The Impossible Kingdom (Amos 5:6-15; Mk. 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. I have said to you before that, in the times of 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% of people who were being downtrodden, exploited, and misused by the approximately 1% who assumed that the 99% existed for their comfort.
Our text from Amos 5 dips into a longer section (from chapters 3-6) that see Israel’s injustices as, for the most part, the fault of the rulers and those who took their living from them. The victims were clearly those for whom “justice had turned to bitter wormwood.” Amos was clear that it was the wealthy that were oppressing the poor, and that God took a dim view of it all and would punish the oppressors. Amos equated seeking God and seeking good, by which he meant justice and equity. 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.
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 played the role of that old TV detective Columbo, who used to turn around as he was leaving the room and say, “Oh, one more thing…” Jesus said, “Oh, just 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 to do and made Jesus’ kingdom 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 impossible. In fact, Jesus’ disciples “got it” and asked, “Then, who is able to be saved?” 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,” whatever that may mean. Again, what’s clear is that those rich people are out.
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. Those of us who hold to a separation of Church and State – who think it takes more than just being a citizen of a particular country (and maybe some water in various amounts) to be a Christian, have always had a bit of difficulty with the way all this happens in some places. But these words of Jesus are troubling in our world where many Christians are rich.
So, for centuries sermons and books have been trying, in one way or another, to ease our minds by saying that Jesus was only a bit pessimistic about rich people and the kingdom of God. It might be hard for them, but he couldn’t have really meant impossible. And I am sympathetic with this quest. I have known fine Christian people who used their wealth for good. Are they, somehow excluded, or did Jesus mean something less or else? How does this teaching of Jesus speak to our contemporary culture, based as it is on the idea that, at least theoretically, anyone can become rich, and everyone, at least, ought to want to? What’s up with that?
First, as folk at TEE last Thursday night learned as we studied this passage, even Matthew and Luke read and told Mark’s story in ways that modified it to make it less angular and harsh. So, this quest to make Jesus sound more reasonable about rich people has a long, distinguished history.
Next, I’m pretty sure we need to understand the cultural situation of the story, if we don’t. First, let’s deal with the man’s question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In this story and the teaching that follows from it, there are synonyms for these words “eternal life:” “treasure in heaven” (v. 21), “the kingdom of God,” vv. 23,24,25), and “being saved” (v. 26). Most of us were taught that such words as “being saved,” or “eternal life” referred to what happened to individuals after they died, maybe at the end of time in response to a personal decision. Such meanings come from 18th or 19th century piety, and are not what Jesus or his contemporaries would have meant at all. For Jesus, “being saved,” did not mean believing the “right” words, and it was about families or groups, not about individuals, they were also not about things that are after death, but while we are alive, and they meant benefits for living under the sovereignty or rule of God, living by God’s values here and now – and, later, forever. The term at the center of all of this is the phrase the Kingdom of God.
I know that the word “kingdom” is hard for Americans like us to grasp, but the chances of its being changed in English Bible translations are small, since Americans are not the only English speakers on the planet, and, pretty much all of them but us do have a monarchy. We can’t simply eliminate the term completely, for, as I say, it’s about the most central feature of Jesus’ teaching, at least as he’s represented by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We might as well try to eliminate the word “love” or “God” from the Gospels as “kingdom.” So, we’ll just have to settle for understanding the word better. First, for at least the last half-century or more, it has been the agreement of scholars that “kingdom” is not about a place, but about a person. It’s not the realm where God is, it’s the reign or sovereign relationship with people, when God sets peoples’ values.
For Christians, Jesus himself – who he is, what he does, what he said – is the embodied definition of God’s kingdom, God’s personal, value-setting, sovereign relationship with people. A book that’s been around for about 40 years is Donald Kraybill’s The Upside Down Kingdom The gist of what Kraybill means by those words is that Jesus came to incorporate us together into a new way of living by values that are “upside down” from those of the culture. Further, this life is not just about what’s “in our hearts,” but about how we live out the values of God through Jesus in our everyday world. That’s the kingdom of God.
Next, let us understand how those who heard Jesus (or Amos) would have understood the terms “rich” and “poor.” It’s important to understand that, although, to us, both are economic terms that define how much money we have, in Mediterranean culture in the time of Amos (and Jesus) these two terms had to do with the power, honour, and prestige of an extended family in the community and not primarily with money. That culture believed that all goods (from money to power to honour to land, etc.) were limited to the amount that already existed. They would never have thought that the solution to poverty was to create new wealth or new jobs. The amount of all things is the fixed. The pie is always the same size. That means that the only way I can get more is by taking it from someone else. Rich people were, by definition, greedy and thieves in the popular mind. Poor people were envious of them and of one another. To have honour in that society meant to maintain a family’s place in the world, wherever it was. That is very different from our world, but it is the world that biblical people inhabited. Rich and poor were terms about social power. Therefore, when we read Amos or Mark and discover that God was concerned about the poor, that would be both counter-cultural and revolutionary.
If we read the Gospel lesson today with these thoughts in mind, we will understand it differently. It’s not about money, it’s about power and sharing it. What Jesus asks the man to do is to impoverish his own family by giving away all his privilege, power and land, in order to bring those without it into a wider family group. What Jesus asked, was socially unthinkable and it’s not surprising that the man wouldn’t, or couldn’t do it. He probably would have been killed by his own family had he tried.
It also doesn’t seem that Jesus passed Marketing 101 here when he failed to spin his call to this wealthy man by saying something to attract him into his movement. In fact, he said that it’s so hard for rich (read powerful) folk to give up and share power with those who don’t have any, that it’s virtually impossible. What he, more literally said was, “From the human side this is impossible, but from God’s side, all things (even impossible things) are possible.
He also responded to Peter’s natural anxiety about what will happen to those who have given up everything to follow Jesus (I suppose another synonym for the Kingdom of God). He says 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.
As Jesus saw wealth and being rich it was about being unwilling to let go of our own power and privilege to share it with those who don’t have it, whatever that might mean. This might well, in our day, have financial implications. There is no question that we understand the world in a vastly different way. Can we translate what Jesus meant into terms that allow us to be faithful today? We need to remember that, for Jesus, wealth was about family, power, and influence, not money. In our culture it’s money that makes it possible for families to have power and influence. Can faithfulness to this word of Jesus mean that, as we are able, we need to use our time, our money, and our influence to make sure that others that God values (those without, the poor) have both justice (fair and equal treatment in society) and equity (that is fair treatment according to their need).
Of course, we still need to understand that, 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. Jesus simply says that if God doesn’t work all this in us it’s 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, “I worked harder than any…yet not I…but Christ working in me” (1 Cor. 15:10). May we strain forward toward that goal.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.