Let's look at the conversation that this rich man has with Jesus more closely, and then we will see that this man's wealth is not the problem, until it gets in the way.
We Are Rich
You just might be experiencing a little bit of tension after listening to today's gospel text. We have heard a story about a rich man who came before Jesus because he wanted to follow him, but because he was unable to give up his wealth, he then left Jesus in shock and grief. Now, depending on where you perceive your socio-economic status to be you might be like the disciples, amazed or maybe a bit perturbed by Jesus' words: "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" Jesus doesn't mince words here; he says very clearly, "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."
Yes, the camel through the eye of the needle, just what does Jesus mean by that. Does Jesus mean this literally, like the little drawing on the front of your scripture insert, a big old camel and a little teeny tiny needle? Or does Jesus have another meaning in mind. If we were to journey back to New Testament times, we would see that the cities are surrounded by walls and a few gates to pass in and out. One of Jerusalem's gates is referred to as "the eye of the needle." Its narrow entrance inhibits invaders from raiding the city. However, this safety feature also has its drawbacks. Especially for the rich man, riding along on his camel which is overloaded with all of his earthly possessions, pulls his camel up in front of this small entrance and is ready to enter the city. In order for this man to enter into the city, the camel must be entirely unloaded, let through the gate, and then reloaded. Now the rich man would normally stay atop his camel and waltz right into the city through one of the larger gates, but Jesus is saying here that this is how hard it would be, that rich man on his soupped up camel loaded with all of his worldly possessions would have to enter the gates of the city through that smallest of gates.
Now you might be sitting there thinking that you are a poor college student and not at all like the rich man. In our society we think immediately of people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Britney Spears, and Tiger Woods -- these are the rich people in America. But think about it this way, of the 6 billion people in this world, the average annual income of the richest 1% of the population is $24,000. In America that 24,000 is not a lot of money, especially if we consider that it is the average among the likes of Bill Gates' $64 billion, that means that there are people who are part of the richest 1% who earn much less than $24,000.
OR, think about it in this way, ݢ of the world's population survives on $2 per day. It costs me $15 per day just to rent my apartment, and that does not include food. For those of you that live in the dorms, it costs you $21 per day to live and eat there. If you don't think you are in the top 1% you are certainly in the top 10%.
My friends we are the Rich Man. Just like he did, we come here today seeking Jesus, and when we hear Jesus words, "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;" Will we respond as the rich man in the gospel lesson did, and leave here in sorrow and grief, or will we find something in Jesus' words that this rich man did not.
Let's look at the conversation that this rich man has with Jesus more closely, and then we will see that this man's wealth is not the problem, until it gets in the way. This man comes before Jesus seeking eternal life. They have a discussion about the commandments, in fact Jesus quotes these commandments saying, you 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.'" The man says Yes, I know these; I have kept them from my youth. And for all we know he has, Jesus doesn't deny it, in fact it says in the scripture reading: "Jesus looked at him and loved him." So what was it that sent the man running off shocked and grieving? For those of you who know the commandments, even if you don't have each one memorized, you probably know that there are ten. The list given here is only six, what happened to the other four; especially the one that Jesus will later call the greatest commandment, "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." This commandment to love the Lord first and foremost is absent from the list of commandments that this rich man has kept.
Jesus then says to the man, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." I don't think Jesus is testing the man in order to see if he will put God before possessions, but we see clearly here that this man is not able to follow God, his response to Jesus' invitation to follow him, is to leave in shock and grief. It wasn't his money that was the problem; it was that his money became more important to him than following God. This man's possessions and wealth were his stumbling block; they tripped him up on his way to eternal life.
And so, rich young students of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, is money your stumbling block? I realize that I could be on the firing wall standing here talking about money to University students. After all isn't that why you come to college, to get a good education, a better job, and to make money?!?!? Aren't we told from the time we're young that we need to go to college if we ever want to have a good job?
