Excuse Me, What?
October 12 2003
As he 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?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You 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, honor your father and mother.” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, 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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded at this and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you!” Jesus said to him, “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, who 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
~~~The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Jesus!~~~
Don’t we all love this text? I mean, really. Preachers are so fond of it, because we get to tell people that it’s really important to give us your money. In fact, this text is exactly the kind of thing I often call the “shakedown”: in the church we hear it as the offering sentences, the stewardship season, the capital campaign….
Or, alternatively, there is the “don’t worry, he wasn’t serious” tack that I heard the first time I heard this text preached on. I was in high school, not a church-goer, and I was hired to play clarinet with the handbell choir of a local Presbyterian church—the one known for the wealth of its members. This was the text of the day, and the first line of the sermon—the only one I remember, actually—was “don’t worry, you don’t have to sell your fancy cars and give away all your money.” You can imagine the effect that kind of contradiction would have on a highly literal, unchurched, lower-but-rising-middle class teenager. I talked bad about Presbyterians for several years after that.
Well, now I’m here, and I’m as frustrated as all of you with the constant talk of camels really being thick yarn, and the needle really being a gate, so that the contradiction that Jesus mentions here is lost. I think we spend a lot of time talking about the language Jesus uses, and not enough time talking about the thing he’s trying to say. I’m sure we could argue for days about what he’s really trying to say, but I only have about 14 minutes left so we won’t. Instead we’re going to leave the camel question behind for a bit and talk about people.
Imagine with me that you are this man. You’ve just run a long way, maybe from the next town, to ask Jesus this question. You know the commandments, and you’ve followed them, but there’s still something missing—you just don’t know what it is. Jesus first points out that you can’t ascribe God’s goodness to him, then tells you to follow the commandments, obviously. You explain that you’ve always been very good, very righteous, very law abiding. … And Jesus loves you! … But then he tells you something you really don’t want to hear: sell everything you own, give away the money, and come wander with him. “Excuse me, what?” You think. Sell everything? Follow…where? You go away very sad.
What is it about selling your stuff that would be so awful? Is it that everyone associates wealth with God’s blessing? Is it that a loss of social status would change who you are? What is it? Well, I know what would be awful for me: I like most of my stuff. I’m always telling people I have too much stuff, and I do. But I do have some things that I am not able to part with…like my clarinet, for instance. I haven’t played in over a year, and there’s a beautiful, high quality professional clarinet in my closet. But would I sell it even if Jesus told me to? Probably not. Sure, I’m willing to entertain the notion—I often do, for about 12 seconds—but follow through? I don’t think so.
Well, Peter points out that he and his fellow disciples have done exactly that. Well, they left everything, anyway, though it’s not clear that they necessarily sold everything. I often see myself as Peter in the gospel story—he gets it, then really really doesn’t…he’s just so human. It’s probably a little easier to imagine yourself as Peter, so let’s take another trip to the land of make-believe for a moment.
You’re packing for a journey—well, as much as you’re allowed to pack: your toothbrush, some sunglasses…Bartholomew gets caught trying to sneak an extra shirt for the trip so you’re all running late…and you’re finally walking out the door when yet another random person comes running up to Jesus insisting that he is asking the most important question of the century.
You overhear some of the conversation…Jesus telling him to follow the commandments—well, most of those were commandments, anyway—and then you hear the man claim to have followed them all. Huh? Who has followed all the commandments their whole lives? This guy must not have seen a priest lately, so he just doesn’t know that he’s broken them. Wait, wait, Jesus is talking again… Sell all your stuff and come follow me? Wha..why…huh? Well, I guess that’s what we’ve all done. Hey Jesus, guess what? We must have it right for a change because we’ve left everything to follow you. Excuse me, what? Wait….are you talking in riddles again? Yes I said riddles, not parables, riddles. Have you ever seen a camel? Those things are huge! No way. Wait, you’re already walking, but, hey Andrew, did he confirm that we got it right in leaving our homes and following him? Hello? Jesus?
Let me just tell you, this is how I feel most of the time. “Look Jesus, I’m doing something right for a change!” “Hey, I already do what you told that person, so that must be the magic formula that will get me in, right?” The difference between Peter and the random man is that Peter thinks he’s got it, and the man thinks he doesn’t. The man asks a question, and Peter makes a declaration. But there is also something similar about the two.
Did you hear the man? “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Peter, “look, we’ve got it right, yeah, the 12 of us, over here!” So really, neither of them is right, for they are both thinking in terms of themselves, and in terms of what they think they are supposed to be doing. Jesus is challenging them to think in new ways—and the only way he can do that is through their own experience. God meets us where we are—and for the man, where he is is with himself and with money. And for Peter, where he is is with getting it right and with himself. However, Jesus’ answers to the man and to Peter point out that though God meets us where we are, God doesn’t necessarily want us to stay where we are. Instead, as Bonhoeffer says, God is often calling us to rethink our own paradigms. Maybe it’s not about following the commandments to the letter. Maybe it’s not about doing what was recommended for someone else. Maybe it’s not about being wrapped up in ourselves and the way we think the world should be. But maybe it all starts with asking the question…just as the man asks the question. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t rethink his paradigm, his worldview, his entire frame of reference, without a very drastic change—or at least the suggestion of one.
