God Doesn't Want Our Money
One of the well-known interpretations of today's scripture passage usually relies upon the notion that the Needle's Eye was a passageway into Jerusalem. "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…" We spoke of it in a Bible study at Community Church this past Tuesday. And I sat there and said, "You know, I have heard that too. That's one possible interpretation."
Now, however, I want to step back from that.
No archaeologist has been able to confirm such a gateway ever existed. And no scriptural interpreter has ever made that idea stick…well, that's not entirely true now is it? Suffice it to say that the idea is not consistent with the reaction of the disciples. Why were the disciples upset? Why would they say "But how is this possible?!" if all they need to do is unload a camel a little bit in order to get into the holy city of Jerusalem? That's not too hard now is it?
Unless of course there is no passage called "The Needle's Eye." Unless there is no simple unloading of a little extra from a camel's back. There is no easy way in…or out…of this quandary as the case may be.
This is one of those times when Jesus means a literal needle and a literal camel. Brothers and sisters…Jesus is suggesting that we all have to unload everything otherwise entering the Kingdom is impossible. Even our riches must be given up…given to the poor.
But I want to push things around a little today,
and say that God doesn't want our money.
A wealthy man walks up to Jesus and says, "You know. I am a pretty good guy. I follow the rules and pay my taxes. I don't speed. I keep my nose clean. I follow the commandments. What is next?"
We've heard the answer already this morning. We know where this goes. Jesus says, "That's all well and good, but there is one thing more that you must do. Give all your money, all your riches, to the poor...and follow me."
This is such a hard saying that someone seemingly willing to follow Jesus, someone upright and good and moral, turns around and walks away. He cannot even begin to do what Jesus asks.
What, specifically, is so hard about this? Why is it that the disciples, upon hearing this themselves say "Holy cow! You must be kidding, right?"
And if that were not enough, Jesus goes on. "Not only do you have to give up your riches, but your family...your friends, where you live...all of it…And follow me."
"With this the disciples were not comforted."
God does not want our money. No. God wants more than that.
10:20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these [commandments] since my youth."
10:21 Jesus, 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."
In Matthew's telling of this story, the dialogue focuses upon what it takes to be perfect. "If you wish to be perfect…sell what you own." But in Mark's Gospel, there is something that the rich man lacks. The man is lacking. This is an interesting understanding of having too much. In this case, what the man possesses is symptomatic of a lacking of something else.
What if the man did not go away because he was upset about giving up his stuff? What if he really wanted to give it all up and follow an itinerant preacher around the countryside but his obligations to family and friendships, to business partners and property were all so great that he simply could not abandon ship and follow Jesus? I think that it is possible to read the scripture this way. His attachment is not about greed. No. It is about obligation and the burdens that we all bear…
the things that possess us, good or ill.
Whether he knew it or not, the rich man was being invited to let go of his burden…that thing that would keep him from God.
He lacked freedom.
Is it possible that our wealth, individual or shared, is a burden to us? Some of us have debts…and expectations, things we must have tremendous income in order to achieve…like a good education or topnotch medical care. Perhaps it is a nation's need for more and more resources to sustain its infrastructure. Maybe this is what we are being asked to give up, to change about our lives, and within ourselves.
I keep thinking of this in terms of the realigning of our social institutions that keep systems of "purchase power status" alive. No one escapes this system. The disciples recognize this, I think. And thus they proclaim the impossibility of it all.
And that is why we must pray for an act of God. But are we ready for that act of God to come through us?
God knows that we are stuck. God knows that we have an increasingly expensive educational system. Those of you who are sending your children to college know this. Those of us who will be paying college loans until we are in our fifties know this.
God also knows we have an increasingly burdensome health care system.
God knows about our dependence upon foreign oil…and everything else.
God knows about systems of wealth and poverty and how our political systems manage and manifest these economics.
God knows that wealth greases the wheels of the world. This is not some secret we keep from God.
But it is impossible. "Then who can be saved?" ask the disciples.
God does not want our money. As impossible as that is on its own, in some ways, that would be too easy. God wants our lives. So, those of you who thought you might escape this judgment earlier because you think you are not particularly wealthy are not off the hook. The same call rests upon all of us. No one escapes the difficulty of today's gospel lesson.