So, why did you choose to come to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln? I read an article this week about students choosing colleges and the incentives that colleges are offering in order to get students to go there. Here is some of what it said:
Life on college campuses isn't what it used to be. Faced with fierce competition for students, colleges have turned to creating upscale facilities on their campuses. The University of Houston just opened a $35 million wellness center, featuring a five-story climbing wall that looks like it belongs in Arches National Park, and swimming pools bordered by boulders and palm trees. It looks like a posh resort. Students now have massages, pedicures and manicures at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, while Washington State University lays claim to the largest whirlpool bath on the West Coast. It holds 53 people. At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, students can play any one of 52 golf courses on a room sized golf simulator, using real balls and clubs. The student center at Penn State has two ball rooms, three art galleries, a movie theatre with surround sound, plus a 550-gallon saltwater aquarium with a live coral reef. Ohio State University is spending $140 million to build a 657,000 square foot complex featuring kayaks and canoes, indoor batting cages and rope courses, massages, and a climbing wall large enough for 50 students to scale simultaneously. Not to be outdone, the University of Southern Mississippi is planning a water park complete with slides, a meandering river and a "wet deck" -- a flat, moving sheet of water so that students can lie back and stay cool while sunbathing.
What kind of amenities are they offering here at UNL? My college certainly didn't offer anything close to this. I was in 9th grade when I decided to attend Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota, the day my older brother packed his bags to go to Concordia; I started planning to attend there as well. I knew that I needed to go to college and I figured that if Concordia was good enough for my brother it was good enough for me. What about you . . . why did you choose the college you did? For the football team? Because your sibling or parents attended here? For a great degree program? For the Lutheran Student Center? Or why did you choose to go to college at all? To become educated and independent? To get a great job and make a lot of money?
So after reading this article I got to thinking, is our culture telling us that life is really all about the money? Does more money brings more students into colleges and is money the reward that students intend to leave with. Is college really all about money? Is life in America really all about the money? If so, is this the same kind of stumbling block that fell before the rich man in our gospel text?
How can we avoid leaving here today in shock and grief over what Jesus has told us? I think our task is to recognize the thing that the Rich man didn't see. Even though we are rich we are still held responsible for what Jesus has called the greatest commandment, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might. We are called as Christians to make our first priority God. When Martin Luther explained this commandment he said that we are to fear love and trust God above all things.
Our wealth isn't the problem unless it gets in the way, as it did for the rich man in the gospel lesson. We are asked to give of our money, our time, our talents and gifts so that they do not get in the way of our opportunity to follow God. This doesn't mean that in order to be a Christian we need to go out and sell everything that we have and follow God with just the clothes on our back and the love of Jesus in the manger of our hearts. It means that instead of relying on our savings accounts, we rely on God for life, and for health, and for eternal salvation.
Our culture tells us that we should depend on our identity and that life comes from such status symbols like money and power, but Jesus tells us that only when we place our trust in him will we have a true and lasting identity as a child of God and will we receive the gift of eternal life. When we truly trust in God, we can then see things such as money, possessions, and influence, as gifts from God entrusted to us for use in God's kingdom on earth.
The Social Ministry Committee is launching a program today entitled "It's Not About Me." Each month we will focus on a different way that you are encouraged to put God and neighbor before ourselves. The "It's Not About Me" program is not just about money, but also about prayer, time, talents and actions. If we put our trust in God above all, and if we put the needs of the community above our own we will remove the stumbling blocks that tripped up this rich young man and open up a path to a God who, with arms outstretched, offers to us a richness beyond all imagination.
After the offering is received today we will pray an offertory prayer . . . we speak these words to God: We offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us--our selves, our time, and our possessions, signs of your gracious love, receive them for the sake of him who offered himself for us, Jesus Christ our Lord. When we truly believe that all we have is a gift from God, and what we give is returning to God what is his; then we are taking seriously the commandment that the rich man from our text was unable to. At the very bottom line it's about priorities, and what we are willing to put first in our lives.
Jesus knew that it would be hard for people to follow him; he knew that there would be stumbling blocks that even the most faithful would trip over. This is why he turns to the disciples, who are in a stupor equal to that of the rich man and says, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." For those who fear, love and trust in God above all earthly things, all things are possible; the camel will pass effortlessly through the eye of the needle and the rich man will enter the gates of heaven.
Faithful discipleship is hard. Just like the rich man with his camel unloading all possessions in order to pass through the gate of the city, we unload our baggage full of sins and riches at the foot of the cross. We then go through the cross and God re-loads us with riches beyond our understanding. Yet, we take comfort in knowing that Christ has gone before us and is guiding, supporting and leading us each step of the way.
Sara Spohr is pastor of Southwood Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE.