Impossible? (Amos 5:6-15; Mark 10:17-31)
Today’s Lectionary passages make it pretty tough on “rich people.” They seem to say that God takes the side of the poor and is even against those who are rich. This makes many of us uncomfortable, since we live in a culture that measures success in economic ways, and we always like to think that God is like we are. It isn’t possible that God would disqualify us just for being successful capitalists, is it?
I have said to you before that, in the times of both Amos and Jesus the overwhelming majority of people were poor, so that when they heard these words, they heard something different than we do. They heard that God was on the side of the 99.9% of people who were being downtrodden, exploited, and misused by the approximately .1% who assumed that the 99.9% existed for their comfort. Wealth was not measured in money. Indeed, the primary values of that culture were not economic, as ours clearly are, but rather honour and shame. Society was not measured by individuals, but by families, extended families Wealthy families or rich, well-off, (pick your description) were those with enough social power to take anything they liked from the 99.9% of those who didn’t have the social power.
People also believed that all the power, honour, wealth – everything — was in exactly the quantity that existed. If you lacked something you didn’t just create new jobs, new wealth. The only way to get more than you had was to take it from other families with less social power. This led to a good deal of struggle in societies. Honour was found in maintaining the status quo. Going above the status quo or falling beneath it was literally shame-full. Staying in your niche was crucial.
The poem in Amos 5 dips into a longer section of poems (from chapters 3-6) that see Israel’s injustices as, for the most part, the fault of the ruling families and those who took their living from them. The victims were clearly those for whom “justice had turned to bitterness (literally, “wormwood.”) Amos was clear that the wealthy that were oppressing the poor, and that God would punish the oppressors. Amos equated seeking God and seeking good, by which he meant justice (acting fairly) and equity (acting according to needs). The exile of Israel to Assyria was seen by those who gave us the Old Testament canon as the historical fulfillment of Amos’ word that God would not stand idly by and watch the elite in the palace and in the temple decimate the poor. Of course, it’s ever the case that, in war, the poor suffer even before the rich do, so much good it did them to be right, they were still dead.
Jesus was equally clear. After responding to an inquiry about how a particular man could possess the kingdom of God, he said “keep the commandments” (and named six of them). When the response came, “I’ve always done that,” Jesus said, “There’s one more thing…Give all that you have to the poor.” Then he said. “Follow me.” He didn’t mean, sell everything and then follow me as two invitations, he meant “Follow me by selling everything.” That’s the one thing the man wasn’t ready or even able to do. What Jesus asked was impossible. And that was because, as we now learn for the first time in the story, “he had many possessions.” He was rich.
Jesus went on to teach his disciples that it was “very hard” for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God. It was about as hard as for the largest animal most of his hearers knew about (a camel) to go through the smallest hole Jesus could think of (the eye of a needle). In short, it was more than “very hard,” it was impossible. In fact, Jesus’ disciples “got it” and asked, “Then, who is able to be saved?” Which means, live a life united in the embrace of God’s grace. If those who have all the privilege can’t, who can?” Jesus said, from the human side it’s impossible, but from God’s side all things are possible.”
When the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 4th century, and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire later in that century, the church and the empire became co-extensive. The empire was the church and vice-versa. The power and wealth of many monarchs came flooding into the church and many rich people became, at least in name, Christian. And so, it was for centuries. You can find commentaries and sermons that want to take the edge off Jesus’ words here. This same story is related by both Matthew and Luke, and those of us in TEE discovered that, even they were putting a different spin on the story to make it seem less edgy.
But what if Jesus really wanted it to be edgy? What if the Good News isn’t always easy? What if it’s sometimes hard? Many people come to church expecting that they’ll be given a “reasonable” way to leave happy and reassured after a nice little sermonette for Chrstianettes that pats them on the head and says, “this isn’t about you.”
One of the reasons I want us to be aware that, in Jesus’ day, being rich wasn’t about money, is so that we can stop our wondering how much we have to amass before we are like this guy in the text. How rich can we be? What’s wrong with money? Let’s be reasonable and let ourselves off the hook by remembering how much good can be done by money. I want us to forget all about the money. It’s a red-herring to keep us from hearing what Jesus says to us.
