As 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?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You 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.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 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.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus 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, who 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Two questions: 1) Why does Jesus say it’s hard for those who have wealth to enter God’s kingdom? 2) Do we take it seriously?
The second question is easier than the first: over the course of history, we haven’t taken Jesus at his word. Rather, we’ve typically “spiritualized” this passage so as to not take it seriously. One interpretive strategy that dates back at least to the middle ages suggests that there is a door into Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle” that was so small camels had to be first unpacked off all they were carrying before they could enter. Similarly, this interpretation runs, we must unburden ourselves of all that might be keeping us from entering the kingdom – greed, worry, envy, resentment, and so forth. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Trouble is, there is no gate like that into Jerusalem and Jesus was not speaking in metaphors.
A second strategy, particularly popular with Lutherans, is to say that Jesus was intentionally making a demand that no one could meet so as to make it clear to us that we cannot on our own keep the law and in this way drive us to God’s grace. While Jesus’ words may, indeed, have that effect, I don’t think Jesus was inventing impossible commandments in order to teach us that we are justified by grace.
So like it or not, I think Jesus means it. I think wealth insulates us from our need. The wealthier we are, the more protected we feel from our vulnerability and the less dependent we are on God. There’s a reason that Christianity flourishes in countries that experience poverty and it’s not that the folks living there are less educated. Rather, it’s that their need, their vulnerability, their mortality and, consequently, their absolute dependence on God is so unavoidably transparent. Wealth isn’t the only thing that can create an illusion of absolute independence and invulnerability, of course, but it is one of the chief ones. And those with little are therefore less likely to be fooled by the false security wealth promises.
One more thought: Can it be an accident that immediately before this scene Jesus scoops up little children – and, as we saw, perhaps diseased little children at that – and says that we should be like them if we want to enter the kingdom? In both that story and story one, it seems that the only requirement for entrance into the kingdom is knowledge of your absolute vulnerability and profound need.
So what if Jesus means it? What if it really is harder to enter the kingdom of God when you are wealthy? What if the only ones who enter God’s kingdom are the ones who, quite frankly, want to, even need to, because they have nothing else with which to secure their hopes? What then?
Prayer: Dear God, remind us daily of our need for you and for each other that we may seek you and care for one other in gratitude and hope. In Jesus’ name, Amen.