As you drive around town, maybe you have also noticed people standing in the median of the road. Sometimes they have signs saying “anything will help” or “God bless you.”
I admit that when I see these people and when I sometimes get into a conversation with them – not because my heart is so good but because I like to ride with my windows down… and I always think about our calling as Christians to help others
but I also think, from the comfort of my car, that there are better ways for these people to get what they’re after, that there are indeed institutions and agencies that exist specifically to assist those who are poor and give more wholistic support to those in need of help.
A few weeks ago, I was driving with my whole family in the car.
All five of us – three in car seats – in a Prius – can you believe it?
And the kids noticed a man in the median of the road with a cardboard sign asking for money, and they asked from the back seat what was going on and when I explained, they wondered aloud whether we should give anything to this man.
I talked to them about how we give to our church and our church gives to food pantries, ACTS House, CARITAS, and Liberation Family Services. How we give to Lutheran World Relief.
How, in all these ways, we are taking care of the poor. But it was very quiet in the back seat and to fill the long silence that I guessed was them processing everything, I asked:
“What do you guys think?”
After some thought, Samuel said: “I think… that man is close to God.”
Jesus’ message to the man he meets by the side of the road as he sets out on a journey, and to us, is that those who have great wealth will have a hard time being close to God
and those who have little, in their poverty and dependence, will be very close to God.
Jesus further teases out the implications of wealth for us, he says that,
if we desire to do so, we can get closer to God by divesting ourselves of the wealth we have accumulated by giving it to those who are poor.
There are things in the scriptures that are hard to understand, that need explaining and exegesis and wrestling to get to the real message, but this one is easy to comprehend, even if you’re only six years old.
It is the implementation that’s the challenge.
Because some aspects of life in 1st century Palestine and 21st century America seem incongruous.
It easy to image that Jesus wouldn’t have had to walk so far if he could’ve just tweeted his sermons and teachings. But some things are pretty similar, and one thing is what we think about people with wealth.
Then and now, wealth was and is a sign of being smart, talented, having your stuff together, being wise, working hard, and making good choices – even, I think, of being somehow favored by God or the universe or luck.
But Jesus in his words and deeds and presence in the world is ushering in a new era and a new order – he calls it a new kingdom –
where the currency of value is not that which insulates a person from discomfort – which is one of the main features of wealth –
but where instead the currency of value is the care and compassion that come from choosing to make oneself available to others in their need, and even giving up what we have for their benefit.
On his journey to Jerusalem and the cross, when Jesus is interrupted by this man who asks how to inherit eternal life or to inherit life in the age to come that everyone hopes the Messiah will usher in,
Jesus seems to assume he is sincere in his request. Whether this man really has amazingly kept all the commandments, or he’s more like me and falls short of keeping them every day but he’s just not very self-aware, Jesus looks at him, and loves him.
Really loves him.
And in fact, this is the only instance of Mark’s gospel telling us explicitly that someone was loved by Jesus.
So, without judgment, without shaming, and with love, Jesus says: “Go. Sell what you own. Give to the poor and then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
And this is an interesting exchange rate.
We keep reading about bitcoin and virtual money and still don’t really get it, but Jesus invites those who can hear him to exchange the contents of our wallets and pocketbooks for the currency of heaven, investing in God’s Kingdom by giving away what we have to those in a pinch…
somehow trusting God to accumulate our charity and generosity and care into the storehouse of our God who will pay it all out in the age to come.
Somehow, Jesus has it in mind for this man and for us… to kill two birds with one stone.
By giving to the poor, we remove the obstacle of our wealth that gets in our way of trusting God, and we remove the obstacle of the those in need by providing those things they lack for basic daily life.
But it is hard to imagine how it would work for us to liquidate all our assets; and to sell our homes, isn’t it?
And our savings and our investments aren’t just to accumulate wealth – they’re for that rainy day that’s always a possibility in the forecast, aren’t they?
And the endowment funds of our congregation and businesses and schools – they generate revenue that fund good ministry and support worthy causes. Don’t they?
Its true that we think the early church really did sell all its stuff and share everything in common and give all they had to the poor and that this was a key way the church presented a compelling witness to the surrounding community that in Jesus who was crucified and risen, God had ushered in the beginnings of a new age whose full light was just on the horizon.
But pretty quickly this utopian community fell apart – even in the book of Acts we can see its disintegration – and there is a long history of the church trying to explain away the concrete nature of this hard teaching of Jesus.
