Last week Jesus pulled a little child into the midst of them and said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And almost immediately, as often happens in the gospel of Mark, we move to this conversation between Jesus and a man (that we later find out has many possessions).
He asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It sounds like a question of “over there”—what do I have to do in this life, to inherit what comes after? But we may be hearing this wrong. The man calls it eternal life. Jesus has just been talking about God’s kingdom. Are they one and the same?
Jews of this time were hoping, waiting, expecting, a Messiah, one who would usher in God’s kingdom, the reign of God (what we envision as the hereafter) present already in this world. There was going to be an overturning of WHAT WAS, to put earth more in tune with heaven (God’s realm). And many saw Jesus as the one who would bring it all about.
So our man asks the question I think we all ask—“Is there something that I have to do to be a part of this?” And Jesus starts off telling him what he wants to hear—“Keep the commandments.” That’s not exactly easy, but it had been the answer to the question for hundreds maybe thousands of years. “Check” says our follower. “I’ve got those covered. I’ve been doing that since my youth.”
And Jesus looked at him and loved him. What follows is not intended to be punishment but wisdom shared with the inner circle—the second level of discipleship, once you have covered the “basics” of following the Ten Commandments. “You lack one thing.” There’s one more thing that will help you really be a part of God’s kingdom—Sell what you have, give it all away, give it to the poor, and come follow me. When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Lamar Williamson, Jr. says,
“If this message does not take our breath away, if we are not shocked, appalled, grieved, or amazed, we have either not yet heard it or heard it so often that we do not really hear it any more.”
From Mark: Interpretation Series by Lamar Williamson, Jr. Copyright © John Knox Press, 1983.
Is Jesus saying we have to make ourselves destitute to enter the kingdom of God? I have struggled with this text since I was in high school—in fact I have clear memory of a heated discussion I had with my Dad about this—are we supposed to “have” or “want” economic security, or is Jesus asking us to leave it all in God’s hands?
Now before we start comparing who is in what income bracket, and who gives more than someone else, (as the disciples do later “Look at us! We have left everything, so we’re good, right?”) let’s remember where we as Americans stand. According to the World Bank, if you earn $10,000 a year, you are in the top 14% of the world’s richest people; if you earn $34,000 a year, you are in the top 1% globally. So ALL of us need to listen closely to what Jesus is saying.
This is where that enigmatic saying about the camel and the eye of the needle comes in. “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.” Can a camel go through the eye of a needle? No. Not unless it is one big needle, or one very small camel. And the disciples take Jesus seriously, “Then who can be saved?” they ask. The reply is “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Some have suggested that “the eye of a needle” was a particular gate in Jerusalme was very narrow (ie, you could get in by yourself, but not with a camel or many possessions), but scholars now say they don’t think this “gate” existed in Jesus’ time, and anyway, let’s take Jesus at his word. The disciples do. So what should all us rich people hear from this text?
I found a suggestion from Seasons of the Spirit helpful. What if we think about what Jesus calls the kingdom of God as God’s economy. We all say we want to be a part of what God is doing here on earth—in preparation for living with God later on. We all say we want to follow Jesus who proclaimed that the kingdom of God, God’s economy, was already breaking into this realm. Then we circle back to the question for the day, “How do we participate in this economy? How do we “inherit” what God wants for us?”
First of all, we have already inherited the image of God. It is implanted in our DNA, in our hearts and souls. And we have inherited the history of God with God’s people: the Ten Commandments, the stories of the Torah, the histories and the writings that comprise the rest of what we call the Old Testament (as well as the stories and letters and revelation that we call the New Testament). So we are wired to be able to be a part of this God’s economy, God’s world, God’s kingdom. And we have the map of how others have traveled the road. What is left?
What is left is what Jesus, in love, tells us today. Look at your life. What are your priorities? Where are you investing your time, your energy, your heart, your soul? What is standing in the way of being closer to God? What is keeping you (me, each of us) from following on a deeper level?
This discussion puts a different light on Jesus’ lifting up little children as a symbol of those who truly enter God’s space. Think about being a kid, or at least our ideal of what childhood should be. For this ideal kid, we imagine that one isn’t worried about providing food, or clothing, or a roof overhead. This ideal kid has someone else keeping them protected and safe. This ideal kid can go and play, can learn to share, can make mistakes and be forgiven, can grow in body, mind, and spirit, surrounded by love. We know that there are those who never get to have that ideal childhood—but we can all imagine it. Life unencumbered by worry or responsibility. Freedom from the rat race.
Maybe that ideal is what Jesus is pointing to when he asks the man to sell all he has, and give it to the poor. Get rid of all those things that block your knowledge that you are a child of God, and a wanted part of God’s economy.
And the man is shocked, and goes away grieving. He just can’t do it. And I would imagine neither can any of us go to that extreme. But maybe we can hear again what Jesus is saying. Nothing we own, nothing we have, no possession of ours will be of any assistance in entering God’s way, in being in God’s kingdom. Keeping the Ten Commandments (and the 620 levitical codes that spawned from them) often was a rich person’s privilege. You needed money to be able to pay other people to do those “unclean” jobs for you.
As we grow up, as we leave childhood behind, we are schooled to take care of ourselves, to be able to stand on our own two feet, to rely on what we have, what we save, what we inherit. But that puts us in direct odds with how God’s realm operates. If we want to enter that, we need to accept that we do not buy our way in, we do not work our way in, we do not get in because of anything WE create. “For mortals it is impossible.” Entering God’s kingdom is done like a child—bringing nothing but who you are, walking in on God’s grace and mercy.
And the more we have accomplished, or have in our bank account, the harder it is to remember that it is nothing in God’s eyes; nothing that will elevate us in the kingdom. Nothing but a tool to be used to help give sustenance to others—to lift those who are in need up. “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.”
For what is our true treasure? It is to be in the presence of Jesus and know we are all brothers and sisters together. It is to be a worker in the dawning reign of God. It is to be a participant in God’s economy, sharing what we have. It is to know we stand on “the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the support of the Holy Spirit.”
Then we can do the hard things, like passing through the eye of a needle, like shedding some of the stuff that gets in our way, like sharing from our abundance, like recognizing the nonhierarchy in God’s kingdom—because in God all things are possible.
May we find the strength to follow Jesus
May we have the wisdom to know what might be getting in our way
May God look upon us with favor, and help us be the beloved children we already are. Alleluia, Amen.