Stacey Simpson is a grown woman who vividly remembers the first time the story of Jesus and the rich man cut through to her heart. She was seven years old, propped up on her pillows and reading her children’s Bible in her comfy bed, when she read the account that we just heard from the gospel of Mark. She heard Jesus say, “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.” She shot out of bed, as if from a nightmare, and ran into her parent’s room, where she said, “Mom! Jesus says rich people don’t go to heaven.” Without missing a beat, her mother said, “we’re not rich; go back to bed.” And she did. But Stacey remembers that she did not accept her mother’s assessment: “I knew better,” she says. “I knew that I had all that I needed plus plenty more. The little girl inside me knew that these words of Jesus were clear, and hard, and scary.”
The little person inside you, and me, knows that this is a scary story in a land of abundance, and it is so tempting to close ourselves off to its power. We want to pull up the covers and go back to sleep, because I don’t care what Lewis Carroll says: who really wants to contemplate impossible things?
At first glance, it seems particularly ironic to imagine this scene in the light of our stewardship season and it’s theme: “Joyful encounters.” Somehow I don’t think the rich man’s devastating encounter with Jesus, this scene where he walks away crying, is quite what the stewardship planning team had in mind … And yet. As the author of Hebrews says, the word of God is here with us, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit.” The writer of Hebrews names our terrifying sense of exposure before God today if we are bold enough to throw off the covers and awake to what is being said: we lie naked and exposed, the word of God feeling like a judgemental eye that knows just how much we like our material comforts, how loathe we are to give them up. Who would not reach for the covers, if this is the only image of the word? But there is more to this story if we are willing to peer at it again, even if only through squinting eyes:
A man runs up to Jesus, breathless. He is a spiritual seeker, the kind of man who has been trying his best since he was a little boy to do right in the eyes of God. From childhood, he has been really Torah observant because he knows the sweetness of following God’s way, as sweet as honey, just as the psalms that he knows by heart say. And still he wants more, he hungers for the next step in the journey. There are some people who are like that, you know? This is a really beautiful thing, both what he is seeking and what he has done. And Jesus sees this, sees this searching and imperfect person before him with his annoyingly flattering titles and his fine woven clothes, and he LOVES the rich man. He looks at him, rich and earnestly seeking, and he loves him. This is the ONLY time in the Gospel of Mark that we are told specifically and clearly that Jesus looks on someone with love; this is no small thing. Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and then says something that shocks the man, changes his face, and causes him to grieve:
what Jesus asks is shocking because it is NOT required by Torah; there’s nothing that has prepared him for this. Presumably, in his diligence to keeping Torah, he has been generous, too, as required — but now he’s being asked to give up his means of benefaction, his very ability to be generous in the only way he has known how. Jesus is inviting him into his inner circle; the eager man is being personally invited to follow Jesus, and he is scared — he’s not sure he can quite do it, at least right away. And this devastates him.
It makes us, sad, too. We want to have our stuff and follow Jesus. We want to be generous in the ways we know how.
So maybe, like the man in the story, we walk away, and if you’re anything like little Stacey, this story haunts you more than it moves you. Yet what happens after the man walks away? Jesus does not dismiss the man, call him worthless, take back his love. He looks around, we are told. It seems he is as bewildered, in a way, as the man who left. It’s almost as if he’s shaking his head in wonder at the power of stuff. Man, it’s hard to break through! He says to his disciples. It’s nearly impossible! Look what just happened — I loved him, I invited him in, and he couldn’t do it!
Our stuff is a powerful barrier to taking those final steps toward intimacy and closeness with Christ; toward experiencing a spirit-filled life under the reign of God, not ruled by our cultural preoccupations and anxieties. The rich man’s possessions cause him spiritual problems; he is not inherently bad or doomed. He is a beautiful seeker of God, and Jesus loves him. But many possessions do not ultimately serve his quest well.
When I was in my early 20s, I became increasingly haunted by this story, and another verse in Luke 6: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation.” Like young Stacey, I knew I was rich, no matter where I fit on the American scale of income, and more than anything these scriptures made me sad. I still wanted to do good and be good and serve God, because I had much to be thankful for, but I was convinced that God didn’t actually care for me — because I was rich, and so I’d already received my consolation. Because I, too, wouldn’t give everything away, and thus was unworthy of Jesus and the kingdom. God’s love, I thought, was rightfully devoted to the poor. I had my comfy bed. God had more pressing concerns. It seemed fair, but I was still sad, and I was even ashamed of this sadness.
Nevertheless, I worked up the nerve to ask a wise mentor about these verses — a hard-core Catholic poet devoted to social justice who most recently wrote a book about gang violence, if that gives you any idea. And she said, “You’re missing the point. It’s not YOU that’s the problem. You’re asking why you’re not loved by God. But Jesus loves the rich man. The more interesting question, then, is what is it about being rich that brings woe? How is it that the rich man’s stuff is a barrier for life in the kingdom?”
The truth about many possessions that pierces our comfortable gathering today may not at first glance be joyful, but it IS rooted in love — in love! — for you, for me, for all of us.
It is a call to more fully human, more fully alive, more connected to one another and the spirit and power of Christ.
The church, through the centuries, has interpreted this gospel in various ways. One teaching reminds us that just as this demand by Jesus is situational in the gospel (that is, it does not apply to everyone Jesus meets), so too is it also situational for us. Some, like Francis of Assisi, are called to this … others are not. Another interpretation reads this teaching of Jesus as a the way of perfection, but not required for salvation, or healing. In other words, it’s like spiritual extra credit. These traditional teachings are helpful, but they do not directly name what Jesus DOES in this and so many other teachings and parables: he is clear that the power and lure of money, possessions, wealth is real. He says that you’re fooling yourself if you think you’re not susceptible. This stuff can keep you from being as close to God as you want — and, just as importantly, as God wants. Because Jesus looks on us with love. And wants us to draw nearer. But our attachments to many possessions really can get in the way. And that’s sad for everybody.
There’s a tribal proverb in India which says, before we can see clearly we need tears to clear the way. This is how our encounters with the word of God often work, not just around possessions but in so many ways: the encounter may not be joyful, at least at first. We may be saddened by the truth God shows us. But after the tears clear, when we dare turn to him again, Jesus is still there, looking on us with love. Calling those of us who have more than enough to give more generously than we currently do for our sake, because it will be good for our soul, not because he’s a hard master. Asking us to give many possessions away as an act of liberation, as a move toward greater joy.
The Rev Laurel Mathewson
11 October 2015