Text of Gospel & Sermon:
Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
October 10, 2021
17As 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?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You 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.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, 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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “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, 30who 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. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
You Lack One Thing
“Jesus looking at him loved him and said: ‘You lack one thing. Go sell what you own and give your money to the poor.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him. This is important for us to hear this morning, I think, because it is from this impulse of love that the whole passage comes. Jesus’ heart always goes out to those who suffer. And while there are many, many passages dedicated to the sufferings of the poor and the marginalized in Holy Scripture, today it is the sufferings of those who have that move Jesus to compassion.
Words like “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who has wealth to enter the kingdom of God” don’t come, then, from some desire of Jesus to shame us – we who are, every one of us, at least when measured by global standards, rich beyond imagining. They are, rather, a response to our suffering:
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
The rich young man has done what he should with his life until now. It’s not just that he goes to pray with his community one day a week. He takes Holy Scripture to heart and practices what he has been taught the other six days as well. He is, genuinely, a faithful person and he lives well, perhaps he may have thought, as a result of it. He has all that his heart should desire: houses, livestock, fields. But still he lacks something. This is what Jesus says – did you hear it? Not “You have too much.” But: “You lack one thing.”
It is this lack, I believe, and the desire that it prompts for something that perhaps he can’t quite name, which has driven the young man to Jesus. And it is this lack that prompts him to fall to his knees, right there in the middle of the street, and try to put words to it: “Good Teacher,” he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, of course, senses the sincerity of the young man’s question and, out of compassion, answers not with riddles or questions as he sometimes does, but directly and with some urgency. “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.”
And that, of course, is when the poor rich young man’s heart sinks and he turns away, broken. Because he can’t give away all that he owns, and then go follow Jesus just as Jesus was: penniless, homeless, without even a shred of recognized legitimacy or respectability. He just can’t.
How will it be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven?
It will be hard.
This is what Jesus says then, clear as day. And of course this means our question today must be: why? What is it about wealth that makes it so hard? Wealth, in and of itself, is as morally neutral as is poverty. And while there is much I could say about the wealth gap in this country which continues to increase to absurd and frankly grotesque proportions so that, as of this year, the top 1% of people now own 16 times more money than the bottom 50%, too often this kind of talk puts the focus on others — on the super-rich, on multinational corporations, on the systems of power that govern this country and the world in their own name and to their own ends — and I’d like to focus instead today on us; people who for the most part may not seem rich, much less feel rich, but who are – again, measured against global standards -wealthy beyond imagining, every one of us.
So again, and thinking about ourselves rather than about those rich people out there, what is it about our wealth that makes entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven so hard? Or, in terms of our Gospel story today: What actually is it that hampers the eager young man? What gets between him and his deepest desire, and leads him to go away grieving?
He was a good guy, remember? He kept all the commandments, he didn’t cheat or lie or rip anyone off, and he had a passion for God that drove him to seek out Jesus, and that drove Jesus, in turn, to ‘love him’, we are told. In this case, at least, it doesn’t seem to have anything with to do with the way he treats others. Instead it is something about himself – his relationship to himself, I mean, — that is getting in the way of accessing the kind of full freedom and happiness and peace all rolled into one that he calls ‘eternal life.’
It’s something we all do, I think, rich and poor, young and old – a kind of default pattern we many of us slip into when we’re very young that Jesus, through the example of his teachings and his life, is trying to unhook us from. And it has to do, I think, with our confusion about what it means to be wealthy and what it means to be poor; between abundance and scarcity.
Let me tell you a story to get at what I mean…
Many years ago now my boys and I spent a long weekend with a dear friend who lives up in Maine. She had just built a house, this friend Jane, in the woods; a beautiful house with a view of the bay. My older son was sick in bed with one of those fevers young kids get all the time, and my younger son Lucas and I had headed out for a walk round the bay. It was a blustery day – late in the Fall, and in the distance the sea was a cold looking green/grey, but the beach was dry and, as we turned the corner, the vistas opened out, away from any sign of human habitation, onto forest and huge rocks and stones and great long chunks of drift wood and pebbles. We both had good jackets on, and water proof boots, so the blusteriness of the day only added to our pleasure and as we walked along we sang and chatted and explored individually and together, and, every now and then, Lucas stooped down to gather up a stone saying something like: “look at this one, Mama, isn’t it beautiful?” and then, beaming with happiness, he put it in his pocket. And so our walk went: the wind, the forest, the water, the singing and the chatting and the occasional, wildly generous, extra gift of an especially beautiful rock thrown in for free for Lucas to discover and then claim as his own.
It was only on the way back, once we had explored the place where the huge boulders jutted out from the edge of the forest and sort of threw themselves randomly across the beach that I noticed Lucas flagging. He had, by then, a double handful of rocks balanced out in front of him, and both pockets were full. I’d told him that he could keep them, but that I didn’t want to carry them and had stuck to my word. The rocks were beautiful – they really were – golds and whites and greens and blacks – but they were heavy. “Let a few of them go,” I said. They’re weighing you down.”
‘They are weighing me down,’ he replied. “But I can’t let them go! They’re mine!”
“But they’re ruining your adventure,” I tried to explain.
“I know.” He said. And then, in a little bit: “But I can’t let them go. I want to, but I can’t,” and he kept trudging his way across the now thankfully sandy beach, laden with beauty turned to burden, and no longer able to sing or jump or play – because, after all, how could he do these things with twenty-odd stones to carry in his two little hands?
The rich young man had come to Jesus knowing exactly what he wanted – what he called ‘eternal life’ and what others call happiness, maybe, or enlightenment, or sanctification — and he had then left, as hunched and burdened as my son on the beach that day, I can’t help thinking, knowing that what he had prevented him for getting it. There was likely nothing wrong with the things that he owned – perhaps some of them were even as beautiful as Lucas’ stones – and they didn’t cause him to treat others cruelly, or unjustly. It’s just that the sheer volume of them weighed him down, cut him off, and changed the angle of his vision from taking in all that was being offered around him, to balancing and guarding and protecting only them.
What seemed to him in his day-to-day life like abundance, then, was actually scarcity. Do you see? An appalling shrinking down of what was – all of it – to what was his. A situation, in other words, and when seen from the outside at least, of the most dire scarcity. Just like Lucas with his rocks, which were nothing in comparison to the joy of singing and laughing and chatting and exploring and climbing in freedom — not as owner-of, but as part-of, as one-with every single element that made up the scene. And, of course, Jesus knows this. He says as much, flat out, to his followers: “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….”
There is no one who opens their hands and lets the rocks fall back to the beach who won’t receive a hundred fold in all that returns as they clack to the ground, he is saying. Because it’s been there all along, that abundance, that wealth if you like – the wealth of the world – all of it, for all of us, “now,” Jesus says, just to be sure we understand what he is saying, not in some after-death utopia but, as he says again: “In this age.”
So the question is then (and I can’t stand this phrase, it still makes me anxious every time I hear it, but it does seem to be the pertinent question for the day): Can we let go? I mean, can we trust God enough to believe that what seems to us to be abundance is actually scarcity – and what looks alarming like scarcity is actually wealth abundant?
Another way of saying this is: Is having everything and owning nothing enough? I mean for us? For you?
Think of last Sunday. Think of the joy and the energy and the Spirit that flowed through us when we stepped out of this comfortable and familiar space into the world. Did the fact that we had walked away not from a traditional church building to be sure — that part you have already done! – but from a space where we are free to gather in comfort and peace nonetheless, set apart from the chaos and the grandeur of the great wide world out there – did the fact that we let this go have anything to do with the fullness we felt – the wealth?