Squeeze?

He is a good man. He is perhaps a very good man. He comes to Jesus – he ran up to him, we’re told – and he kneels before him with a question for which he doesn’t have an answer. His approach and his posture tell us he’s not asking merely out of curiosity, he’s not asking to test Jesus or to make him say something that would get him in trouble with the authorities; he’s asking with urgency, and he is sincere.  He’s a good man, and he want’s to do everything well.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We have heard the story before, many times. With him kneeling there, we can already hear the echo of those dreaded words from Jesus’ lips, “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.” We know the man will go away grieving, his many possessions holding him back. Our hearts grieve with him as we watch him go away. In the entire Gospel of Mark he’s the only person singled out as being loved by Jesus. He’s also the only one whom Jesus called who didn’t follow. Turned around and walked away.

We put ourselves in his shoes and we wonder, what would we do in response to Jesus’ unsettling words, “Go and give your earthly treasure to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” We have heard the words from the letter to the Hebrews, but this is when we know their meaning in our bones, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, … it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare.” The word of God is living and active, not safely contained between the covers of an old book. We cannot tame it, though not for lack of trying. It gets to us, it leaves us unsettled, it disrupts our slumber, it convicts, makes demands. It is living and active and sharp, rendering us naked and bare before God. We wrap ourselves in all kinds of protective layers, but the word of God cuts through them like butter; it is aimed at the heart and it never misses.

“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.” Am I too rich to enter? Do I want what Jesus offers or do I let my stuff get between me and the life God wants for me and us and the whole creation? Is my stuff getting between me and the life I really want? Do I have to sell what I own and give it to the poor? All of it? Maybe that was only meant for that particular man, and not for me? I’m not rich anyway, not really, am I? Lydia says, rich is relative, and I think she has a point. I’m not Jeff Bezos; I’m comfortable, but I’m not rich. Dear Jesus, are you aware of our mortgage, my car payments, my student loans? Do you understand that one of our pay checks is basically just enough to cover our child care? You’re not talking to me, are you? Oprah is rich; Bill and Malinda Gates are rich, and the Koch brothers.

Our minds are quick to add protective layers so we don’t stand quite so naked and bare before God. Surely this episode isn’t to be taken literally. Surely its true depth lies in its symbolism — so why don’t you unfold the metaphor for us, preacher? Give us something spiritually uplifting to cover our nakedness.

It’s been done, quite creatively. In one medieval commentary, a scholar surmised that “the eye of the needle” was the name of one of the city gates of Jerusalem. In order for a camel to get through, the burden had to be taken off its back, and the beast had to get on its knees. This was obviously an excellent interpretation for a time when every bishop dreamed of building a cathedral: tell folks who wish to enter eternal life to get on their knees and write checks to the church until the burden on their back is small enough to let them slip through the gate. Never mind that Jesus told the man to give the money to the poor, not the church. Never mind that there never was such a gate.

I didn’t check the cathedral ledgers, but I’m certain it was a lucrative interpretation. It also completely missed the point. The word of God is living and active and sharp, and no effort of ours can render it convenient and dull or dead. There’s no easy button.

Just before this scene with the rich man, Mark tells us about the people who were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. And Jesus said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”[1] A little child is the personification of need and trusting dependence. The rich man in today’s lesson is everything a little child is not; he is the personification of achievement and confident independence. He knows how to get things done. When presented with a challenge, he has various options at his disposal, and a solution is never more than a phone call away. But he ran, Mark tells us, to get to Jesus, and now he’s kneeling in the dust. This man isn’t playing games. Something is missing in his life.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus names the commandments dealing with social responsibilities, and the man replies, “I have kept all these since my youth.” Nothing in the story suggests that he is lying or bragging. He is a good man who has done everything right, yet his achievements are not enough. His virtues are not sufficient. His goodness cannot still the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus loves this man, we’re told. Does he love him for his integrity, for his sincerity, his commitment to living a God-pleasing life? Does he love him for asking big questions, questions that matter? Jesus tells the man what to do.

“You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”

The two back-to-back scenes in Mark’s telling of the gospel highlight a great irony: the little children who possess nothing, don’t lack anything – the kingdom of God is theirs. Yet this man who has achieved so much and knows so much, and possesses so much, lacks the one thing that would open to him the door to eternal life. “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” He can’t do it.

“Children,” Jesus says to the disciples, “how hard it s to enter God’s kingdom!” Children he calls them, all of the grown-ups who are trying to keep up with him on the way — his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the kingdom. And like us, they are perplexed and stunned. The eye of a needle is small, too small to squeeze through – then who can enter?

The kingdom of God is not a squeezing matter. No amount of knowledge, goodness, or wealth will open the door to life’s wholeness. The big question is not, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” but rather, “What is God doing to make life whole and how am I part of it?” And the answer is the life and the way of Jesus — his life lived for us, his way opened for us. We want to believe that with enough control or enough goodness we will be able to secure our own future. And Jesus looks at us and says, “No. Come with me.”

The good news sounds like bad news at first: we cannot save ourselves. But it is good news: we cannot save ourselves. And so we can stop trying and we can begin to follow Jesus on the way to the kingdom. He invites us to trust God with the work of saving us; to trust God with our lives and our future, and to begin living for God and for each other in the company of Jesus. He redirects our attention away from ourselves and our anxious worry about our salvation to the needs of those around us, to the poor, to the little ones.

Our salvation is not a private matter; it is deeply connected with God’s salvation of the world. Ken Carder wrote in the Christian Century,

If our worth is based on what we know or own or achieve, we are always going to be insecure, for our value will depend on that which is precarious and temporary. Instead of loving one another, sharing with one another, nurturing the well-being of one another, we compete with one another, use one another, abuse one another and discard one another.[2]

For life to be truly fulfilling and fulfilled for all, the perils of wealth must be addressed as well as the perils of poverty, and Jesus gets us to think deeply about both in this story that resists all our efforts to tame it. It may well be that Jesus’ call to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” is not a one-size-fits-all command for everyone — if it were, he would have taught it more broadly, starting with his disciples. But if the call to “sell and give” isn’t for everyone, it could still be for me or for you.

The word of God is living and active, at work within us and among us, convicting and comforting, unsettling and reorienting. Jesus clearly wants us to think deeply about the things that keep us from following him. But he also wants us to trust that no obstacle will be able to keep God from making life whole and creation complete in the reign of love.

[1] Mk 10:15

[2] Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches (Mk. 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997, p. 831

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