And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:23-31 ESV)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ooo, Rah, thank you, Jesus! Let’s skip the sermon and go right to the offering. Shake out those wallets and dump out those purses! Write your check for everything in your account, please, and then some. Liquidate the investment portfolio! Sell the house and bet the ranch! Get rid of that wealth, brothers and sisters, so you can be more easily saved!
You heard the man. He said it twice in a span of three verses: How difficult it will be for those who have wealth—for those who are rich like we Americans are—to enter the kingdom of God. Unless you can find a very big needle or a very, very tiny camel, it’s going to be an awfully tough road ahead for you.
I imagine your reactions to hearing this are pretty much in line with those of the apostles. The text tells us they were “amazed” the first time Jesus said it, and “exceedingly astonished” the second time.
I don’t think those words do justice to how shocked they actually were, though. How does “astounded” strike you? “Flabbergasted,” perhaps? Yes, the apostles’ reactions to Jesus statements, just like ours, are quite strong, but for different reasons. Though both their reaction and ours are based in part on the conditioning we’ve received from the culture around us, they have their roots in completely different viewpoints.
The apostles got their attitudes from a society in which wealth was seen as an indication of God’s favor. Those who were blessed materially and financially were viewed as having done something right, having found that “sweet spot” in God’s eye. God doled out the good life to some, and from others, it was thought, He withheld His blessings. Health and wealth meant you were living right; illness or disability or poverty indicated there was some sort of black mark on your record with God.
In our day, the interpretation has changed rather drastically. To be sure, there are those TV preachers and megachurch charlatans who tell millions that if they just trust God enough; if they just have enough faith and pray right, their financial problems will be a thing of the past. If they just dig a little deeper and give more, their disability or their sickness will go away. These frauds ignore the sinful nature that continues to cling to us and all people, and the forces of evil that God keeps in check but which still roam the earth, making victims of us all.
But most of our society sees it differently. Those who are wealthy are seen has having gotten there either through application of the right combination of talent and initiative, or just plain luck. Even many Christians see it that way, willing to pray to the Lord “Give us this day our daily bread” on Sunday morning, but setting that aside the rest of the week to claw and scratch and bite to stay ahead of the competition.
And where does it get us? It brings greater worldly security, some prestige, some level of comfort that most of the world can’t even begin to imagine, it’s true. But a focus on getting ahead and staying ahead really just distances us from both God and neighbor. It moves us away from God, because we make those little compromises in our priorities and we forget our dependence upon Him for all that we are and all that we receive. And, it distances us from our neighbor because we seek to gain advantage and gain respect at the expense of others.
Jesus wasn’t preaching against being successful in our earthly endeavors. Our vocations in the family, community, workplace, and church are gifts provided by God, entrusted to us to be done with diligence, determination, and dedication, to the best of our abilities.
Instead, He is warning His listeners against an excessive focus on earthly things. We are not to succeed in our own eyes or the world’s assessment, but in His. We are not to achieve for our purposes, but to His glory. We are not to devote ourselves to passing acclaim or rewards, but to the eternal.
Anything can be done too much or too well, if it leads to the exclusion or detriment of our relationship with God, or is harmful to our neighbor in sins of commission or omission. Likewise, doing certain tasks too little or too poorly can also be damaging.
Look back on your week just past. Think of all those things you did that seemed productive, but which focused primarily on yourself and your goals and priorities. Did you give it even a passing thought as to how it fulfilled your vocations in the eyes of God, or how it brought help or harm to others? Similarly, count all the times you frittered away an hour—or even a day—on frivolous, even meaningless, activities.
It’s not that Christians ought to be dour, sad, even miserable, having no fun in their lives; quite the opposite: God wants our lives to be filled with joy and hope. He greatly desires that we have rich, even extravagant, lives—but lives in which the richness and the extravagance come from being the men and women and children He created us to be, not people whose sense of success, achievement, and wealth meet the world’s standards.
