to the common person, drew on a manuscript that had the added words, “how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God”
Riches aren’t the problem. Trusting riches are. This is comfort for the rich… and again doesn’t help the poor. This is not the way of Christ. Christ decried the clergy who wore large tassels, spoke long prayers, and said ‘Thank God I’m not like that poor sinner over there!’
Modern pastors like to argue Jesus knew the particular weakness and sin of the rich man who came to him. So when Jesus tells him to give away his possessions to the poor, Jesus was hitting the man in his secret sin spot. This passage is managed by saying THAT RICH MAN, not me, has an issue with money. Jesus doesn’t ask me to share my wealth, but rather to give up whatever I treasure that separates me from following God. Maybe cursing. Maybe TV. Maybe road rage.
This is comfort for the rich, and doesn’t help the poor. Although it is good advice to get closer to God… Jesus doesn’t view God and you having an isolated, exclusive, relationship. God is found wherever two or three are gathered. God is in community. Giving up cursing is not good news to the poor, the captive, the slave.
Other modern pastors say the man was trying to EARN heaven, and Jesus shows how futile it is to earn heaven. No one could follow the commandments, or really give up all they own. Only the grace of God lets us in heaven. So why try to earn heaven? Just let go and let God.
But the belief in Judaism is that people really can follow the commandments. And Jesus looks at this man, and LOVES him. A rare use of love. Then Jesus invites this man to become a disciple – maybe one of the closest like Matthew or Mark or Peter. All the man needs to do is give all he owns to the poor, and follow Jesus. If this was just to show heaven cannot be EARNED, why does Jesus let the man go away grieving? Why not add, “You cannot earn heaven, but you can be given it?”
No. Jesus says: How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kindom of heaven.
The disciples are as upset as we are to hear this. Peter believes in the prosperity gospel. He believes that God favors those who help themselves – much as Benjamin Franklin would have us believe. Peter believes that God sends wealth to the righteous and moral and hardworking, and the lazy and sinful and immortal are poor. Peter points to this man who has followed ALL the commandments, and is clearly so blessed for this that he is quite wealthy, and Peter panics. If that holy of a man can’t get into heaven, how are we supposed to ever get into heaven? If the super rich priests in the temple can’t get into heaven – they who have nothing to do but pray and study God and don’t need to fish and hunt – if even they can’t get in… what about the rest of us?
We who curse? And sin? And forget to pray every day? We who don’t always have God’s blessing? Jesus – what about us? The poor?
The “first will be last, and the last will be first.”
The good news for the poor is that nothing is impossible for God. The very rich and the very poor, the very holy and the very sinful – God is able to bring anyone into heaven. Anyone into the reign of God.
For the wealthy, it is much harder than it is for the poor to live in this new reign. The wealthy have so much more to lose.
The poor have much less to risk by following Jesus. The poor live into the realm of equality, of sharing equally, of treating all as equals much more easily than the rich who are usually born way, way more rich than others. Who are not used to viewing others as equals. Who would have to make drastic, drastic changes to live as equals with others. Changes that don’t feel fair.
Consider wealth in the USA. Wealth is calculated by your assets minus your debts. So let’s say you have a $250,000 house, but you owe $200,000 still to the bank. That means your wealth is actually only $50,000. Assets are things like your house, cars, bank accounts, retirement investments, and land. Debts are your student loans, credit cards, mortgages, and so forth.
Wealth distribution in the USA is easier with visuals. So let’s picture the USA as having only 100 people. And all their wealth together is 100 cherry pies. In an equal distribution, every person would have 1 pie. This is Jesus’ goal in the Bible. Everyone has enough. No one has too much. No one has too little.
But this world is not yet liberated from all sin.
In reality, twenty people take 90 pies for themselves in the USA, and leave 10 pies for 80 people. How do you think the 80 people will share their 10 pies?
The next 20 people take 8 of the 10 pies for themselves and pass on 2 pies. Just 2 pies for 60 people to share.
When we go back to thinking of these as dollars, when you reach the middle incomes of Americans to the bottom incomes, we are splitting 2% of the country’s wealth among us all.
60% of Americans – most of us – have only 2% of the country’s wealth.
