The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Watch the sermon here.
There is no way around the central role that money plays in our lives. That’s what Nathan Dungan, the founder of a financial management organization called Share Save Spend, says, and I think it’s true. Using money is like breathing. We have to do it all the time whether we are aware of it or not. “Just by being alive in the world, we all breathe air, and like it or not, we all use money, we buy groceries or pay bills, we pay taxes and are paid for our work…We can no more avoid interacting with money than we can stop breathing. We just can’t do it.” This is not a new phenomenon, but a tale as old as time. Even in Jesus’ day, money was something to talk about.
Jesus talks a lot about money. He talks about it more than he talks about marriage, worship, or any of the other things Christians seem to fight about these days. And yet, though Jesus was open about money, we seem to be squeamish to talk about it.
Money is hard – whether you have it or you don’t. “I’m willing to be that almost every one of us has something in our financial lives that we’d rather not share.
Maybe you make more money that people might expect, and that stresses you out.
maybe you make less
maybe you have credit card debt, or outstanding student loans that you just can’t pay off
Maybe you have outstanding medical bills
Or not enough money saved for retirement
Or you have a lot saved for retirement, and things are looking good now, but you’re wondering, will I really be able to live off this in a few years?
Maybe you have an investment that you know, deep down, is unethical, and makes you uncomfortable
or bad credit
or maybe you have to make the gut wrenching decision about which bills to pay and which bills to put off.
Maybe you are tremendously wealthy, and generous, and you’re not sure what to make of a parable about having to give up all your possessions in order to enter the kingdom of heaven when you already do so much for so many.
money is stressful.
We know that.
This “rich man” in our text for today knows that.
Jesus knows that.”*
The rich man has asked “what is the way to eternal life” thinking he already knows the answers. And Jesus responds with the list of the commandments he expects and can check off the list. No stealing – check. No coveting – mostly check. No lying – mostly check. No murder – check. But, Jesus says, it takes more. And that is when we find out that there’s one commandment the rich man wasn’t able to check off. The man had many possessions, and even though he wanted to inherit eternal life, he was very reluctant to let go of them in order to do so.
We don’t know what the rich man did. The text does not tell us. It’s an unsatisfactory ending. But the open-ended nature of this story makes it an invitation to us who hear it today.
As the rich man sadly walks away, Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. That may seem like an odd metaphor, until you know a little bit about the ancient world (and koine Greek). There are 2 different but equally sensible interpretations. When you visit Old City Jerusalem, you visit a walled city that is only accessible through a variety of gates. There is one gate that has a large door for all manner of things to pass through, and an adjacent door that is much smaller. It was designed to protect the city from invasion, almost like a funnel. You see, the small door is only big enough for a person or two to enter at a time. It keeps the animals out. Legend calls that small gate the “eye of the needle:” a camel could only pass through if it had unloaded all its baggage and was slowly guided through. Another explanation to this metaphor is that the Greek word for “camel” is very similar to the word for “rope,” and that the meaning got lost in translation – that the passage was meant to say “it’s easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle…” Of course, that is equally impossible: you would have to fray a large rope down to its smallest thread in order for it to pass through the eye of a sewing needle.*
Whether it’s a camel or a rope, Jesus is laying down a hard truth: there is a lot we have to shed in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. And while that sounds daunting, or maybe even incriminating, perhaps it’s not as out of reach as we think.
The past year and a half of a global pandemic has given us pause to consider a renewed understanding of the word “essential.” What goods and services — and what people — we really need for our everyday survival and well-being.
We’ve had 18+ months of radically reconsidering what’s essential, and what we can shed. What really matters, and what we could stand to let go of.
The pandemic has also revealed injustices and disparities in our work/labor force, and who and what exactly we deem “essential.” Who do we demand put their lives at risk for our health, safety, and comfort? How are they compensated? How do our social, economic, and legal systems support them? who gets paid well? vaccinated first? protected through legislation?
I believe we’re standing on a precipice right now. As businesses, entertainment venues, schools, and offices begin to “open up” again — and as there’s talk of a “return to normal” — we’re faced with a life-or-death decision. Do we really “go back?” Back to radical wealth disparity and labor inequality, back to a society where some of the workers we deem most essential are also the most disposable and poorly compensated? Or do we move forward, into a new and different future? And what will it take for us to make that decision?
See, here’s the critical part of the story of Jesus and the rich man.
When the rich man tells Jesus he has kept all the commandments since his youth— we can almost see the eagerness and hope in his eyes (“I’m good, right, Jesus? I don’t have to do anything else?”) —Jesus doesn’t just give him an answer. The gospel gives us an interesting narrator’s aside to make the point to tell us that before Jesus answers this man, looks at him, and LOVES HIM. Jesus knew how hard it would be for this rich man to hear what he had to say. “you lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.”
It takes a lot – it requires shedding a lot – to follow Jesus. And Jesus knows that this is hard stuff for us to do.
It may seem like Jesus gives this rich man an impossible decision to make, and it might be hard to make sense of it. Is becoming destitute really the only legitimate way to be a Christian? That’s a little far-fetched, right?
Seems like pretty unjust math, too. Subtract from me, add to others, and then I’m good with God?
But getting caught up in legalities and mathematics misses the point. As the prophet Amos reminds us, God is not interested in a legal system – God is interested in a justice system.
God’s heart is hurt by those who “trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain. Those who afflict the righteous, take a bribe, push aside the needy in the gate.”
For us, who seek to follow Jesus, our love of money is inextricably linked with our love of justice.
Following God’s commandments to the letter doesn’t matter one bit if we aren’t willing to shed our preference for our own comfort at the expense of other people’s suffering. “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.”
We can’t get rid of money, just like we can’t get rid of the air we breathe. We can’t sell all our possessions and give them away. But we can see that the decisions we make around our earthly possessions – our time, our talent, and our treasure – are rooted in our love of good, and our commitment to justice.
Jesus looks at all of us like he looks at that rich man—with love, and an invitation.
I wonder: what would he lovingly tell you you had to shed in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? What do you struggle to let go of?
The rich man walked away sad. But we don’t have to.
*Several elements of this sermon must be credited to my dear friends and colleagues, the Rev. Julie Jensen and the Rev. Karen Ware Jackson. They shared their writings on these lectionary texts with me, and their words have inspired my own reflections.