21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23: October 14, 2018
Today’s Gospel reading presents one of the places in Scripture where many people feel that Jesus has gone from preaching and teaching to meddling. This is because we find Jesus is taking head on the issue of our money. For most people that can feel like meddling, because our money is one of the most closely guarded, personal and sometimes secretive part of our life. Whereas money, in itself, is morally neutral, for a Christian it is to be used first for the building of the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, issues of money can be so consuming that it takes on a power all its own and demands our obedience. That is what Jesus is addressing here.
The rich man has come to Jesus with a curious question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We discover the man is apparently a person of great moral integrity – keeping the commandments since he was a boy. But Jesus, sensing a disconnect in the man’s life, shows his love by telling him he must sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. His response is one of shock and he goes away grieving, for he was a man of many possessions.
Then come those words familiar to most of us: “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.” Perhaps as you, I have heard many explanations over the years as to what those images refer, but the point is this – it is nearly impossible for a rich person to get into heaven. You might respond, phew! I’m off the hook! Do remember, however, that if you own a house, even with a mortgage, you are wealthier than 95% of the world. If you own one car you are more wealthy than 82% of the world. We are the rich! This is about most if not all us and Jesus has gotten to meddling.
At least two questions now arise for me. Why does Jesus talk so much about money? Except for the Kingdom of God, the topic Jesus addresses more than anything else is the topic of money, our treasure. Second, if it is impossible for a rich person, you and me, to enter the Kingdom of God, then as the disciples said, “who can be saved?”
To the first question as to why Jesus talks so much about money, the answer goes back to how money gains a power all its own. Jesus recognizes in the rich man of today’s reading and in humanity, that money is God’s chief rival. Money and possessions, more than anything else, has the power to supplant the place of God in our lives, our time and our energy. We sometimes organize our life around it. It demands our attention. That’s why money is a spiritual issue for Christians and always will be. It can take a place of ultimate importance, demanding obeisance only properly due to God. As such an idol it can command more attention from us than we give to God and our discipleship.
A response to the second question regarding the impossibility of a rich person entering the Kingdom is a bit more complicated. So let me tell you about a rich person I knew who, in my limited perspective, seemed to be in right-relationship with her treasure.
I met Rebecca in the summer of 1979 when I was serving in a parish as a seminary intern. She was the daughter of a man who had the one industry in a small rural Maryland town. When I met her she was in her mid-60’s and had a solid eight figure portfolio. She spent every working day tutoring reading in the inner city of Baltimore.
Her housekeeper was one of her best friends. Almost every Thursday, after she would return from a day of teaching for a salary of $1.00/year (giving the rest to the PTA), she and the housekeeper would go out to dinner and then the Baltimore Symphony. Rebecca would support everything she could, including her parish, and her dinner parties were known as the most racially, socially, and culturally mixed occasions one could imagine. She often wore a favorite wool skirt purchased in 1946. At her funeral in 1982, hundreds attended across the political, racial, generational (many children were there) and socio-economic spectrum. For me it was a vision of the inclusivity of the Kingdom itself.
Her last act of ministry of which we know the day before she died, this rich woman picked through an entire school day’s garbage until she found a pair of eyeglasses a child had left on a lunch tray. Rebecca incarnated what Jesus is pointing to in the Gospel. It is not about what she did, not her behavior or good works that gains her the Kingdom. If you asked her why she conducted her life in this manner, she would have said to you, “Because I love Jesus.” You see, all stewardship of our life, including our financial stewardship, flows from discipleship and becomes an act of worship. It is not a deadly legalism of “oughts and shoulds.” It is about our time on the earth being a joyful response in thanksgiving for the gift of new life in Christ.
That’s what Jesus, out of his love for him, was challenging in the rich man. He wanted him to see that his possessions had begun to possess him. It is why we bring our gifts to the altar, as an act of honoring God with our substance. It is to be our best, our first fruits, before anything else, and indeed is one way we disarm the power of money over us. The issue here of course is not the amount, but the faithfulness with which it is given in order to glorify God in all things.
Jesus was looking to set the rich man free and yes, seeks to set us free, leading us to a new relationship with our possessions and therefore a new relationship with God and each other. It’s all impossible of course, except that, “For God, all things are possible.”
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.