In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel, the Lord confronts us with a difficult truth, namely “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God,” (v. 23). As with last week’s teaching about marriage, let’s us not attempt to diminish the Lord’s words, nor look for a clever, critical workaround. And just as he did last week, and as if this saying of the Lord’s were not austere enough, he broadens the scope of the difficulty with his clarification to the disciples: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” (v. 24). So, in a sense, the rich among us should take heart. Apparently entering the Kingdom of God is difficult for everybody. But Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 25).
If this seems harsh to us, the disciples thought so too. Once again we are in good company. Mark says that they were exceedingly astonished and asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (vv. 26-27). So the discourse ends, as it were, on a hopeful note: all things are possible with God – even the salvation of the rich.
But, we might ask, what’s so bad about riches? Can one not do a great deal of good with money? If you have money, you can give it away. But you can’t give it away unless you first have it. If we have money, we can help those who don’t. If we have LOTS of money, we can build hospitals and orphanages and schools. So what is so terrible about having money?
In his commentary on this passage, the Venerable Bede points out that a number of saints have been rich people. Even among Jesus’ disciples there was, for example, St. Joseph of Arimathea. If its so hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, then how is it we find a number of them among the saints of the Church? St. Bede gives the answer: “they learned to count their riches as nothing, or to quit them altogether.”
Repeated throughout scripture is the dogged reminder that God looks on the heart. Jesus teaches this lesson many times over in the gospels. Jesus speaks, for example, of the insignificance of eternal things by themselves when he says that nothing that comes from outside of a man can defile him. But, he says, “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mark 7.20ff). Just so, the Lord draws an equivalency between evil thoughts and evil actions when he teaches that anger is the same thing as murder (Matt. 5.22), lust the same thing as adultery (Matt. 5.28).
The Epistle of Titus puts it succinctly: “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1.15).
The disposition of our hearts will be the material condition of our salvation or the loss of our souls. What do I desire? In what do I place my trust? What satisfies me? What brings me joy? Whom do I really love? What motivates my action? What do I live for?
The “impossibility” of a rich man entering the kingdom of God does not speak to some magical, innate evil residing in money or even the possession of it. Still less does it speak to God’s antipathy toward a particular class of people (the rich). It speaks rather to the near inevitability of wealth’s corruption of the human heart. It speaks to our weakness in the face of the world’s blandishments. This weakness, this susceptibility of our hearts to corruption, is at the bottom of various categories of sinfulness: envy, jealousy, covetousness: all matters of the heart. And it is right at the root of the idolatry that afflicts our corporate lives as Americans. We speak of “the markets” as though they were gods that have to be supplicated: “The NASDAQ ‘surprised’ investors,” “The DOW was ‘gloomy’ because of the jobs report,” etc.
In his commentary on today’s Gospel, Bede gives what at first glance may seem a fanciful exposition of what the Lord meant by the camel passing through the eye of a needle. Bede says:
in a higher sense, it is easier for Christ to suffer for those who love Him, than for the lovers of this world to turn to Christ; for under the name of camel, he wished HIMSELF to be understood, because he bore the burden our weakness; and by the needle, he understands the prickings, that is, the pains of his passion. By the eye of a needle, therefore, he means the straits of his passion, by which he, as it were, deigned to mend the torn garments of our nature.
But maybe that’s not so fanciful after all. It gets right to the heart of the matter: the impossibility of salvation from the vantage point of the world, from the vantage point of what is merely human. As WH Auden put it (from “For the Time Being” from his “Christmas Oratorio” – which I never tire of quoting): “nothing can save us that is possible / we who must die demand a miracle.” And that miracle is the coming of eternity into history in the person of Jesus, the advent of pure love – pure self-gift – right in the midst of this world of envy and greed and violence that we’ve made for ourselves. But the coming of Jesus means the destruction of every vain attempt to make a life for ourselves, to earn a living from the world’s resources.
Jesus is the poor man. The man who holds onto absolutely nothing, but lets everything go. He is the one who gives to everyone who asks of him. He seeks nothing of his own, desires to possess nothing for himself, but he pursues only the good of those whom he loves. And because of the logic of love, which really is nothing other than the “content” of the Godhead, we find in Jesus the true heir of divinity, the only-begotten Son of God. And so: “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,” (Mark 10.29-30). Why persecutions? Because the Gospel – and the love of God which it reveals – is subversive. It exposes the futility and emptiness of the world’s means as well as its ends, and the world hates that. If you love hard enough and consistently enough and conspicuously enough, the powers that be will come after you. The cross of Jesus and the lives of the saints show us that.
When we encounter Jesus – animated as he is at every moment of his existence by divine love, which is a consuming fire (Heb. 12.29) – when we come to him, we are faced with a choice. What do we do? Do we return to our families and houses and lands? Do we spend ourselves in the pursuit of what in truth will never make us happy, of what is ephemeral, of what will in the end melt like wax at the fire? Do we return to our petty, bourgeois, do-gooder paganism? God desires from us a LIFE, whole and entire (cf. Gen. 9.5, et passim). And so in the light of the truth which is Jesus, we are faced with a choice. What will we do? Where will we look for this life? Will we continue spinning our wheels, thinking that happiness is just around some next corner, some next uptick in the market or change of fortune? Or will we have the courage to let go of ourselves and the silly identities we have constructed in our weakness, to leave behind the houses we built on sand? Will we have the courage to become empty for the sake of Jesus, and so be consumed by the fire of God’s love?
There is an ancient Christian text, from the fifth century, called “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” I’ve quoted to you before one of my favorite stories from it, but it bears repeating:
Father Lot went to see Father Joseph and said to him, ‘Father as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and, as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘IF YOU WILL, YOU CAN BECOME ALL FLAME.’
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.