“Not Without Riches”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
October 14, 2018
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
As Jesus 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?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You 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.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, 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.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
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!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It 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.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
This scripture is probably the clearest example yet of a “challenging invitation of Jesus,” the focus of this sermon series. As we discussed and picked apart the conversation between the rich man and Jesus at Bible study on Wednesday, we found ourselves looking for alternate interpretations, metaphors, and caveats that might soften the impact of Jesus’ very clear instructions: “You lack only one thing. Go, sell all you have, and give the proceeds to the poor. Then come follow me.”
None of us – and I include myself squarely in this group – particularly wants to think about the implications of Jesus’ words for our own lives. Surely we aren’t all expected to sell our possessions, give them to the poor, and wander the streets? Surely Jesus was just speaking to this one man, to his particular Achilles’ heel of wealth? Surely Jesus is symbolically speaking to the “one thing” standing between us and salvation – wealth for some, sure, but for others – for us – surely it’s something else: our fear, our bitterness, our defeatist attitude or our concern for status or our self-centered perspective?
I actually really like this last interpretation, because it helps us think about what we’ve made into idols in place of God. A very astute observer at Bible study pointed out that when Jesus ticks off the commandments the rich man has kept since his youth, it’s a list of the Ten Commandments – but a partial list. The commandments left out are all about the centrality and sovereignty of God: You shall have no other gods before me; do not take God’s name in vain; honor God’s day and keep it holy. These are the ones the rich man hasn’t kept so well, Jesus implies; what he needs to do to bring his observance back up to par is to get rid of what he’s been worshiping instead of God – in his case, money and possessions.
What might it be in your case? Maybe it’s the opinions of others that have grown so important to you that you ignore the little voice inside telling you to do what’s right or to be true to who God made you to be. Maybe it’s social media or the news – things we unthinkingly give huge amounts of our attention to in ways that separate us from real connection with ourselves, our neighbors, and God. Maybe it’s the things I mentioned earlier – fear, shame, bitterness – that keep us isolated and curled in ourselves, unwilling to risk relationship that might make us vulnerable but will surely, also, make us whole.
Remember Daniel, the protagonist of one of my favorite books, The Bronze Bow? He, too, had kept the commandments as best he was able, but Jesus looked straight into his heart – in the words of this morning’s scripture, “Jesus loved him” – and saw that it was his hatred of the occupying Romans that was poisoning his life and keeping him from truly embracing God’s vision for the world.
Taking an inventory of our lives and seriously analyzing what we give the majority of our attention and energy to – and honestly asking ourselves if those things bring us closer to, or draw us further from, God is a worthwhile endeavor, and a very laudable outcome for our meditations on this scripture.
But it’s not the only one – and it may not even be the right one.
You see, Jesus may be speaking personally to the rich man when he tells him to give his wealth away, but just a few verses later, he is teaching the disciples – and us – a much more general, and much starker, truth: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kindom of heaven.”
A lot has been written about the possibility that this fanciful image is a mistranslation, or that it refers to a narrow, but just-barely-camel-passable gate in the wall surrounding Jerusalem – as in, if you really squeeze down you could shimmy through, wealth intact. But scholars concur that there’s no reliable archaeological evidence for such a gate, and that there’s no compelling argument for mistranslation. (If you’re interested in the fascinating details of this stuff, come join us for Bible study!)
In other words, Jesus, who is prone to such fanciful hyperbole (like “cut off your right hand if it sins” or “put a millstone around your neck and throw yourself in the sea” if you cause someone else to sin), means exactly what he says. In fact, two verses later, he dispenses with all metaphor and imagery: “It is impossible for rich people to enter the kindom of God.” And we really can’t interpret our way out of that one.
Okay, you may be thinking, Jesus is serious about this – but it still doesn’t apply to me. I’m not one of the 1%; I’m not a property owner like the rich man described here; I don’t eat at 5 star restaurants every night and drive a Lamborghini. In fact, I do give away some of my wealth – to charities and to church (thank you, by the way!). I’m not the rich people Jesus is talking about.
In that case, friends, I have bad news: by global standards, every single person in this room is rich. If you have access to shelter, to clean running water, to an indoor toilet, to regular meals – you are already better off than a third of the world’s population. Add to that adequate clothing, a high school or higher education, a means of employment, a home that only you or your immediate family lives in – not to mention access to a car, to internet, to cell phones, to Starbucks, to entertainment we enjoy – and we’re all wealthy beyond the imagination of billions of our fellow human beings.
