Then 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 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, "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.".
Oh Mark, Oh Mark – what are you doing to us? Week after week this summer – discipleship sermon after discipleship sermon – give up this and that, do this and that, welcome these and others, be the last not first, don’t worry about greatness, etc., and now: "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me…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…many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
Enough already! I get it. We get it…discipleship is hard and there is much to do…right? Can we just move on to the next step? There is a next step, right?
Well, I think that’s what the man in our reading thought, too, when he ran up to Jesus, fell on his knees and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus – all matter of fact - tells him to keep the commandments. At this point many of us would probably breathe a sigh of relief and respond just as the man did, “I have kept these all since my youth”. And then Scripture tells us that Jesus “looked at him and loved him”.
I like that. This man seems to have the right answer and Jesus loves him, loves us. This would make for a good ending, right there. But this is Jesus after all, and so he doesn’t stop with loving but goes on to tell the man that there is one more thing he, this man, is lacking. Jesus says, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”
Why did you have to go there Jesus?
I am a little disappointed that Jesus didn’t stop with that loving thing – but I think the young man was even more disappointed. He was shocked and went away grieving, never to be heard from again (or at least not that we know of). He just could not do what Jesus asked him to do. Giving up his wealth must have been too hard even if the promise of eternal life was at stake. Jesus knows how hard his request is and he tells disciples that is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God and be saved; so hard in fact, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
I am not rich, but these are still hard words. I know that whatever I do have is still a lot compared to other people. I have seen people in other countries live with much less yet content and grateful. Still, could I do it? Could you do it? Could you sell all that you own and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus? The way St. Francis did?[i]
I remember when I first thought about entering Seminary. I was working full time and we had moved into our new house right years earlier. We were paying off the mortgage while also making payments for cars and student loans. And then there was this call - God’s call - on my life (really, our lives) and so many reasons not do it. Following God’s call meant to give up my job because the seminary was far away. It meant to depend on one income while having even more expenses. It meant to give up nightly dinners together, time together, life together from Monday through Thursday every week for three years or more, and to put on hold everything that we had dreamed of doing. And yet I knew, that if I was not willing to let go of all that was trying to hold me back, then I would never be able to lead others as they try to follow Jesus. If I tried to make God somehow fit into my life and schedule, how was I ever going to ask others to schedule their lives around God? And so, I went where God was leading me and I am so very glad I did because it also brought me here, to Trinity. But it was tempting to remain as I was. I can understand this rich young man.
I believe the man ran away disappointed, because he could not figure out how he could fit God into his wealth. How to make space for God and be preoccupied with God rather than his possessions. Jesus didn’t ask him to give all that he had so he would be poor, but he asked him to let go of the things that he was putting ahead of God. Because, see, the man was asking Jesus what he had to DO to inherit the Kingdom of God. Truth is, he didn’t have to do anything. It was already right there, but he did not understand it. All he had to do was give up the baggage that kept him from moving forward with God. Just like a camel would be held back by too much baggage at the small gate into Jerusalem (some people believe that the metaphor of the camel and needle is because there is a small gate in the wall around the city and by night only a small door was open – and a camel fully loaded with stuff could not fit through that gate. We all have baggage that holds us back.
Our baggage could be, like the young man in our story, the things we own. A former neighbor of mine left her husband who was so preoccupied with the house they owned. He spent all his time doing stuff around the house and so she moved out and asked him to sell the house so that he would once again remember what was most important. Sometimes the things we own make us blind to what really matters. Other people’s baggage may be emotional or spiritual because of past trauma or because of grudges they hold or disappointments or fears or anger. For them it may be difficult to experience the joys and blessings of life. And it is only once they find a way to let go of the past, that they can once again life free in the presence. The baggage we hold on to is often what defines us and what occupies our time. We all have baggage; we all have stuff we hold on to. What baggage do you carry? What are we filling our lives with instead of Christ? What if we were to “go and sell” it, so to speak? What if we were to give it away – literally and metaphorically. How much more open would we then be to receive the Kingdom of God here and now.
The rich young man goes away grieving because he knows he cannot let go of what doesn’t matter, but we don’t have to. The Good News is that we do not have to walk away but that we can receive the Kingdom of God right here. It is there for the receiving – just simply receive it. We are those in need of God’s love and it is ours. In the past week’s, Jesus always used children to illustrate who are those who will inherit the kingdom of God. This week Jesus turns to the disciples and calls them children. The disciples and we, as followers as of Christ, are the ones standing at the threshold and, with God’s help, we can take that next step toward an even deeper walk with Christ.
At a church in Boston, a preacher supposedly closed a sermon on our text from today by asking those assembled in the sanctuary, to give up one thing that they had come into church with that day. Not everything but just one thing. Some gave money in their wallets, others gave away objects from their pockets or purses, yet others gave their jackets (I remember hearing about little John doing just that), and some gave prayers.[ii]
I love that idea, to give away one thing that you came to church with today; however, I will not ask you to do so. I won’t stop you but I am not asking you to. What I will ask you to do is to consider it. If I was to ask you to give away one thing today – what would you give? What would each one of us give? And in the same way, as you leave here today, I am asking you to, this week, think about and pray about the things that are holding you back from following Christ. Think and pray about what you may be able to let go, so you can follow Christ more freely. How will it feel to let those things go? Would you feel happier? Relived? Empowered? Would you be able to see Christ more clearly?
That is why Jesus asked this man to do go, sell, give, receive, and follow. Once we become aware of what stands in between us and God and can let it go, then we are truly able to receive the kingdom of God. We cannot buy it nor work for it nor do anything – other than let go of what holds us back. May God the Spirit fall afresh on us and may Christ grant us the courage and the wisdom to let go of the things that will not save us, so that our hearts and minds and hands are free to receive the One who does save us.
[ii] I accidently deleted my citation for this illustration. As best as I can remember, the church was Old South in Boston.