“The deeper we grow in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the poorer we become – the more we realize that everything in life is a gift. The tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving. Awareness of our poverty and ineptitude causes us to rejoice in the gift of being called out of darkness into wondrous light and translated into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.” ― Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel
Have you ever been asked who you would invite to a dinner party if you could have anyone there, alive or long dead?
It’s a tough question to think about. I would invite people like Moses, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and, of course, Genghis Khan [who left the legacy of a gene found in one out of every 200 men, as well as countless other contributions, like paper, gunpowder, paper currency, the compass, and trousers].
Anyway, because I’m a Christian and because I am planning on working in the church, I would be remiss if I did not also invite Jesus to my dinner party.
Even though Jesus is made present to us constantly by the Holy Spirit, he is obviously not here physically. How incredible would it be, then, to have a face-to-face conversation with Jesus. I would be able to know what he looks like, how tall he is, what he likes to eat, and to ask what his favorite color is.
And then of course I would have to ask him the more intense questions. What is the meaning of life? What happens after we die?
What are some questions you would ask Jesus?
This tendency that we have to ask questions when we encounter Jesus is an apparently natural kind of instinct. In addition to always finding Jesus at the dinner table with friends in the gospels, we see him constantly questioned. Sometimes the religious leaders would ask him leading questions, trying to trap him and make him look stupid. He always answered them well and often turned the questions around to make a point. Other times, people would ask him questions about faith. Often, he would respond with a parable, a story told like a riddle.
We see an instance of the questioning of Jesus happen when a young man approaches Jesus as he is traveling around preaching and teaching.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With human beings it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” –Mark 10:17-31
So this young man comes to Jesus and meets him and does exactly what I think all of us would do were we in his shoes: he asks him an important question, genuinely seeking the answer.
But as so often happens with Jesus, the answer this man receives is not at all what he expected.
Apparently this man had it all. The text says “he had great possessions,” which is a polite way of saying he was filthy rich. He also tells Jesus that he has kept God’s commandments since he was a child. But even with all of his possessions and all of his faith, he still wanted more. There was something he was still searching for, despite having it all. So he asks Jesus what he has to do to live forever.
And, perhaps anticipating this man’s lifelong faithfulness to God’s commands, Jesus outlines some of the Ten Commandments. The man is proud then to tell Jesus about his faithfulness.
Although there are few details given beyond the dialogue of their conversation, I picture Jesus adding this last part on a little casually: “Great! You’ve done everything. Oh, except there’s just one more little thing you need to do: go and sell all your stuff and then give all the money you get to the poor, and when you die you’ll have heavenly treasure. Since you’ll have not even a penny to your name, you’ll have plenty of time to come and follow me and my other friends as we wander the countryside, homeless.”
Then, when the man leaves sad because he had a lot of really great stuff, Jesus says something even more surprising: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” He tells his friends that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.
I’ve heard a lot of really wealthy people try to rationalize this part of Jesus’ teaching. “Well, he just means it would be really hard.” Or, better yet, “It’s just a metaphor. Jesus is speaking metaphorically.”
But that’s where I have to disagree.
Have you ever seen a camel in real life? They are pretty huge, at least as big as a pretty large horse with the addition of a large hump on their backs.
Have you seen a needle, or tried to thread one before? I might be better at sewing if I could actually thread one, but after two or three tries I get so frustrated and stop trying because it is really hard to thread a needle. Suggesting that a camel go through the eye is so impossible that it seems like bizarre example. There are a ton of other much less ridiculous images Jesus could have used: “it would be easier for a camel to go through the front door” [okay, that’s still pretty ridiculous], or, “it would be easier for a camel to slide under the fence”… both of which would also be impossible, if slightly more tenable images.
What Jesus is really saying is that it is ridiculously impossible for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God, just like it is ridiculously impossible for a camel to fit through a needle.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. PHEW. Thank goodness I’m not wealthy!
Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you. If you are reading this blog, chances are you are rich. On a global scale, only 2% of Americans live in true poverty. Even if you exclude the rest of the world and just consider the American economy, a majority of us would fall among the 71% of Americans who qualify as middle or upper class.
Most of us are wealthy. And Jesus says it is impossible for us to enter the Kingdom of God.
That’s hard for us to hear, especially since we are very used to being able to do what we want, or worse, to buy what we want. However, it is impossible to force or buy our way into God’s Kingdom.
But that’s also not the end of the story. Even Jesus’s best friends, who are literally homeless wanderers who follow him around, hoping they can catch a meal with some generous strangers, even they protest at what he says. “Jesus, who in the world can be saved?! Who can enter God’s kingdom?” Peter even reminds him: “Jesus, don’t you remember how you called us away from our jobs, our homes, our families and our money? And how we left all of that and followed you? Remember that?”
Then Jesus drops some of the best wisdom in the whole Bible. “Listen, guys,” he tells them. “With human beings it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
This story hits people in a lot of different ways. Some people think they have to sell everything they have, give it to the poor, and become a missionary. That’s totally valid. That’s what embracing the situation of the young man and taking Jesus at his literal word looks like.
But I don’t think Jesus means that we all have to do that.
See, Jesus tells us that entering the kingdom of God is impossible, but then reminds us that we serve a God who works best in the impossible.
This story is always read by itself, but actually just after it in Mark 10, Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection. Directly after his conversation with the man, it says:
And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” –Mark 10:32-34
See, Jesus says, “With God, all things are possible.” And then he says, “I’m going to be arrested, convicted of a crime I did not commit, tortured and killed. But then I’m going to rise from the dead.”
This is the kind of God we serve. This is what God’s Kingdom looks like. Jesus turns everything on its head. “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” The rich will be left out, and the poor will be welcomed in. The powerful will be stripped of their power, and the powerless will be given power. The most sinful, the least attractive, the weakest will be the most valued. And, most importantly, the dead will be raised to new life. It is a kingdom that does not make sense in our world, and it is impossible for us to enter this kingdom.
But then again, as Jesus himself reminds us from the cross to the grave and back, God does some of God’s best work with the impossible.
Grace and peace,