A pastor friend of mine tells a story about welcoming a Somali refugee to his house for coffee one day. His congregation had been helping her and her family get their feet on the ground and he wanted to see how things were going for her. As they sat at the kitchen table looking out at his backyard, sipping their drinks, she noticed a sizeable structure behind the house. “Oh,” she said, “do you have another family living here?” My friend was confused for a moment, trying to figure out what gave her that impression. Then he realized she was talking about his garage. “Oh no,” he replied, “that’s our garage.” Seeing her look of incomprehension, he elaborated: “It’s where we keep our car.” She was silent for a few moments, contemplating the garage (which, actually, didn’t even have a car parked in it; it was filled, like mine is, with overflow from the house). Then she turned to look at him, this woman who had been chased by war from her simple home into a refugee camp tent where she and her children had lived for years, her face an open question: “You have a house for your car?”
There is a reason why the man in this morning’s scripture goes away “shocked and grieving” about what Jesus has invited him to do. There is a reason why many of us are, right about now, going through a litany of reasons why housing a family in our garage wouldn’t actually be practical. It’s because, as another wise person said at Bible study, we have no clear sense of just how much we have come to rely on the security and plain old comfort and convenience that our possessions and our wealth afford us. Our ability to analyze whether our wealth gets in the way of our connection to our neighbor and to God is completely distorted by the culture we live in: a culture that says every family needs a stand-alone house, their own car (or two), their own lawnmower (or two – which is how many are currently in our garage, no wonder there’s no room for a car – even though we use those things once a week at the very most and could easily share with neighbors). We live in a culture that says the prudent thing is to save for retirement and invest in the stock market and pass on our wealth to our children, yet insulates us from ever having to look in the eye of a refugee or the 1 in 5 American children growing up in poverty who will never know such a safety net. A culture where accumulating wealth is an unquestioned virtue, one that keeps us insulated from each other as we go about living lives buffered from ever needing to rely on or share with someone else.
My friend Matthew, whom some of you met while he was staying with us this week, came to Bible study with me on Wednesday night. Matthew is homeless and has been for the last 20 years, ever since he was evicted after losing his job for protesting unsafe workplace conditions. Matthew, whose permission I have to share his story, sat and listened to us all talk about this scripture for an hour at Bible study, taking it all in.
Towards the end, he offered up an analogy that helped me get around the roadblocks I’d put up to the challenging invitation contained in this scripture: “Imagine you were a prison warden,” he said, “that that had been your job for most of your adult life. And you’d been a just prison warden, fair in deciding disputes, compassionate to the inmates and conscientious of their well-being, doing your best with the position you were given. And you came to Jesus and said, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? I’ve been a good person all my life, tried to use my position for good – how can I be sure I’m in the kindom of heaven, either here or in the hereafter?’ And Jesus said, ‘Go, leave your job, steal a loaf of bread and make sure to be caught, and spend a few months in prison, as an inmate where you once were warden.’ ”
You see, the one thing we lack isn’t so much about the possessions or material security we enjoy. It’s what we lose when our lives are so padded by those things that we are no longer in relationship with our fellow human beings who don’t enjoy that security. We lack the mirror that Jesus held up to the rich man in love, that the Somali woman held up to the pastor, that Matthew held up to us at Bible study and that he holds up anew to Chris and me every time he comes to stay: the clear-eyed reflection of just how central, how distortedly necessary our material well-being has become to us.
Because it’s only through honestly looking that reflection in the eye that we can uproot our dependence on our wealth and make room for God and for our neighbor – for the sense of compassion and “we’re in this together” that allows us to rely on and live for others instead of for our stuff. Without that reflection – indeed, without the shock and grief that accompany such an honest reckoning – we will forever be lingering on the edges of the kindom, glimpsing a life like that described in Acts but never quite able to bring ourselves to embrace it.
I did promise this would fit the bill of a challenging invitation, didn’t I? But here is the good news, friends: the Gospel doesn’t tell us the end of the story. We know the rich man goes away shocked and grieving; what we don’t know is what he decides to do with his shock and grief. Maybe he does indeed sell everything he has and give all the proceeds to the poor, like St. Francis would hundreds of years after him. Maybe he opens his house to travelers and passersby in need, or gives away his camels to peasants who lack the means to start a new trade route business. Maybe he turns his oxen into a communal possession, available for all to use. Maybe he keeps throwing large parties but converts the decadence reserved for a few into enough for all. Maybe he gives the property he owns to those who live in or work it, knowing that what they could use most in their lives is a slice of the agency he takes for granted.
Whatever ending he might write – whatever ending we might be inspired to write – let us hold onto our shock and grief at being brought face to face with the wealth at the center of our lives instead of succumbing to the temptation to dismiss it. And then let us hold on even tighter to the love with which Jesus invites the rich man – and us – to do something greater. For it is there that we will find true riches.