I’ve been thinking a lot about the lectionary text from this past Sunday, Mark 10:17-31. [This may be because it’s the chosen text at our non-lectionary church for This Coming Sunday. Brainsplosion, I know.]
This is one of those stories that we hear every three years and it always hurts a little bit. The well-to-do man comes up to Jesus and says, “I’ve done everything right! Now, how can I be sure that I’ll get into heaven?”
Jesus says, “Sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” Of course, this man is not particularly happy about that, and goes away grieving.
This time around, when I heard this story I heard something slightly different than what I usually hear. The exchange at the end of the story, between Jesus and his disciples, stood out to me more. It’s that famous, camels through the eye of a needle schtick:
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.”
So I’m confused here–why do the disciples think this is so impossible? Why do they equate being rich with being able to enter the kingdom of God in the first place? Many of the disciples weren’t rich by any means, so why do they think they should be?
I wonder how much it cost to live a godly life in ancient times. I wonder how much investment of time and riches it took to be able to live up to the law. I wonder how clear it was–even to the disciples of Jesus the Christ–that only people with money could afford to live life in the way God asked them to: fulfilling the correct sacrifices, eating the correct food, making time for the correct prayers, offering children the correct opportunities. How much money did it take to attain ritual purity?
Perhaps this man ran away grieving not because he didn’t want to give everything up, but because he couldn’t imagine God still loving him if he didn’t have the means to remain ritually pure.
How could the disciples imagine a poor person living up to all these rules? Perhaps they followed Jesus out of desperation–knowing their whole life that they could never truly make it as a person that God could truly love.
Two thousand years later, we usually look down at those early days of the Jesus movement, and say how strange and foreign that religion was–how significantly Christianity changed the rules of God’s favor. How drastically different we are now, and how much more enlightened we are, to say that the kingdom of God is available to the poor.
We’re not that far off, though, from those disciples who are astounded.
We’re not that far off from people who can’t quite fathom that money is necessary for salvation.
And goodness gracious, we’d never say it like that, but think about it for a second:
What does it take to live a good life in modern day America? When we think about what it takes to Know God, how much of that is wrapped up in one’s means?
Perhaps we take good care of our families, we go to church, we volunteer, we give 10% to the poor. Perhaps we invest in a social-justice oriented education, or spend a year of our young adulthood serving in Americorps. Maybe we visit foreign countries to gain perspective. Perhaps we live lives devoid of violence, lives always seeking to turn the other cheek, lives where we never go hungry. Maybe we struggle with depression and anxiety, and we are able to get help.
And how much does it all cost? How has our richness been the foreground of our ability to follow God’s commandments?
Think for a moment about the gang banger in Chicago, whose whole life, all day every day, has been violence. Think for a moment about the raving wild man on the street corner, whose schizophrenia has never been treated–think about that while he hurls obscenities and insults at you. It’s not fun, because you probably want to either run away or punch him in the face. The drug addicted mother on her third, broken baby. The racists in backwater towns, flying a confederate flag.
How much has the happenstance of our wealth put us into a position to live a Godly life?
Just like in Jesus’ world, in our world, it is incredibly difficult to live according to the commandments if you are poor.
We don’t outright equate having money to being righteous, but when we try and boil it down: who lives a good life, and who does not–you can bet that those lines have a lot to do with wealth. We like to say that everyone has the opportunity to be good, regardless of wealth, or that everyone has the opportunity to be bad, regardless of wealth, but when we think about who gets sucked into cycles of increasing evil and destruction–who are they? Who might die before they have a chance at redemption? Whose mind has been so colonized that they don’t believe redemption is an option for them?
Perhaps these are the people that the Kingdom of God is truly for.
So, Jesus is turning this up on its head: Jesus is not only telling this man to sell everything he owns–he is also radically altering the concept of the Kingdom of God, not only for his disciples, but across time to us, too.
The Kingdom of God is not for people who live good lives and keep all the commandments. The Kingdom of God is for those who are broken and allow God to put them back together. The Kingdom of God is not for those who have enough resources to follow all the rules.