When we come right down to the nub of it all, what this man asked Jesus was, “How do I get to inherit eternal life?” What he did not mean here is, as many Christians say, “How do I go to heaven”? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but those words “Go to heaven” are never found anywhere in the New Testament. There is no teaching about how individuals get to float around in the hereafter with Jesus. There’s lots of preaching about it, but no biblical underpinning. What this man in Mark’s Gospel meant was how did he qualify himself for sharing the “world to come” with God and other godly sorts (which is what the Greek words behind “Eternal Life” point to)? The timeline of world history was divided into the “present age, or world” and the “age/world to come.” The present age was the here and now, the age to come was when God intervened and came to the world to rule directly.
Anyway, this man says, “How do I do this?” Jesus said, “Didn’t you go to Sunday School”? You know the commandments (he names six, in a different order from the Old Testament book of Exodus). The man says, “Been there, done that.” “OK,” says Jesus. “There’s just one thing you lack.” “Poverty.” Get rid of all the tools you use to make your family a controlling influence in society. Get rid of your family so that you can join mine. By doing that you follow me.” Is it any wonder that Mark’s Gospel says he was “gloomy and grief stricken?” The first word is used of the sky when the clouds come down close to the earth to rain. He couldn’t do that. It was unthinkable. It would mean a social revolution, and, had he tried to do what Jesus asked, his family would have killed him very quickly.
That’s where we get to Jesus’ words about how hard it is for those privileged people to give up their privilege to come into the sphere of God’s grace (the kingdom of God). It’s easier for camels to go through needle-eyes than that. There’s an old saw that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the “needle’s eye” that a camel could only pass through by bending low and having any baggage removed. Just so, so the saw continues, we must get rid of all the baggage of our sins and other things like wealth and humble ourselves if we want to get through the gate to go to heaven. Well, just like the clause “go to heaven” isn’t in the New Testament,” so this gate isn’t anywhere in Jerusalem and never was. It was a ninth century legend that got repeated by commentators through the years without adequate checking until much later. What Jesus is saying here is not that “It’s hard” for this person with “wealth” as I’ve explained it, to get through the eye of a needle. It’s impossible.
And that’s the point of the whole thing here. If we think we can ask “What churchy thing we have to do to inherit a place in the world to come where God’s values reign, and Jesus’ life and values are the model for everything, Jesus’ answer is that we, like the man in the story, have to do the one thing we can’t do. I don’t know what it is, but we all have something we consider just unthinkable and impossible. Yes, It’s impossible for us to get there from here? And, like the disciples in the story we ask, well, if all the privilege I’m willing to forego won’t do it, if all the churchy stuff I do (coming forward, getting baptized, fill in your blank) won’t do it. Who can be saved? We are looking for one of those “reasonable” exits that will leave us comfortable, and Jesus is to honest and loving to give it to us in quite that digestible a way. He says, quite literally, is “From the human side this is impossible, but from God’s side, all things (even impossible things) are possible. And that’s the good (and the bad) news.
He also responded to Peter’s natural anxiety about what will happen to those who, like himself I suppose, have given up their family (everything in Jesus’ day) to follow him. Jesus said that there are compensations in living in a great family relationship with a new family in the community of faith loyal to God through him. But, he also adds, that will bring persecutions because of a basic clash in values.
What do we learn from this text? What’s the churchy thing that we’d like to give up (like giving up liver for lent), and what’s the thing that we absolutely can’t do that is what it really takes, if we want to play the game that way? Jesus still refuses a “reasonable” sermonette. All by ourselves it is just as impossible for us to give up our “wealth” as it was for the man in the story in Jesus’ day. That’s what Jesus asks. Give up the thing you won’t. It’s impossible. Then Jesus simply says that if God doesn’t work all this in us it stays impossible. It’s a miracle if we are enabled to open up and accept our differences and share our power (and even our wealth) with those that society labels as lost and undesirable and foolish. It’s not that the actualization of this miracle doesn’t take work from us, it does, but the more it’s from us, the more it’s from God. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “I worked harder than any…yet not I…but Christ working in me.” And, slowly, we may strain forward toward that.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.