Proper 23, October 14, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home
I have often talked about the grand mystery that is the Revised Common Lectionary. Today’s readings sparked no less a thread of thought for me upon a first glance. Why it amused me, and why I sometimes wonder about the people who intentionally set the RCL is that all too often we seem to be challenged by Gospel readings that make a particular season or feast day more complicated. Or maybe that is exactly what we need when we approach biblical study. This is the Autumn, and in most Episcopal churches especially, now that ‘home coming’ or ‘Rally Sunday’ to kick off the program year has passed we often turn our attention to stewardship. So what better to do with Gospel readings than toss in this passage! But then again, I think this does have a lot to offer us in reflections on stewardship, and of course on discipleship as a whole.
Let me first tell another story. There are many accounts of the experiences of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Wise and dedicated Christians in the early Church who withdrew into the deserts to pray and meditate. They wanted to be away from society, from comfort, from the annoyance of people coming to them for advice. So naturally after becoming hermits in the desert, small communities sprung up around them so people could seek their counsel on spiritual matters. One particular story has been told in Christian traditions for centuries, and it goes like this:
Abba (which means Father) Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
This story is very similar to the encounter in the Gospel lesson today. Jesus is approached by a man who wants to know the key to Heaven. After responding with commandments, which I don’t necessarily think is meant to dismiss the guy, but certainly seems like a rote answer; Jesus then drops the unreachable challenge for this particular person. Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. The man was shocked and went away grieving. That’s quite a response. This man goes away thinking he might not be able to attain this. Much like Abba Lot, more has been asked of him than he believes can ever be done. Living into the reality of God, the Presence of the Divine always seems like more than we can achieve ourselves. Jesus affirms this as he continues talking to the disciples. He tells them how hard entering the Kingdom of God is, especially for a rich person, because that particular persona is one who is expected to be holding on tightly to this broken world we all inhabit.
Now this might be a good time to pause and completely dismantle a very popular myth. (because when isn’t?) There is no evidence of a gate called the ‘needle gate’ in Jerusalem. Often this is referenced as meaning a camel can still get through, just stripped of its packs and on its knees. A popular image especially in Prosperity Gospel followings trying to harmonize their teaching with the Gospel. Sorry. The truth is this is Jesus at his hyperbolic best. Not everything Jesus says is meant to be taken literally and not everything Jesus says is meant to be taken as hyperbole. It’s almost as if he’s talking as any human does, using a blend of both. Jesus is extremely exaggerating here. I’d like to think there was some nervous laughter from the disciples when Jesus says this, while they wonder if he is exaggerating on such a ridiculous level or whether they just found out that entering into Heaven is more impossible than they realize.
But the truth behind what Jesus is saying is found in the subtleties of this narrative. How many of you noticed what it says about Jesus right before he tells the rich man how to enter the Kingdom? “Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said…” Jesus, the incarnate God, loved this human who has its own failings, its own struggles, its own reasons for feeling like the Kingdom is just out of reach. Jesus loved him. That right there points us to a great truth in all of this. This passage isn’t really about whether money is good or evil, whether it is more of a blessing to be rich or to give all your riches away, this passage is about understanding the kingdom of God to be a way of life that is more difficult than you can achieve by yourself. That living the kingdom values requires you to let go of attachment to the ‘stuff’ of life. Now there are plenty of times Jesus talks about giving of your first fruits and tithing as a religious practice. It was something the Jews did and was carried into the earliest Christian communities. We’ll definitely have more to talk about regarding that as our own community’s time to reflect on stewardship and pledging for the year begins later this month.
This passage is really about our frailty as humans and our inability to reach the Kingdom of God by our own hand. Jesus doesn’t call after the man who leaves grieving to remind him that he isn’t going to Heaven. Jesus doesn’t say that to God it’s impossible to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. When the disciples clearly think Jesus has ruled out so many from the Kingdom and ask ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” As Christians we believe there are ways in which you should live. We believe there are rules or guides or sometimes signposts to what sort of life one should strive for. We don’t all agree on every piece of it, and that’s because we all have our own struggles. We all have the ‘stuff’ that we need to struggle to let go of. We all have reasons that make us just as difficult to fit through the eye of a needle than the metaphorical camel. It is our duty and our joy as Christians to walk a very different life than the rest of the world though. We are called to a path that is not popular with the consumerist individualistic masses. We are stilled called to strive for a perfect life we know we cannot attain by ourselves. We also know that God will not abandon us, that God will not turn us away even if we are imperfect.
This passage ends not like some other difficult sayings of Jesus about sheep and goats, or wheat and chaff, but with a clear indicator that while for the rich man it will be impossible to enter the Kingdom of God by himself, it is not impossible with God. Jesus does not end by saying ‘for damned are the rich and they shall be cast into the darkness.” What Jesus says makes all the difference and points to an understanding of the Kingdom of God that really shows through God all things are possible. So Peter of course first pipes up to assure Jesus the disciples have given up everything and look how much better they are! Jesus assures him, again I imagine a very parental ‘yes I know you’re doing your best’ tone of voice. What Jesus says at the end is, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Those words could easily be an entirely different sermon, so I’ll save pulling it all apart for another time. The point I want to make about this statement is you have to be there to be first or last. Jesus doesn’t say ‘those that are first will never make it to the Kingdom of God’, but rather that they will be last. Last still means you get there. Trust me, I’ve been to Disneyland. You might be in line for a LONG time, but you’re still getting in.
Jesus doesn’t exclude the rich man, or anyone else for that matter, from the Kingdom of God. Jesus acknowledges that all things are possible with God, even when it seems absurdly impossible, which includes the salvation of so many we may or may not doubt are worthy. We are all saved. Everyone is invited into the Kingdom of God, and the salvific acts of Jesus Christ are not bound to just those who pray special prayers or those that have merits for sunday school attendance. It is for everyone. The Christian life, following Christ is the work we do to maintain and improve our relationship with God and with those around us. That is the root of our faith. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. You don’t have to worry about the end because God has figured that out. What you need to focus on is living a life that reflects the values of the Kingdom, of not hiding your light under a bushel, and in by your witness helping to spread the good news of the Kingdom at hand. What is it that Jesus would invite you to let go of to enter the Kingdom? Ponder that in your hearts and offer it up to the God that created you and loves you more than you can ever comprehend.