Over the centuries many good Christian folk, have tried to find ways of wiggling out of this passage. In the early church, a well-meaning scribe recorded Jesus as saying, “How hard it will be for someone who trusts in their wealth to enter the kingdom of God. A nice sentiment. But that’s not what Jesus says.
Along about the ninth century, the early Middle Ages, someone suggested that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” which was so small that a camel could only get through it if it crawled on its knees. So if you’re wealthy you can still get into heaven as long as you’re also humble. I’m afraid, however, that there is no evidence of an actual gate called the eye of the needle in ancient Jerusalem. It’s made up.
Later on, people suggested that Jesus was talking only to this man, the he as an individual placed too much faith in his wealth, and that Jesus’ statement therefore does not apply to us. Nothing in the text indicates that.
Then there is the Lutheran response. That this man is asking what he should do, when for Lutherans, we inherit eternal life because of what we believe, or rather, whom we trust.
That’s fine and we’ll get back to it. But I’m not at all sure the writer of the Gospel of Mark is that much of a Lutheran. Jesus in Mark certainly doesn’t act like a Lutheran. He is constantly yelling at people and running back and forth at top speed. Very un-Lutheran things to do.
I think, honestly, it would be better if we leave this question open. Maybe Jesus really does mean that we should give up all our wealth. And by wealth, I mean what most of us have. In this world, if you have a car, if you have air conditioning in your house, if you have a TV, prospects for Social Security, you are wealthy.
Go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor and come, follow me. Leave it uncomfortable. Because that discomfort is a gift. It reminds us that in the end we do not have a right to our wealth. No, our possessions are not ours by right because they are not ours at all. We have no right to our money because it’s not our money. It’s God’s money. God has entrusted it to us for some specific purposes: To provide for ourselves and our families, to fuel an economy where everyone has good work and a living wage, to allow for exuberance and the celebration of life, and to care for the poor. That’s how God wants us to use God’s money that God has entrusted to us.
Now, I need to let you know that there are several wealthy followers of Jesus in the New Testament. These wealthy followers exhibit three common characteristics. First, they are humble. They don’t think they are any more important than anyone else. Second, they are generous. They provide for others. Third, they are a little crazy. They are willing to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. Their own safety, the security of their way of life or culture are not their primary concern. The love of God is their primary concern.
Also, please notice what Jesus does not say. Jesus does not tell this rich young man to burn his wealth. “Burn it or it will devour your soul!” No he does not. Jesus does not tell him to bury it. “Bury it, for it threatens humankind!” No. Jesus says, “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
See what Jesus tries to do. He tries to reorient the young man’s mind from his own righteousness, from his own salvation to true salvation, true treasure in heaven. He reorients the young man from himself to the people around him who have the least power in his society. In this case, people who, no matter how hard working or smart they are, still can’t make ends meet.
Remember, this whole section of the Gospel of Mark that we have been reading for the last few weeks expresses Jesus’s concern for people who have the least power in society. Last week, Jesus addresses the reality that women in his day could be left destitute by divorce. He is concerned for them. Then he says “Let the children come to me, do not stop them for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Children had no rights outside the family in Jesus’ day. They were, in essence, possessions. The father’s possessions, specifically.
Jesus has addressed issues that affect women, children, and now the poor. And he requires us to do the same.
Mind you, we don’t all have to agree on how to act out that concern for people who have less power. Some of us may be drawn to direct aid. Food for the hungry. St Matthews Area Ministries, here in Louisville, ELCA World Hunger Appeal , which as several projects in the United States. Relief in disasters. Right now, ELCA Disaster Response is working with Lutheran Services, Florida, and Lutheran services, Carolinas to help with damage from Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael.
Others of us might think, “Direct aid is fine, but if you give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. If you teach a person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.”
So the ELCA engages in many projects to teach better agricultural practices around the world, so people can grow more food. There are initiatives to provide microloans so people can start business in their communities. There are schools, to provide education. St. John is connected with West End School. One of our members is involved with the Nkosi School, an Episcopal school in Uganda, making connections between the children there and children here in Louisville.
Some of us will say, “The social and cultural and economic system keeps people down.” Lutheran advocacy addresses that. Here’s one example. There was a village in India where the status of women was particularly low, and they needed to build some latrines, to provide a more effective way to process human waste. Well, Lutheran World Relief taught the women how to build the latrines. So the status of women in the village rose.
Many different ways to care for those who have less power than we do. So depending on our background and education and family upbringing and so on, we may in our best and most faithful thinking pursue different ways of caring. That’s okay. As long as we care. We can’t be Christian and not care.
One more thing: Jesus concludes the gospel lesson for today with another prophesy that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
In this whole section of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is on his journey to the cross. This is where God meets us. At the cross, in our most broken, humiliated, least powerful places. At the places where we are most vindictive, craven, petty, this is where Jesus brings God’s love first. God’s love sweeps us up from there into God’s love for all people, including ourselves and our families and the wealthy, and, especially those who are last, who are outside, the women, the children, disabled, mentally haunted, chronically ill, poor. That’s grace. Thanks be to God.