1% of Americans own 40% of the country’s wealth all by themselves. That is a greater wealth inequality than the 1% wealthiest in France, or England, or Germany, equal with Russia and worse than Zambia! While 1 person in our story has 40 pies…
20 people have no pies at all. The 20 people in the middle income bracket take the 2 pies left from the rich and divide the slices among themselves. The next 20 people have nothing. No investments and saved money, but also no debt. It all balances out. They can’t stop working or retire or they’ll sink into the next category…
20 Americans in our story not only have no pie to eat, they owe a pie. They have more debt that income.
There is enough pie here for everyone. Even if someone took more than their share of one pie, someone else could give up a slice. But instead, 1 person sits on fourty whole pies and 40 people sit with nothing.
1 in 3 households in America are considered impoverished right now. They’re struggling to pay utilities, food, for a roof over their head.
Angry, yes? Why isn’t the pie shared so at least everyone has a bite to eat?
Why isn’t it? Not knowing? Not caring? Fear of scarcity?
What did you answer? Because the hard reality is that if you’re earning $32,000 annually… you, yourself are in the world’s 1% of richest people. Every 8 of us here together, make as much as 3.6 BILLION people.
Globally, people don’t just struggle to have food… they die from lack of food. Globally, there is still enough pie… but we’re the ones sitting on a massive store of it.
It feels very unfair that we are sending money to foreign countries, yes? Why do we owe them? No one in this room personally hurt them. And we work hard for our money!
Why do we owe them? We don’t.
Who has worked for the money? You have.
We have an ingrained morality that those who work the most should have the most wealth. You don’t eat if you don’t work. Work will set you free. We also have an ingrained idea that those who are affluent are more moral than those who are poor. The poor must be thieves, and vandals, and lazy. The rich must be honorable, and build up society, and productive.
Jesus’ time had the same ideas about wealth — and Jesus challenged them. Jesus actually spoke more about wealth than heaven or hell combined. Think about Jesus’ parable of the servants sent out to the vineyard at different times. It’s not fair those who worked an hour get a full day’s pay. Think about Jesus feeding the 5,000 — and feeding again and again. Everyone was given food and everyone invited. No work required. Jesus also spoke blessings on the poor and curses on the rich. The realm of God is found among the poor – and the rich find getting into heaven as hard as passing a camel through the eye of a needle. Utterly impossible.
We ARE the world’s rich. We ARE here, asking Jesus, what can we do to be in the realm of God? What can we do to live more fully in line with what God envisions for the world? We ARE the rich man speaking with Jesus.
And Jesus says – give all you own to the poor and follow me.
… My heart aches for this man who came to Jesus. I’m him. I’m going to walk away sad because I own a lot. I’d rather give some of my pie and not all of it away. I’d rather those richer than me give up their pie.
I look at Saint Francis with amazement. He had this much wealth. And he literally took it all off – before his family and village – and walked out of town completely naked. He left his name, his great riches, his home, his everything to follow God.
I look at the disciples with amazement. They gave up their businesses, and families. Left their homes and left their reputations. They gave up everything to follow Jesus.
I’ve never made a great sacrifice like that to follow Jesus.
Family have told me not to feel the guilt and weight of my wealth. “You’ve given your life to being a pastor!” I hear in their words, “Then who can be saved?!” much like the disciples panicked.
And the answer is still the same: For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible. And we who are first on this earth must accept that the reign of God is first among the world’s poor, belongs to the poor, and we are dependent on the poor to be taught how to live in harmony with each other, with the world, with God. How to live humbly.
In the letter to Hebrews, we’re told God knows all out thoughts and intentions. God knows when we try to be good. And knows when we do good deeds for wrong intentions. We “are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
What will we say when we’re caught holding 40 pies and billions of people starve?
What will we say when we’re standing before God and accounting the sins we committed, and the sins that over took us?
Or that we were born into?
The author of Hebrews tells us to be honest with our accounting. Be honest with ourselves, and our God. This isn’t because God knows us inside and out, but because God KNOWS what it is like to be human.
God has come to us, and shared our common lot.
God, in Jesus, sympathizes, understands, our weaknesses.
“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Let us approach God, and confess we are sinners living in a sinful world – and find God’s grace – unmerited favor. Let us receive mercy – forgiveness for our intentional and unintentional sins. And let us be given the grace to help in time of need. Let us be given that Holy Spirit that say
Yeah. Things are awful. Unfair. Unjust.
Yeah. I’m just one person compared to all of this.
But you know what- I’m one person in Christ. And although this is too much for a mortal to fix, it isn’t for God.
With God, all things are possible.
We just need to dream bigger, work towards that dream of God, and live into God’s new realm now. We can do this by supporting efforts of wealth distribution: unions, farm co-ops, international and local charities, taxes on wealth and tax breaks on the poor – programs that are not fair… but that are just.
Go and be the church! Amen.