If you’re anything like me—and you are, because you’re a baptized saint and sinner, too—you might pause every once in a while, and look back on the day, the week, or the month just past. In more reflective moments, you might even take that time horizon back a year, a decade, or a lifetime. Do you kick yourself a little bit, thinking about the poor decisions and the missed opportunities, both material and spiritual?
If you do (and I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t, if they’re really being honest), then repent. Repent of your mistakes and your squandering of time and resources; repent of your broken relationships with God and others; repent of your jealousy and your selfishness. Most of all, repent of any doubt you still carry about God being able to take you, just as you are—broken in spirit, tired in body, and anxious in mind—and being able to move you again. He can, and does, bring you back onto His path, moving in His direction, always carried by His rich, rich, extravagantly rich love and grace. Repent of it all, and be restored.
Jesus doesn’t want you to starve. He doesn’t want you to be homeless. He doesn’t want you to be without clothing, or medicine, or family or friends or any of the blessings of this life. He has ordained that we each use the abilities and energy and time that we have been given to exercise our vocations in the care and service of not only ourselves, but our neighbor, too.
But He doesn’t want you to be rich if that becomes a barrier or obstacle to you loving, trusting, and fearing Him above all things. He doesn’t want you to be rich if hoarding what you have been given through His generosity in your abilities and health and effort leave your neighbor wanting.
But it’s not just being rich in money and physical things that can be an obstacle, believe it or not. It’s also possible that you can be so rich in spirit that you are shut out of the kingdom of God, too. “How is that possible?” you ask? If your righteousness is self-generated, if you think you’ve achieved a right spirit and therefore forgiveness and salvation as a result of your own efforts, your spirit is rich and full according to your own measuring cup, but it’s empty in God’s.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus preached on the mountain. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It’s knowing full well that your cup is empty, that your spiritual account is deeply overdrawn, and that you’ve got nothing to bring to the negotiating table, that brings true repentance and a rich outpouring of everything God has for you.
The rich young man who had walked away from Jesus just before this episode wasn’t ready for that. He was still clinging to the illusion that the power and wealth and youth that he had at his disposal was more important than what Jesus was offering Him. He couldn’t let it go, even in exchange for something of priceless value.
Even Peter, His dear and close friend and follower, couldn’t really let it go, could he? Although his mouth and even his physical circumstances on the road with Jesus could give clear witness that he and the other apostles had “left everything and followed [Jesus], Peter couldn’t help but think that doing so was worth something toward his salvation—toward his admission to the kingdom of God. But it wasn’t. It wouldn’t. It couldn’t. It won’t. Your good and generous deeds, even those done in faith, don’t save you. Even selling off or giving away everything you’ve got isn’t enough. It’s only by the faith Jesus gave graciously to Peter and the other apostles, and has given to you, that you are saved. Faith that trusts He is the Son of God. Faith that trusts His perfect life and sacrificial suffering and death as the Lamb of God atoned for your sins. Faith that sees the empty tomb instead of the marks of the nails, and confesses, “I believe!”
The deeds merely flow from the faith, and give it voice, and hands, and legs. The deeds give smiles of encouragement and welcome; tears of shared burdens; laughter of shared joys. These thing happen here in our parish family, and beyond, because your trust in Jesus Christ as your savior, and redeemer of all, moves you to them. When Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” He was talking about your life here in the Church.
Being a Christian will sometimes make you choose between what God intends for you and what others—even close family—think you ought to do. It will even make you choose quite often between what God wants and what you want.
But even when your earthly relationships of blood and law become strained or broken, you have new relationships—of blood, to be sure, but Jesus’ blood, not yours.
Look around you here, and see the brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers that God in Christ has given you, a family a hundredfold. They are relationships not of Law, but of Gospel—relationships in the shared good news that Jesus has brought you into the kingdom, where even the poorest are infinitely rich, and He who was the richest made Himself poor, for your sake. With membership in this family come persecutions, it’s true. But these persecutions, like all worldly suffering and all the worldly things that we set aside or re-dedicate to the glory of God, are passing away in the age to come. Eternal life is yours, in the name of Jesus. Amen.