In today’s gospel, a rich man comes to Jesus and asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Huh. In my seventeen years as an ordained pastor, no one has ever asked me, “Amy, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
I’ve certainly had conversations with people about their beliefs about heaven and hell, but as a presenting pastoral question or burning concern, how to inherit eternal life is not on the top ten list. Or the top twenty.
What is on the list, in my experience, are questions like:
Where can I get support for my parents, whose health is failing?
How do I begin to rebuild my marriage?
Where can I put my grief over my loved one’s death?
Can you pray with me before my surgery?
How do I come out to my parents?
How can I possibly make a pledge to the church when my finances are so uncertain?
My experience is that this world is front and center on people’s hearts and minds, not the next. This world is hard to navigate. Each week presents dilemmas and challenges, worries and a dizzying array of options for how to relate to others. Most people I’ve worked with in my three cures to date find it very tricky to order their loves, and they want very much to be a force for good in the lives of those around them. They want to be instruments of God’s peace here and now, more than victors in some grand contest to get into the presence of God some day in the future.
I’ve found this to be true for all manner of people – young and old, conservative and liberal, poets and engineers, poor and rich.
For three years, I served a church in a very wealthy suburb of Milwaukee. One of the members was a prominent business owner whose corporation was a major employer in the area. He lived a good life, was a generous donor to the church and lots of other non-profits in town, and was part of an amazing group of men in the church who had all come there after AA saved them from lives of addiction.
This was the late 1990s, and his industry, like many, was under pressure to cut costs. Several of his competitors, he told me, had closed their plants in the United States and begun making their products in Mexico. He was wracked with uncertainty about what to do. If he moved to Mexico, many long-term employees in Milwaukee would be out of a job – people who had worked hard and been loyal and had lots of commitments to family. If he didn’t move, his profits would be so much less than his competitors that it might threaten the future of the company itself.
This man was wealthy. He was also prayerful. He was not worried about eternal life. He was worried about John and Caroline and Herman. He was worried about the diners and donut shops in Menomonee Falls that depended on a steady flow of customers from his manufacturing plant. He was not worried about “going to hell,” but rather the “hell” of causing suffering and living out of alignment with his values.
The scriptures are not for or against wealth. Overall, the scriptures equate neither poverty nor wealth with faithfulness. Woven through both testaments are stories of rich people who used their wealth in the service of God and God’s people: Joseph of Arimethea gives his grave for the burial of our Lord. Lydia, a wealthy merchant of indigo, gives her home over to the followers of Christ as a meeting place, an enormous risk both to her reputation and to her safety. And importantly, Amos, the great prophet of justice from whom we heard today, was a wealthy man. He was a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees, which means he owned land. Nothing in his prophecy or in the historical record indicates that he renounced his holdings.
These and other figures used their wealth for love’s sake. They did not assume it made them better or different than others. They did not cling to it.
I wouldn’t be here today without people like Lydia and Joseph. Time and again throughout my life I’ve been blessed by the generosity of those with means. People who donated to the camps I’ve attended, the university I attended, scholarships and grants that got me through seminary, those who offered substantial funding to build and renovate this space where we worship – I think most of us have reason to be thankful for someone(s).
What scripture does tell us, over and over again, including in today’s gospel, is that this is no mean feat. It is hard to be wealthy and generous. It is hard to be rich and squeeze through the eye of a needle and into the land of God’s reign.
Let’s look at how that plays out for the rich man in today’s gospel.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. And Jesus immediately shifts the question. “What are the commandments?” he asks. 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. He’s done all these things. That’s pretty good! He is a faithful Jew, who is trying to live a faithful life. I think this is important to note, as this character is often dismissed as a moral failure. He’s not.
But there’s more. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” Note two things:
First, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus is speaking to this man and his soul, and calling on him out of love, not condemnation.
Second, Jesus asks him not to burn his money or bury it, but to give it to the poor. To do this is to be part of turning upside down the moral and social ordering of the day. In that day, it was assumed that if you were wealthy, you were a morally good person and had earned God’s favor. And if you were poor, you had made moral mistakes and fallen out of God’s favor. For him to give to the poor is to divest himself and to challenge that ranking of people. It not only saves lives by satiating hunger, it opens up a different future for the community.
Does this man depend on his riches? Is his sense of self rooted in the social rank that comes with wealth? Give it up, Jesus says, and depend on me. And by sharing with your neighbor, blessing the neighbor, you will be blessed and grow in not just your ability to depend on me but your joy in doing so.
So what did he do? We don’t know. He goes away shocked/gloomy here. But perhaps he eventually did respond to this invitation. I hope he did. Maybe he did it gradually. I know very few people who respond to God’s call to them in a heartbeat and full-throttle, like St. Francis stripping off his clothes and walking away from his family. Rather, most people, myself included, need Jesus to ask us over and over again, need the support of a community and the model of others and experiences where our hearts are deeply moved in order to relinquish our grip on whatever it is that keeps us from trusting Christ.
My fantasy is that the rich man did give everything to the poor and then joined up with the early disciples as a prophet, working against the corruption and injustice that made it impossible for most of the people to live a decent life. For while the scriptures do not condemn wealth per se, they do condemn systems that perpetuate injustice and call on God’s people to work tirelessly to change them. Twenty-eight hundred years after Amos spoke to Israel, our systems still “turn justice to wormwood” and we do, in so many ways, “trample the poor in the gate.” On average, today’s upper-income families are almost seven times wealthier than middle-income ones, compared to 3.4 times wealthier in 1984. When compared to lower income family wealth, upper income family wealth is 70 times larger. (thinkprogress.org). Homelessness in Boston increased more than 15 percent between late 2011 and early 2015.
It is the call of all of God’s people to work to change that, using whatever wealth, whatever voice, whatever skills we have. As we do this, we’ll find that eternal life starts now, starts here. “We are saved when we stop worrying about our salvation and turn our attention to God and neighbor.” (James Thompson). Let us step into eternity as we step out of our small concerns and embrace all those whom God loves.