Text: Mark 10:17-31
Many of you remember the TV show from the 1960’s, The Twilight Zone. I was a little young for it when it aired, but not too young to watch it later when it was in syndication. The Twilight Zone was awesome – it was eerie and sort of creepy, and could be scary for a kid. It was sometimes bizarre to the point of being almost humorous, and it was very creative. The show was not only entertaining; it often had a real point and could be a great vehicle for teaching.
One episode was titled “A Nice Place to Visit.” It told the story of a thief named Rocky Valentine, who is shot by the police during a robbery. When Mr. Valentine wakes up, he finds himself in a strange place where he has everything he ever wanted. He is in a beautiful penthouse filled with perfectly-fitting, expensive clothes. The dresser drawers are filled with more cash than Mr. Valentine has ever seen. He’s surrounded by beautiful women who can’t resist him. When he gambles, he wins…every single time. Everything is so perfect that he concludes that he’s died and gone to heaven.
But within a month Mr. Valentine is bored out of his mind. He realizes that having everything he ever wanted is not really what he thought it would be. It’s not paradise; it’s more like torture. He realizes that all of these things have no real value. At the very end of the episode Mr. Valentine cries out to a man he assumes is the “angel” in charge of this strange place, saying, “I can’t stand this! I don’t belong here in heaven. I belong in the other place. Please send me to the other place!” To which the “angel” replies, “Mr. Valentine, this is the other place.”
It’s a commonly held belief that the “stuff” of life is what will make us feel fully alive. This is no new phenomenon. In our scripture today, a rich man comes and kneels before Jesus. Right away, this is a red flag: this is not the posture a rich man would ordinarily take. Rich people do not kneel before poor people. This gesture took a lot for the rich man. He clearly thought a great deal of Jesus. He kneels down and addresses Jesus by saying, “Good Teacher, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It’s hard to know exactly what this man is really asking for. We often assume that this man is asking how to get into heaven after he dies - and maybe he is. But what we do know is that what Jesus offers is much more than life after death. Jesus offers life before death – life here and now. The Kingdom of God to which Jesus points is about eternal life that begins in the here and now. Jesus said, “I have come so that you might have abundant life” – meaningful, satisfying, vital living. Whatever else he may have been asking, this is what the rich man was interested in.
The man seems very respectful of Jesus, but Jesus does not want the flattery. “Why do you call me good?” he asks. “No one is good but God.” Then Jesus describes what the law asks. 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.”
So far, so good. Jesus essentially says, do what the law asks and lead a good middle class life. I mean, we are all against murder. We are all against stealing. We are all against lying, most of the time. We believe in honoring our parents (although we would probably prefer that you ask us how well we are doing at that rather than ask our parents).
Jesus says to follow the law and the rich man replies that he has kept the law since he was a youth. He is respectful and pious and he genuinely wants to do the right thing. The scripture says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. Surprisingly, this is the only occasion in Mark where it says Jesus loved somebody. This man comes to Jesus, he is deeply interested in what Jesus has to offer, he has kept God’s law, and Jesus instinctively cares for this man.
This is almost too good to be true. If we were to describe someone we would like to have come and join our church, this is the guy. A good, sincere, respectful person shows up seeking God. And he’s rich.
Yet despite his model behavior and attention to the law, something is not right. This man realizes something is missing – that’s why he came to Jesus in the first place. Something was keeping this man from God; something was standing in the way of his spiritual growth. Something was blocking his ability to receive God’s gift.
This is where Jesus’ answer gets very disorienting. Jesus tells him what he must do – not in anger, not in condescension, but in love, because he wants what is best for this man. He tells him he lacks one thing—to sell what he owns, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus.
Can you imagine Jesus saying this to you? Can you imagine being asked to sell everything, give it all to the poor, and follow Jesus? We can’t even fathom the possibility. It sounds absurd. If we sold everything and gave it all away, we would be homeless. We would be out on the street. How would that help anyone?
This is a radical demand. But if we think about it, it is no more radical than what Jesus has been saying for a while now. In our scriptures the past few weeks, Jesus has been saying that you must lose your life in order to save it, that that the greatest must be the servant of all, that we each have to take up our cross, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Here, he is putting this radical demand in very concrete terms for this rich man.
And then, Jesus goes on to say, “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 can tell ourselves that Jesus demand was to the rich man and not to us – we can believe that money was his Achilles heel, so to speak, and it is not that for us. But Jesus goes and makes this generalized statement about the impossibility of a rich person entering the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ words are very disorienting. We can buy the part about keeping the commandments - that is a pretty standard, boilerplate response on the part of Jesus - but this is going too far. If anyone tells you the Bible means what it says and says what it means, that they don’t have to interpret the Bible but just read it and believe it and do it, direct them to this passage. This teaching has troubled people so much that we generally try to gloss over it in one way or another.
There are a few early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that have the word “rope” instead of “camel.” There is only one letter different in the Greek word for camel and the word for a rope used to anchor a ship. Apparently, the idea of a camel going through the eye of a needle was such a hard teaching that scribes who copied the Bible felt that what was intended there must have been “rope” and not “camel.”
And then there is the interpretation that this actually referred to a gate in the temple wall called the Needle Gate. There was a very narrow gate with a very short door. If a camel got as low as it could and kind of did the limbo, then maybe, with great difficulty, it might be able to pass through this gate. The problem, however, is that it was the Middle Ages before somebody came us with this interpretation, and there is no evidence whatsoever that something called the Needle Gate ever existed.
