Why is it that the rich will not come into God’s kingdom?
This morning’s lessons are hard for us. Amos thunders on about how the rich abuse the poor, and how God’s response to that is pretty graphic: “you will build houses but not live in them; you will plant vineyards but not eat from them.” The vineyards give us a clue – it takes 3 years before you can expect a good yield from a vineyard. The first year you do not take the grapes off of the vine at all. The second year you have a puny harvest. Generally, if there has been enough rain and so on, by the third year you get a decent harvest, and by the fifth year, you really know what will come each year from this vineyard. Amos says that God says, you don’t have that much time, not even three years. Whoa!
Then we go to the gospel reading, and it’s not any better. A man comes to Jesus, kneels in front of him, that is, acknowledging him as a master, and asks his question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus says, follow the commandments. The man says, but I have done all of that! Clearly, the man knows that it is not enough. At that point something shifts. Jesus looks at him. And then it says, Jesus loved him.
Have you ever had that happen? Have you suddenly seen a person or situation and had your feeling change from neutral to something else? I have, both directions. I have been going along sort of unconscious, not paying attention to what has been going on, and suddenly something catches my eye, and I am outraged, or I am enamored. I am not in that unengaged, neutral place any more. It is like when a kid suddenly realizes that there are children that don’t have shoes, or enough food to eat, in their own town. Two things happen. The first is that movement from being unaware, and therefore unengaged, to being aware and outraged. The second is the desire to do something to help.
[pullquoteleft]And now the man is in real trouble, because he really wants to inherit eternal life, and he cannot do what it takes. It is a very big shock. He will think about this for a very long time.[/pullquoteleft]We see that in Jesus. Yet another person comes asking for his blessing. So many people ask, and he gives his blessing. But then this man comes and pushes for a real answer, and Jesus blinks and says oh, you really want to know! In that moment, it says, Jesus loved him. And then he gives the terrible answer that the man, and we, cannot deal with, sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow me.
And now the man is in real trouble, because he really wants to inherit eternal life, and he cannot do what it takes. It is a very big shock. He will think about this for a very long time.
The disciples are shocked and perplexed as well. They simply cannot understand. They have been taught that people are rich because God has shown favor to them. As usual, Jesus has turned everything on its head. Blessed are the poor, he says, they will inherit the kingdom of God, not the rich. And we, my friends, are rich.
So how do we deal with this? Why is it that the rich will not come into God’s kingdom? The first thing we have to do with this I think is to look at how we measure success. How do we measure wealth? I heard someone just the other day say that you can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have your health, the money doesn’t count. We know that’s true, don’t we? So health is worth more than money. Right there we start taking money off of the throne, which is a good thing. Another thing that is worth more to me than money is relationships. They call it “social capital,” and they are right. Having good relationships means a lot, a whole lot. Some societies talk about wealth in terms of how much you give away – not how much you can give, but how much you do give. It is bad in those societies to have more than your neighbor, because that means you have not given enough away. Very different than our society, isn’t it?
Another important piece in trying to make sense of all of this comes from Hebrews. Just a quick note on Hebrews. It is a very interesting and different “letter” in the lineup of the Epistles. It is fundamentally a book of theology, that is, it walks us through how to think about Jesus and God, rather than a book about how to behave as a Christian, which a lot of the other ones talk about. Romans is another book of theology. It was written by Paul. Hebrews was not, and there is some question as to whether it was written by a woman. But what is here in this particular passage for us to consider? The notion of confession.
[pullquoteright]When we do not acknowledge that we have done wrong, things get stuck, life does not go on, and there is a little death.[/pullquoteright]Confession has gotten a bad rap in our society. It really is a fundamental path to healing. When you have done something wrong and you can say, I was wrong and I’m sorry for what I did, it allows things to change, it allows life to go on. When we do not acknowledge that we have done wrong, things get stuck, life does not go on, and there is a little death.
Back to the readings. Another “saying” of Jesus pops out here, which I find incredibly helpful. With God, all things are possible. Never mind that it is not possible for mere mortals. With God, all things are possible. If I acknowledge that with God, all things are possible, then I do not have to worry, because, with God, all things are possible. That sounds circular, but it is true if you follow it. If I worry, then I am saying that I do not think that God will take care of things, especially the things that I am concerned about.
Now it is also true that God may decide to do things differently that we think they should be done! Well, yes. So we put our petitions before God, and then the question stands: Do you believe that having this happen is possible? And then, are you willing to leave it up to God as to whether this is the best thing for right now?
These are huge questions. They can provide incredibly helpful guidance for us day to day, if we will let them. How does this work?
So perhaps you need a new job – and the economy is awful and you have no job skills. I will challenge you first to look at what you want to do, as though the economy were just fine. If there were several jobs to choose from, what parts are the ones that appeal. Then, you claim this belief that with God, all things are possible. Then you get back to doing whatever you need to do right that minute, leaving it up to God as to how this is all going to happen.
This brings up another important saying, in all things God works for good. This is another critical theological statement. Do we believe it? In ALL things? Yes, even when things are the most horrendous, God is still there, loving us, and urging us to love each other, working behind the scenes. If we believe this, then we will be in gratitude. Funny thing happens when we live in gratitude, it’s like we suddenly start swimming with the current, life is not perfect, but it is easier, we meet the exact people we need to finish a project, the tools we expected to find weren’t there, but someone else had some that were even better, and so it goes. It’s a nice way to live.
And it’s a conscious way to live, being aware of what and who is around us, who needs our help, what we can do to help, and when we get to the end of what we can do, then we turn to God, say, it’s your turn now, and let go of it! Not an easy thing to do, but critical.[pullquoteleft]Even when things are the most horrendous, God is still there, loving us, and urging us to love each other, working behind the scenes. If we believe this, then we will be in gratitude[/pullquoteleft]
So here we are, following this itinerant rabbi, amazing guy, says really outrageous things sometimes but we keep following because he seems to make more sense than anyone we’ve ever heard before, and now he says, let go. Let go of your things, don’t hold them so tightly. Let go of your assumptions about what is important to God. The commandments, yes, they are important, but the rest of it? The best way to understand what we should do comes from St Augustine, with whom I do not often agree. He said, “love God and do as you please.” And the man kneeling in front of Jesus says, yes, I have followed the commandments, I do love God! And Jesus says back to him, and to us, look at what you hold tightly. Is it really more important than entering into the love of God?
I am reminded of the woman in the nursing home in Atlanta. She was telling me about her house, and all of the things in it still sitting there. Shaking her head, she said, I kept all of these things for the kids, and now they don’t want them. I should have gotten rid of them years ago. These things weigh us down. They keep us from responding to God’s urgings.
This week, think about what is really, really important to you. Pay attention to those things. Are the things that you want to be important in your life? Sometimes when we do this exercise, we realize that things that used to be important aren’t any more. When I studied religions in India, one of the things they talked about was phases of life, and it was clear that what is important in one phase of life may well be totally unimportant in the next. But we have to be conscious, to be aware that oh, now that I am here, in this phase of life, what is important? And we challenge ourselves to believe that God will be there with us, and therefore, we do not need to worry, about anything! That is good news!
Our Readings Today
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