As Jesus 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?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You 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; Honour your father and mother.” ’ 20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, 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.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 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!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29Jesus 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, 30who 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. 31But many who are first will be last and the last will be first.’
Today’s Gospel reading must be one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament. And it’s interesting that most people in our culture, reading this story, instinctively identify themselves with the rich man, told to sell all his possessions, rather than the poor who stand in line to receive them.
It’s quite revealing, that, isn’t it? We probably don’t think of ourselves as rich most of the time, yet faced with this teaching of Jesus, our mind quickly and naturally turns to our ‘many possessions’. He’s not after mine is he? I wonder whether we would react differently if, instead, we instinctively identified ourselves with the ‘poor’.
And it is equally interesting to me that most of the sermons I have heard on this passage have tried to explain it away. You may, for example, have heard someone explain that the ‘Eye of the Needle’ was not a literal needle, it was a gate in Jerusalem that was very tight for a camel to pass through. It was a bit of a squeeze, but not impossible. The only trouble is – there was no gate in Jerusalem called the ‘Eye of the Needle’. It’s a complete myth. And I’ve heard convoluted ideas about optical illusions and explanations that needle eyes were significantly bigger in Roman times. Yes, they were, but not big enough for a flippin’ camel!
These are just some of the ways in which preachers have tried to wriggle out of this difficult teaching. They spiritualise it, they dismiss it as impractical, or they just make up downright stories to explain it away. Surely Jesus can’t have meant this literally?
And yet, one of the most inspiring Christians of all time did take his teaching literally. Francis of Assisi, a very rich young man, heard that command of Christ and took it absolutely literally. He stood on the street corner and gave away everything he owned to the poor and took a vow never to own property again. And he discovered such happiness in doing so that people thought he had gone out of his mind. And yet he was, genuinely, blissfully happy and inspired other rich young men to follow his example. And they too found themselves blissfully happy in a way they never were in all their worldly riches.
And I was greatly influenced by their example as I wrestled with God’s call to give up the legal career I had worked so hard for and to enter the ‘abject poverty’ of the Church. Of course, I’ve found I’m not at all poor, but at the time it felt like a big sacrifice. And in my case, whilst I did find something of Francis’ joy, I also found myself becoming even more anxious and possessive over what I had left. So I too need to be challenged afresh by today’s teaching.
So what is going on here? Well, in order to understand it, we need to remember what’s going on in the story. Jesus is on his final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, following the traditional pilgrim route down the Jordan.
And why is he doing that? He’s going to claim his kingdom. We, of course, know that that kingdom will be claimed through the Cross, but those following Jesus at this point don’t know that. They’re expecting him to throw over the Romans and their puppet Jewish King, Herod. And more than that, they are expecting the return of Jewish rule in the Promised Land. For the last 500 years, they’ve been under pagan rule, but they’re expecting God to send them a king who will restore his rule once more, so that once again, the land of Israel will become God’s kingdom, the kingdom of God or, to put it another way, the kingdom of heaven.
Because, you see, to be a Jew at the time of Jesus was to see heaven, not as the afterlife, but the state of Israel as it is transformed when it is back under God’s rule, with a Jewish king and Jewish laws and no foreign pollution. That’s what they think Jesus is going to restore.
And one of the best ways to show your faith in God’s promises, was to own part of the Promised Land. If you were rich, if you owned a piece of the land, you literally had an inheritance in heaven. So to the minds of most people in Jesus’ time, the rich were the most blessed of all. They actually owned the land where the kingdom of heaven was to be established. They were first in the queue.
And this young man who approached Jesus in today’s reading was very excited. He saw that plan about to come to fruition. And he wanted to make sure that his investment would reap the return he had hoped for. So he approaches the king-in-waiting and he asks him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And he isn’t talking here about what happens after he dies. The Greek phrase we translate as ‘eternal life’ literally means ‘life of the age’, the life of the era of God’s kingdom. He means, “What must I do, to ensure that I am part of your kingdom?”
And to begin with, it all goes really well. Aside from a little rebuff when Jesus reminds him that ‘only God is good’, Jesus tells him to obey the Jewish law. “No problem!” says the man, “I’ve kept that since I was a boy!”
And Jesus looks pleased. And replies, “You lack only one thing.” Only one thing! This is so exciting! He’s so close. What will be it be Jesus. I’ve done all the hard stuff, just tell me what that one little thing is!
“Go, sell everything you own, and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me.”
“What? No! That can’t be right. That’s not ‘one thing’, that’s everything. This can’t be right. This man can’t be the king we were expecting. What a disappointment.” And off he goes grieving. He never even seems to have heard Jesus say “and you will have treasure in heaven”.
And everyone is shocked, not just the rich man. “Hang on,” say the disciples, “if the rich can’t get in, who can?” They’re the ones at the front of the queue, what happens to the rest of us?
And Jesus is very clear about it: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” He is turning the understanding of heaven on its head. Who then can be saved? “For mortals it is impossible”. Not just a squeeze, not just an optical illusion, not just difficult, but impossible. Camels cannot, under any circumstances, pass through the eyes of needles. That is the point.
Nothing in this world can get us into his kingdom. The values are totally different. And if we’re rich in this world, we can’t be rich in his. If we’re content to set our hearts on the flimsy, treacherous trinkets of this world, we can never access the treasure of Jesus’s kingdom. But let’s not, like the young man, just walk away and miss half of what Jesus is saying here.
Firstly, it is not that the physical things of this world do not matter. They absolutely do. Jesus doesn’t want the rich man to destroy his possessions. He wants him to give them to the poor. We rich people read this as Jesus wanting to make us poor, but this is not about poverty. It’s about the end of poverty. The riches of this physical world are for sharing, they are for everyone. Those who have received much are to give all the more abundantly. “Freely you have received, freely give” – that’s the ethic of Jesus’ kingdom. If you’re rich, thank God for that and use your gifts to throw a party in God’s kingdom, setting the captives free and making everyone rich!
The rich, having benefited from God’s generosity are to show that same generosity. And one of the many paradoxes of Jesus’s kingdom is that it is in giving that we are made rich. Give it away “and you will have treasure…in heaven.” Not just in the afterlife either, because Jesus’s kingdom becomes a reality whenever his teaching is obeyed. You can experience that treasure right now: a hundredfold in this life – and forever.
Secondly, salvation is impossible with mortals…but with God all things are possible. It’s so easy to think like the rich young man. He had his front row seat reserved with his little plot of the Promised Land. Now, he could just sit back and wait for God to rock up and hey presto – Heaven! And we’re not so different. It’s not so long since that people would literally buy their seats in God’s house – a rented pew for your family for life and a plot in the churchyard for the afterlife and hey presto – Heaven! And even today, “I’ve been a vicar all these years, overworked and underpaid, putting up with everyone’s grumbles, working through my day off. I’d better have a lot of treasure in heaven to make up for this!” And if I find myself thinking like that, I wouldn’t put it past you lot either. “I’ve done my time as Churchwarden!” “I’ve been to church, when I could have been out enjoying myself.” Ring any bells?
So easy to fall into that mind-set, but none of that earns us our place in heaven. That very way of thinking is what keeps heaven out! But for God, all things are possible. It’s what Hebrews is talking about in our first reading. It’s not what we’ve done, but what Jesus has done. His kingdom is established by the cross, because that’s how he destroyed our sin. And it’s his forgiveness which restored our lives. And because of his forgiveness, not our own merits, we can approach God’s throne; we can enter his kingdom.
We can only receive heaven as a gift from God, with gratitude and joy. But we can’t receive it and cling on to the things of this world. We’ve got to leave that behind, the lot of it: every worldly ambition, the whole mindset that says I can be happy if only I have this possession, this experience, this person, this status, this achievement. None of that is worth having. Give all that up and follow Jesus and we will have the true treasure, the treasure of heaven. This is not a teaching about becoming poor. It is a teaching on how to become immeasurably rich.
So let’s not go away grieving, especially when we are so close. We lack only one thing. Let’s throw away the things that keep us from God’s kingdom, whether they be possessions or time spent on other things that distract us from God’s kingdom. Let’s vow that the richer we are, the more we will give. Let’s give everything we have to God’s kingdom and join God’s incredible party, receive the treasures of his kingdom, make many rich and experience the deep joy that only God can bring. Come, follow Jesus, and you will have treasure, the treasure of heaven, right now and for eternal life.
Preached: – Cliburn (joint) 14 October 2018