17As he 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?”18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You 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; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, 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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
This is an anxiety producing text. Everyone is always trying to get around what Jesus said to the rich man, by interpreting it as being somehow different than what he said. In the Middle Ages there even got to be a legend, that is still repeated today, that “the eye of the needle” was the name for a gate in Jerusalem: a small gate, but not one so small that maybe an unloaded and relatively small camel couldn’t go through. But Jesus was talking about regular size camels and regular old needles. The impossibility is the whole point. And that, along with selling our possessions and giving the money away, makes us uncomfortable. So as I now go on to interpret this text in various ways, I hope you’ll also just let it sit as the impossible, difficult, and face value story that it is.
Voluntary poverty is radical, and it always has been. Throughout church history there have been people who have taken up this call to give away all their worldly possessions. In early and medieval times there was Anthony of Egypt who sold his family’s property after hearing this story, and Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi who were born wealthy and chose radical poverty, and closer to our own time St. Teresa of Calcutta known as Mother Teresa, and the as of today officially canonized St. Oscar Romero who very publicly advocated for the poor in El Salvador and was martyred by a sniper while saying mass in 1980, as well as many more who have not received as much recognition. Choosing poverty and to advocate for people who have little money and power is so against human inclination that we look at it with astonishment, just as the rich man and the disciples reacted with shock to Jesus’ instructions. Of all the things people do because of their faith, this is one of the rarest.
If you know someone who hoards then you’ve seen the other extreme. For the family and friends of a hoarder, there is no question as to whether possessions get in the way of relationships and health. Possessions literally become an addiction. The hold that possessions have over a hoarder’s life, psyche and relationships though is not completely different than the hold that possessions have over all of us. It’s just amplified. Giving up all worldly goods may not be the only way to follow Jesus, but the Bible is clear that what we own can become a danger to our very spirits, as well as hurtful to the people around us. Being a Christian absolutely calls us to reckon with our money and our stuff, and to take seriously what our material situation reflects and impacts about our values, relationships and trust in God.
We here are materially rich in the grand scope of the world, many of us even by the scope of our country. And I think most of us recognize that. Though maybe not everyone of us has had what we needed at every time in our lives, we also know what it is to have more than we need. Maybe we know the freedom of giving or even throwing possessions away, and that is some of the lightness referenced here, but the rich man is not asked to just have less, he’s asked to have less specifically to benefit others. Poverty in itself is not a moral good and shouldn’t be romanticized. It takes a huge toll on people in mind, body and spirit. The kingdom of God is not a place where everyone is poor, but a place where everyone has enough, and the last become first. For those of us who are closer to the “first” side of things right now, that is a difficult thing to hear. What Jesus is doing in this text is inviting the man to begin that process of no longer being first so someone else can be. And he went away sad because he knew he would be giving up a great deal.
The rich man in the text was probably born rich (social mobility wasn’t much of a thing in the 1st Century). There’s no indication that he was lying when he says he kept all the commands that Jesus listed so he did his best to be a good person. He was born though, with wealth and privilege that was getting in the way of his relationships with God and other people. I think it’s fair to say that all of us in this room were born with different types of privilege, wealth of power if you will, that get in the way of our relationships with God and one another. Us white people always carry the power of our whiteness with us, often oblivious to the literal and figurative wealth it grants us that is unearned and by its very nature taken from someone else. We may be personally horrified by our “wealth” of white privilege, but to actively seek to give it up or at least use it to the advantage of people of color is much, much more difficult. First it involves seeing the ill-gotten power that whiteness grants, then learning to recognize it in our own lives and relationships, considering how to truly give it away in various situations, and finally having the will and the prayerful consideration to push it away at a cost to ourselves. This is difficult for us white folks, but it’s not only a Godly practice, it is one that brings us back into community.
Jesus’s answer to the question what we must do to enter the kingdom of God is to give up wealth and possessions, but that’s not the whole answer. He doesn’t ask the man to go live a lonely life of need, but instead invites him to follow and promises “a hundredfold now in this age-houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions-and in the age to come eternal life.” If we look at any of the lives of the saints I mentioned earlier we can see the truth of this statement. They were far from alone and often had many places in which they lived and worked, but those places were more difficult and more complex than the comfort they left behind. Jesus is describing what he sees as a win win situation for both rich man and the people who could benefit from his wealth, albeit a very difficult one for the rich man to enter into.
All of this, in the end, is about possibility: what is possible for us and what is possible for God. We don’t like acknowledging the limits of our self-made possibilities, and we like even less to be told that we are incapable of saving ourselves from the internal and external things that torment us. As Jesus says, no one is good, not altogether. We can do good things and make meaningful choices, but we cannot fundamentally change the hurt that we have received and given in relationships, or wholly deconstruct the unjust systems we are a part of. No one is good. This is the fundamental impossibility that we, along with the rich man, the disciples and the camel, all face. But we cling to our ideas of self perfectibility so closely that it’s hard for us to hear Jesus’ invitation to let go of the way we would re-make the world and ourselves and instead look to God’s. Unfortunately we tend to hear our own impossibilities much more loudly than God’s possibilities. We do not need to give up on justice, healing and forgiveness and our participation in them, nor should we. Instead Jesus looks at us with love and asks us to follow a more gentle and more radical way, with the assurance that rather than carrying the weight of the restorer, we are just one of the things being restored. This is the final thing this story asks us to give up: the belief that we’re capable of achieving perfection and fixing it all on our own, so that we can be invited, like the rich young man, to leave the hurt and anger and self-righteousness, and yes the money and possessions, that we’re clinging to and follow Jesus to a place where the first become last and the last become first, and all of us have enough.