Your children are guests in your home.
Your parents belong to God.
Your spouse is not your own…but Christ's.
Your house is God's.
Your land is God's.
All you are and all you have is God's.
I met a pastor at Richmond Hill named Jim. He was angry at God.
He had recently discovered that his wife did not belong to him. Not in the classic sense of a man's property, but in the sense of vocation. Jim knew God had a plan for him, was leading him somewhere in particular…in this case, into a doctoral program. And the competing responsibilities of family and his vocation were an incredible burden.
But one day it occurred to him that God had such a call upon his wife as well. Perhaps it is easy to see for us, but in that moment Jim realized that his wife was God's first and foremost. That she was on loan to Jim…as a gift. And God had a plan for her life as well.
At first Jim was angry. He was afraid and could not trust God to care for his wife. But eventually Jim was glad…more grateful than he could express because this knowledge lifted a burden. God was taking care of his wife, his family.
But like the rich man, this does not mean that Jim can sit back and let God do whatever is necessary and neglect his marriage. No. Like the rich man, Jim must become an active part of God's work in the world. This is what it means to follow Jesus.
But can we see that this is very good news? By giving up all we are and all we have to God…God will return it one hundred fold.
To seek perfection (the idea from Matthew) is to overcome the inability to follow God completely - which is salvation – that thing the rich man is lacking.
Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun explains it in her book about the Benedictine Rule in this way:
"Be honest about what you are and you will come to know God." [The Rule] says, "If you recognize the presence of God in life, you will soon become more and more perfect." But this perfection is not the twentieth-century sense of impeccability. This perfection is in the Biblical sense of having matured, ripened, and become whole. (p. 74 The Rule of Benedict)
This is Matthews's perfection and it is Mark's salvation.
You see, salvation is a journey. But it is a no holds barred rigorous journey that demands humility, obedience to God's call to follow and compassion. In the end, it is only God that can save us. We cannot do it ourselves. And we are all in that same bind…some ready to hear and follow, and some not yet ready to let go of our burdens…to "let go and let God" as the saying goes.
And God does want to save us from our burdens…from the things that would keep us from following Christ. God wants to shoulder these burdens for us and to turn the world around.
Jesus, looking at [the man], loved him…
Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible,
but not for God; for God all things are possible."
God looks on us with love. God desires nothing else but our salvation. All the things that are burdensome in life…even our wealth, can be turned over to Christ. God is able to anything. And all things God does are for our benefit…to the end purpose of bringing about wholeness for all…to release us from our burdens.
God does not leave us comfortless...No. We have a hundredfold promise. But God does not leave us to our own comforts either.
Our actions, our goodness cannot save us. There is nothing that we have that can save us. Nothing that we have belongs to us...not our friend, or our family…not our wealth or our influence. It is God who will bring us to perfection. It is God who will work miracles with our hearts to open us up to the world so we too can give all we have like the disciples.
The passage is incredibly challenging. It is impolite. I find it frightening and even a little cruel.
It is, well, impossible.
Except through God, all things are possible...the care of our families and our obligations in a godly way, a generous way, a compassionate way that purposes who we are and what we have to the word of God's Kingdom in this world. This is possible. And we can have faith in this promise.
Just like God wanted to free Jim from the burden of his marriage and allow him to receive his marriage as a gift.
This is freedom.
But that freedom (of perfection...salvation) does not come without our willingness to turn all things over to God, to follow Christ by giving away our family, our friends, our worldly assurances and our riches. We do not sit and wait for God to do the impossible. An incarnational faith recognizes that we are instruments of this Godly desire.
In many ways we are already about this work. Through our ministries here we are engaged in this saving work…this ongoing perfecting of ourselves and the world.
We have the Social Justics committe, our Bible study, our invokvement with Sarah's Circle and finally our worship life together.
But all this, as great as it is, according to Mark this morning, is only the tip of the iceberg.
We are never done being saved…seeking perfection, or receiving what we lack from God. It is a journey after all.
The work of the Kingdom is an ever-present comfort and challenge.
God doesn't want our money. God wants our salvation.
May God bless us as we try to live into this hard word. May he return to us blessings one hundred fold. And may we find the freedom to follow Christ…this day and every day.