What about Peter? Good old Peter, the epitome of humanity in relation to Jesus. What does he get in response to his declaration? “That’s right, and don’t worry, you’ll get your reward. But … the first will be last, and the last first.” That doesn’t sound like a reward, does it? It sounds like the disciples will be last into the kingdom because they were first in following Jesus.
Maybe this is just the suggestion Peter needs. He sees that he and his newfound friends follow Jesus, they seem to do everything that’s required of them, they believe…Peter even declared that Jesus is the Messiah just two short chapters ago. They are the ones who get it, not the Pharisees, not the women at wells, not the children…and certainly not this rich man. Peter sees himself as already well on the way to completing the requirements he thinks Jesus has laid out for everyone. He is caught up in this worldview, this paradigm, where those who get it right are the ones who get in...but it’s clear that his own view of what is right is definitive. Jesus keeps telling him, and keeps telling him, and keeps telling him, and finally this time comes right to the heart of the matter: “sure, you’re right,” he says, “but many who are first will be last and the last will be first.” Because it’s not about your vision of right. Because it’s not about when you started following me. It’s not about how perfectly you follow me. It’s not about how you see yourself. What’s more important to me is the simple fact that you do follow; the simple fact that I can and do love you even when you don’t get it; the simple fact that I called you and all these other people too.
Anthony DeMello was a Jesuit priest in India. He wrote several collections of wisdom stories, most about a “Master”, who is a leader, a guru, if you will…sometimes Christian, sometimes Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim…or any variety of things… He has a story about a Master who was “exceedingly gracious to university officials and professors who visited him, but he refused to be drawn into their theological speculations or to answer their religious questions. His disciples were amazed by this and asked him about it. He answered them: how can one talk of the ocean to a frog in a well? Or about the divine to those restricted by their concepts?” This story describes so well what I see here, on so many levels. The man is restricted by his wealth, or at least by its possession of him, and by his worldview that defines what is good, what it means to be a disciple, and what it means to have eternal life. Peter is restricted by his worldview too…of right and wrong, of first and last. And often we are restricted by the image of the camel and needle, the idea that wealth is necessarily a bad thing because Jesus tells this one man to give it all up, the concept of stewardship as being about money and not necessarily about time, talents, or service. It’s hard to break out of our paradigms, to rethink our worldviews, to think about the ocean when we have only lived in a well.
Thankfully, though, there is the line Peter may very well have overlooked and the rich man didn’t even hear: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God, all things are possible.” For mortals it is impossible to be perfect. For mortals, it is impossible to get it right. For mortals, it is impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven of one’s own volition. But not for God. For God, all things are possible. It is possible for God to forgive us when we are not perfect, to correct us when we get it wrong or when we think we’ve got it right, to bring us close to God in the church, in the sacraments, in Scripture, through the Holy Spirit, and in one another. It is possible for God to call us, and to help us respond. And through God it is possible for us to rethink the paradigms we live in and to reshape the world around us. This is the key point that both Peter and the rich man are missing. They are missing that for God, and therefore for us with God’s help, it is possible to do all kinds of new things.
Do we have any starting points for this rethinking of our paradigms? Why should we rethink our worldview and try to figure out a new way? Isaiah tells us. In the old way, there was self-righteous fasting, sackcloth and ashes, worthless sacrifices, and confusion about God’s distance from us. The place God wants us to start is this: “is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, and cover the naked?” The list goes on…and what is the result? Our light shall break forth like the dawn. Our healing shall spring up quickly. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed to us. We shall call, and God will answer us saying “Here I am!” What better place to start than the place God has given us?
We know that Peter eventually gets it and begins to rethink his own worldview. His storyline continues, and tells us that it took him several more tries, including denying Jesus, including watching his friend and mentor die a horrible death, and including a worldview-shattering experience of that friend and mentor resurrected from the dead. But those several tries eventually led him to become a leader in the church, the first apostle to preach, the apostle who is the rock in our cloud of witnesses.
But what do we think happens to the man after he goes away grieving? Does he think and pray about it, and sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, bank on that treasure in heaven, and go wander around with Jesus? Or does he maybe keep his possessions but stop letting them possess him—do they become less important to him, and he is thereby freed to serve others, as his form of following Christ? Or, the least attractive option to us readers…does he simply go away and decide that Jesus was bitter that day—jealous of his wealth, status and comfortable life—and continue living his life as before, following the commandments to the letter but missing the spirit of the law? Does he continue to be wrapped up in himself and his own chances at eternal life, or does he decide to look away from himself and see the good he can do to those around him? Your imaginations have to provide the end of the story. But, depending on the ending you choose, it may be just a beginning. Thanks be to God. Amen.