This would be roughly equal to a modern claim that Jesus did not mean a camel as in the animal, but a Camel cigarette. The point is, this is such a tough teaching that we want to look for loopholes. We want to look for a way out and we can be creative in doing so. The easiest way out, of course, is to claim that we are not rich.
We can look at athletes and celebrities and CEOs making millions of dollars and think that we really don’t have all that much. But we are deluding ourselves. In our world, if you have a place to live with central heat and running water and electricity and two changes of clothes and no worries over where your meals are coming from, you are rich.
You can google the term “Global Rich List” and find a website where you can enter your annual income and find where you stand compared to the rest of the world. I did that and learned that worldwide, I am in the 1%. If you earned $32,000 or more, you are in the top 1% worldwide. Compared with the world, we all qualify as rich.
We may try to weasel our way out of this statement of Jesus by finding various loopholes, but I’m not sure it works.
What do we have to do to inherit eternal life? If we are wealthy, we have to do something like thread the eye of a needle with a camel. It wouldn’t have had to be a camel, Jesus could have said a rope and the result is the same. He could have said an unfiltered Camel cigarette or a canned ham, but the result is the same: you can’t do it.
At this point, let’s step back for a moment. Let’s go back to the commandments Jesus lists. He does not say you shall not covet, but instead he says, “You shall not defraud.” For a rich man, defrauding another might be a bigger temptation than coveting. Many of those who had accumulated wealth in the ancient world had done so at the expense of others—by exploiting and abusing and defrauding. As far as we can tell, this man had not done so. But perhaps his father had. Perhaps his family had become rich by exploiting the poor, and this man inherited his wealth.
Which is an interesting thought, because that is the way he wants to get eternal life: he wants to inherit it. What must I do to inherit eternal life? It’s really an odd question. It is an odd question because inheritance is not about what we do; it is about to whom we are related.
We cannot do anything to gain eternal life. We are with the rich man, trying to get that camel through the eye of the needle, and it’s not working. Thankfully, Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.”
The story is told of the guy who dies and is standing before St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter explains the point system: you tell us what you’ve done, we give you points for it, and if you make 10,000 points, you get in. The guy rubs his chin somewhat nervously, but only a little, because he's been really good, and he starts in on the list. “Well, I was a minister in the Baptist Church for fifty years and dedicated my working life to the church.” St. Peter perfunctorily says, “100 points.” Oohh, that’s not very many points, the poor guy thinks.
He goes on: “I was married to the same woman for 55 years, and faithful the whole time. We raised four children—one is a teacher, one is a doctor, one is a pastor, and one is a missionary.” St. Peter says, ”100 points,” and adds it onto his page. Yikes, this is going to be really tough, the guy thinks. “I was a member of Rotary and volunteered countless hours helping my community.” 100 points. “I didn’t drink or smoke or swear or cheat or lie.” St. Peter adds another 50 points. “Oh, my,” the guy says, sweating profusely now. “If I get into heaven at all, it will be by the grace of God.” “Grace of God!” St. Peter shouts. “10,000 points---you’re IN!”
This is the point Jesus is making. Eternal life, or what Jesus calls the kingdom of God, is not about what we do, it is about what God does. In the end, it is pure grace.
Jesus’ words to this rich man are hyperbole. Hyperbole, maybe with a touch of sarcasm, even. Because this man is asking the wrong question, and Jesus’ answer points this out.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to earn God’s favor? It’s the wrong question. You can’t earn it or inherit it; it’s a gift. Eternal life is God’s doing, it is pure grace, but we need to be careful here. There is a temptation to make God’s grace into a way out from having to listen to the truth Jesus spoke to the rich man. God’s grace can become just another loophole.
Eternal life – abundant life – life worth living, here and now – it is God’s gift, but the one way we can miss out on a gift is by not accepting it. It is possible to hold so tightly onto something that we cannot open our hands to accept anything else.
The rich man was clinging so tightly to his possessions that he could not accept God’s gift. The same may be true of us. And the fact is, it is very difficult for us to seriously consider that our wealth might keep us from God.
Mark Twain once said that people holding four aces do not tend to call for re-deals. Considering what our wealth might do to us spiritually is not something we are anxious to do. Jesus told the rich man that he had to change. He was following the letter of the law but missing the point of the law, the heart of the law.
Jesus’ challenge to the man to sell his possessions, give to the poor and follow him was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments. The commandments are not so much a checklist of rules to be followed but characteristics of one living the eternal life God offers. You may remember that Jesus did not simply ask the rich man to sell his possessions; it was sell your possessions and follow me. The problem was not simply his possessions; it was that his possessions kept him from following.
The real question is, how do I follow Jesus? Jesus comes back to this again and again. “Follow me,” he says. He was asking of this rich man the same he asked of everyone.
Simon and Andrew and James and John had left their nets and their careers as fishermen to follow Jesus; Levi had left his toll booth and his job as a tax collector to follow Jesus; this man is asked to leave behind his wealth and follow Jesus.
What are we holding onto tightly that keeps us from more closely following Jesus? Perhaps we are clinging to old ways of thinking and doing. Maybe we hold on tightly to our reputation, our power, our need for control. Like the man in this story, it may well be our attachment to possessions. Perhaps we are just filling our lives with stuff. I wonder - what is it that keeps us from following?
In The Twilight Zone, Rocky Valentine learns that in the end, a life centered on wealth and possessions and pleasure – a life centered on ourselves – is no way to live. Jesus invites us to a better way. Jesus invites us to eternal life, abundant life. Jesus invites us to follow him. Amen.
(thanks to Dennis Sanders for the story from The Twilight Zone)