The way I've always heard this text preached is:
“Jesus says we won't get into heaven if we don't give all our money away. But that can't possibly be true - because grace - so we must have to explain away this story somehow. Maybe it's a metaphor. Maybe it only means *this particular* young man. Maybe it's only because *he* loves his wealth too much, and we could give ours away any time we want! So we don't have to. Or maybe it's all just a trap to remind us we need God's forgiveness, right? Right?”
And, I don't know about you, but I'm tired of those sermons. I'm tired of explaining away the demands that Jesus makes upon us and our money. I'm tired of telling people Jesus couldn't possibly have meant what we all just heard him say. I don't want to keep preaching the Jesus who asks us to be nice and do a better job of living our middle class lifestyle.
(Or, trying to get to that middle class lifestyle, for those of us who aren't there, or feel it slipping away.)
What if Jesus means all this, and the claim upon us is real? What if our wealth, at least for those of us who have it, really is keeping us out of the kingdom of God?
So, here's where I'm going to do a thing that looks like the mushy equivocation we've all heard in mediocre sermons on this text. But I think it actually makes this text harder for us. And also more alive, more full of life and love and promise and holiness.
Here's the equivocation: Jesus doesn't say heaven. He says kingdom of God. And I'm not sure those are the same thing. And the rich young ruler says "eternal life." Which still may or may not be the same thing as heaven.
This text forces us to confront: what do we really mean by eternal life, by the kingdom of God? I suspect that few of us are still picturing clouds and harps and flowing robes, but I guess many of us have both anxieties and desperate hopes about what happens after we die, after our loved ones die.
But, "eternal" aside, I don't believe that's what either the rich young ruler or Jesus are talking about here. I think they're talking about the infinite life that comes from following Jesus on this wild adventure, and about the grand dream that God has for how the world can be.
You know this dream, we all have it somewhere hidden in our hearts. The dream of the world as we all wish it could be: children are safe, playing joyfully. Families are together. Everyone has enough to eat. We have time and energy to create art and music and all sorts of beauty. No one is lonely, everyone is surrounded in love. God is in our midst.
And Jesus talks about that dream as the kingdom: somehow already true with God, in some deeper, more real reality. Some spiritual truth that exists somewhere, that we come from and will return to, that already exists for our loved ones who have passed on, and will exist for us some day. God's dream for our world that is already living in our hearts, that sometimes, sometimes we catch a glimpse of, a dream that we can work to imitate here on this earth.
And, dear friends, I think that somewhere buried inside of us, we already know that dream can't be true when some of us have much more money than others of us. It is not a part of this dream that some of us live in rich, white, landscaped suburbs with good schools and reliable trash collection, and others live inside the neighborhoods that we call the ghetto. We know, in the depth of us, that CEO's making hundreds of times what their workers make is not a part of this dream, nor is a market that trades stocks in others’ labor. This spiritual reality we so desperately want on earth doesn't match choosing where to live based on school districts for our kids, because we know that some schools just won't be good enough for them. This both hurts our siblings, and keeps us alienated from them.
We hate it, but we know. And we know that we can't be living the infinite life God promises if we are living that life. That if we have more money than someone else, that is keeping us out of the dream we all share for a better world.
You feel that rich young ruler's sadness now? I do. And Jesus sees that sadness, and looks at us with love.
Here's a place our sermons can help people explore the ways that the discrepancy
between the dream with share with God for a just world, and the way we live our lives, separates us from the community God is building.
I had a dear friend who had spent time living with people who had much less money than her. Knowing what their houses looked like changed the money she spent on her own home. Because she never wanted to live in a place that her friends would be embarrassed or ashamed or confused to visit her in.
Having much more money than other people alienates us from those other people, from ourselves, and from God.
I suspect that we could expand this to all of the other forms of wealth we might have: White privilege. Christian dominance. A patriarchal culture. Heterosexism. For those of us who have those things, they deeply alienate us from ourselves, from other people, and from God.
And here Jesus invites us on a wild adventure, a radical challenge, a new way of living. There is infinite life in choosing to live a new way. There is something eternal about every choice we manage to make that is about sharing our wealth. And there is a something truly good in thinking of our wealth and power differently.
And Jesus promises us there will be a new richness, a different power, in living as part of the kingdom of heaven. There will be times when it will hurt, will be difficult (that little line he throws in there about persecutions!) but it will be worth it. Like all good things. Another truth we know.
And yes, there will be forgiveness when we fall short. And yes, there is heaven at the end of our life.
But the way to the infinite life in God’s dream is through radically reorganizing our wealth, giving up our power.
And this is the center of Jesus' message: the eternal, infinite, immeasurable life always is on the other side of the hard stuff, the sacrifice, the self-giving. But it is joy everlasting.
And Jesus has gone ahead of us.