“How hard it is for the rich 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.” Mark 10:23, 24
The rich, young man’s story is one many of us have heard many times before: an otherwise very good man (he has kept God’s commandments at least) comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer causes him to walk away sad, because he cannot do the one thing Jesus says he lacks. “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” is Jesus’ reply.
In her book, Marking Time: Preaching Biblical Stories in Present Tense, Barbara Lundblad makes the case that as familiar as this story is, we have a hard time seeing ourselves in it- precisely because Jesus’ words hit so close to home. We tend instead to avoid the “elephant in the room”- that Jesus is talking about the problem of money, lots of it. We do this by going down various exegetical rabbit holes, like “this man was a fawning flatterer who wanted to add eternal life to his holdings,” or ”this man’s theology was faulty.” Or, “this man got his wealth through dishonest means,” or “the real issue is faith, not money.”
But at the end of the day, we have to face the fact, Lundblad writes, that this text really is about money. About the fact that when we have lots of money, we find it hard to enter the kingdom of God, so that our poverty in an encounter with God’s grace- and in turn our capacity to receive God’s offer of abundant, unending life- can only extend so far. So that we can at best stand at the periphery of God’s kingdom and gaze on God’s riches with sadness, only to walk away.
Nowadays it is easy to see others in the face of this rich, young man. He is the non-descript Wall Street trader bringing in big bonuses, with little appreciation for the struggles of people like us on Main Street. He is the venture capitalist who will stop at nothing for a big deal, even if it means sacrificing the livelihoods of hundreds of workers struggling to get by at minimum wage. He belongs to the richest, one-percent of Americans, as a billionaire who has amassed a great fortune, while we are in the other 99 percent.
So it is harder to see our own selves in the face of this rich, young man. But there we are, too. Because as Americans we live and breathe in a culture that prizes wealth above all else- so much so that “money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it. Again, Brueggemann, quoted by Lundblad, writes: “Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us…”
The “American dream?” It’s really a dream about money. More of it. Plenty of it. Enough to live “comfortably” at least. And, to the degree that it drives our politics and defines how we understand democratic participation and our identity as Americans, this promise is, I suspect, quintissentially “American.”
When Lundblad wrote her book, the year was 2007. It was before the worst of the recession had hit. Before the housing bubble bust and the huge Wall Street bail-out that left many of us wondering where our tax dollars had gone, staring into the face of a monstrous national deficit. Unchecked greed and the pursuit of excess were arguably at an all-time high. But Lundblad didn’t know then what we know now: that if in 1999 average CEO compensation is 419 times that of the average line worker, according to Graef Crystal, in his book, In Search of Excess, that disparity is only more exaggerated today; that the wealthiest one percent of Americans saw their income rise 275% between 1979 and 2007, while those in the bottom fifth lagged behind with only a 20 percent increase; that according to a report released this week by Senator Tom Coburn’s office, millionaires in this country have been receiving billions in taxpayer-funded support every year for “everything from child care to bad debts to boats and vacation homes” (The Huffington Post).
If we are Americans, we belong to this system. We are part of it. We may not be among the richest of Americans, but we have done our part to contribute to it. To perpetuate the notion that wealth means more. More say. More power. More life. More virtue even. We have told ourselves that “the good life” equals being rich.
Meanwhile, the Majority World lives on less than two dollars a day. Clean, drinking water is in short supply. One solid meal a day can at times be hard to come by. These are living standards that would make just about all of us Americans- even the homeless women I met last night at the local shelter- “rich.”
The other day I took the kids to the Georgia Acquarium. We were all mesmerized by the Giant Pacific octopus. Did you know that octopi have three hearts and their blood is blue? Crazy. And they can live just about anywhere, from tide pools to depths of 2,500 feet.
The thing that I still am marveling at, though, is this: even at a maximum weight of six hundred pounds, one of these octopi can wriggle its way through a hole that is only the size of a quarter. It may take a long while. It may take a few tries. But somehow one of these suckers can cram itself through an opening that small and come out just as alive and wiggly on the other side!
A bit like a camel through “the eye of a needle.” Even if the “eye of the needle” was really a gate. (Another exegetical rabbit hole.) Because what Jesus is saying here is that when we’re rich we have a whole lot more stuff to dispense with in order to experience the riches of God’s kingdom. Riches measured not in terms of dollars but in love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control. Wealth counted not by the rise or fall of a stock index, but in denominations of free, abundant life. Possessions not in the form of a big house and cushy retirement package, but in the assurance of one’s part in God’s mission to redeem all creation.
And insofar as we have enriched ourselves without thinking about how our wealth belongs to God’s mission, we are poor. Poor because we, like the rich, young man recognize our inability to let go of the very thing that keeps us on the periphery of God’s kingdom. That enslaves us in the mindset that we “are” only on the basis of what we “have.”
Can there be any good news here? The disciples weren’t so sure, but I think there is. I think it is when the rich, young man walks away as many of us do in all manner of ways, and Jesus still ”looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Because the same Love that points us in the direction of where the good life really is is also the Love that watches when we walk away from the very thing we need to do in order to enter the kingdom of God. Love like this makes all things possible (Mark 10:27).