Many teachers in the church, at least from the 12th century on, said that when Jesus says it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,
that actually he was talking about a gate in Jerusalem where people and animals would use to come in and out of the city called the “Eye of the Needle” which was small, but which a camel could squeeze through; or in other words, we should be generous, but it was actually possible for this camel to get through the “Eye of the Needle,” – it never existed by the way —
but if it had, the thought went, Jesus didn’t literally mean we should give all our money to the poor.
Other teachers pointed out that in the original language, the word for camel is just one letter different than the word for rope and they hypothesized that copyists who made a mistake left us with this strange image of a camel going thru the eye of a needle when it should be a rope and it would be hard, but I bet if anyone could our epiphany quilters could. And so Jesus’ meaning isn’t as demanding as it sounds.
But we must consider that Jesus uses this funny and memorable image to make the point that in the same way a camel cannot go through the eye of a needle,
a rich person cannot help but trust their money to be the power that helps them when they’re in a bind, to save them when they are out of options, and to make a way for them to get the things they want.
And on the other hand, a person who is poor can trust God and indeed must trust God because the power of money and its illusion of help, of power, and of protection aren’t a factor.
Even if we know money can’t buy the most important things in life: loving community, peace with ourselves and others, health for ourselves and loved ones, we still find that in the world God has given us to live in, our money and assets assure us and give us confidence.
As people who are rich by the world’s standards and who enjoy the comfort and freedom our wealth has to offer, its hard to imagine giving it all away.
But I think Jesus’ words DO inspire us to imagine that we could be more generous,
As we look to Jesus and see that he has done for us what we cannot and will not choose to do for ourselves.
On the cross, this Teacher of the hardest rule, divests himself of all possessions, of all the contents of his wallet, up to and including his own life and breath.
Though he has many possessions as the Only Son of God, he sells all he owns and gives the money to the poor and dies by the side of the road, as others pass by in their comfort, spouting platitudes about other people they’ve helped, institutions they support, and debating the merits of generosity.
Jesus shows the full depth of God’s generosity, holding back nothing, not even the forgiveness for the very ones who crucify him. Jesus trusts God’s promise to raise him again and shows us that the thing that seems impossible is possible with God.
In Jesus, the camel is through to the other side of the needle, and is revealed to be child’s play because a man who was dead, cold, and rigid with death, has been raised warm and alive;
and this very man, Jesus, is reaching out to you and me with compassion, coming into the median of our busy-going-here-and-there life.
He has removed all the obstacles for us so that we can live completely trusting God, in the new age that has dawned in his resurrection.
And you and I are baptized into Jesus’ life of self-giving… and when we come out of the waters, we walk wet for the rest of this life. We belong to God, completely, along with everything, all our possessions, all the wealth he entrusts to us. We are just stewards of these things.
Just as Jesus promised to Peter, so Jesus promises to us, those who follow him, who leave behind the blind pursuit of wealth that constrains their discipleship for a generous life of removing obstacles for others will be blessed and receive a hundredfold, now in this age.
Whether it is our youth group leaders who decide in these perilous times that for all our gatherings with youth, lunch will be at no-cost, t-shirts will be at no-cost, and any activities or trips will have scholarships so that anyone can come no matter the financial need,
so that anyone can just join us in the growing life of faith, God is using us to remove obstacles for others.
Or whether it is our Nursery School board that even in tight financial times, offers scholarships to families who cannot afford to pay the tuition for school,
so that parents can work to provide for their families and do so with the peace of mind knowing their kids are in good hands, and in my time on the board has never told a family no, God is using us to remove obstacles for others.
Or whether it is a congregation that sees the needs of neighbors and literally gives coats out of their closets and blood out of their bodies, so that God’s love is known and neighbors are sheltered and cared for, God is using us to remove obstacles for others.
God is in the business of making a way where there was no way so his people can experience the kingdom where all have enough, where all are welcome, and where all recognize their value.
God who has drawn close to us in Jesus, a human like us and yet without sin, without a desire for self-preservation, without a list of excuses.
God does not drive by us, but stops to be with us and looks on us with love, and gives us a hundredfold of love and care and compassion to share.
We are close to God because in Jesus God has drawn close to us.
And in that sharing this news we are blessed now, even if persecutions come, even if we falter or stumble or clench our fist around our money from time to time, because all around us, God’s generosity is invested in the life of the world –
and so we watch the ever-enlarging kingdom,
and the family that is growing all around us;
and so we live in the golden hour of first light of the new Day that is breaking.
Thanks be to God.