22nd Pentecost 22.18 “It’s Hard For The Poor, Too…” Mark 10:23-31
It’s a famous Gospel, this. Even people who don’t know the Scriptures can quote it. “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Lots of sermons get preached on how blessed are the poor, how the Kingdom is theirs by right—how near to God’s heart those poor, simple souls are with little in the way of learning, culture, wealth, or great possessions (opposite land of the rich young ruler from last week). Visions of dock-worker Tommy, girlfriend Gina getting by on scraps, songs, and prayer dance before us, or some Ken Burns documentary with soulful fiddle music, and blurry brown video of wizened oldsters remembering how, in 1930’s Nebraska, “we didn’t have much, but we had each other and that’s a lot” (hey, maybe Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” would fit better with that than Burns’ fiddle music? “Whoa-oh!… we’re half-way there”). The less musical at this juncture will trot out socialist schemes from French economists *cough* Thomas Piketty *cough* to redistribute wealth equally to all and make us all poor, simple peasant folks (but with universal single payer healthcare and low carbon footprints), and sigh at how close we were to it with Hillary, just a couple years ago…
I’m not going to preach one of those sermons. I’m sorry if that makes you sad. You can try with the vicar, if you want. He does play the fiddle. You might get lucky. Or not. But I’m not going there. And there’s a very simple reason why not: the text doesn’t take us there anymore than it takes us to praise bands and video screens and small group sharing time.
I know people hear Jesus say: “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” and they assume that means the poor are in pole position for the race to the Kingdom. If the rich struggle, the poor must have it made, logically. Right? But, ah… no. Listen to the story. The disciples hear this and go “Who then can be saved?” This is one of their more shining moments. They are actually listening, today. Then, as now, riches were seen as blessings from God, kind of a Divine Seal of Approval. “Good job with that monopolistic intellectual property enforcement, Mr. Gates! Have another Ferrari and a private island!” like you give a toddler a sucker for being quiet in church. So the disciples figure if the people who have the inside track to the good things of earth are far from heaven, then the rest of us must be even farther away!
Note well: Jesus doesn’t entirely dissuade this line of thought(!). He does not say “Well, guys; actually the poor are My special favorites and they get into heaven easily.” Nope! I know everyone rushes to the Beatitudes and “blessed are the poor” and transfer that to this passage but that’s not quite how the text runs. Jesus says poor in spirit in those Beatitudes, indicating a different sort of poverty, entirely (and a different sort of blessedness!). He also praises sorrow, meekness, hunger, thirst, and persecutions there—but, not as things good in themselves—but as things that are intrinsically bad, contrary to God’s will, evils to be overcome. The blessings of poverty and hunger come from God getting good results from bad things, like divine judo, using an enemy’s aggression to flip him over. It’s life giving you lemons, you making orange juice (as the old saying goes). It’s a Savior bringing life out of the death that He hates… Just because Jesus turns death into life by the cross doesn’t mean He loves suffering and death (I recall Him pleading fervently in the garden for the cross thing to pass from Him). You think Heaven will be one endless Passion Play? No! That was one and done…(!) God doesn’t love poverty anymore than He loves death (and He hates death).(!)
Simply put: it’s hard for the poor, too—getting into Heaven, that is (a tenant farmer in Appalachia can hang onto his ancestral shack and single acre with more greed than a bored young hedge fund manager does his Falcon 7x and condo in Cannes). The Gospels tell a Story and you need to picture it ritely (sic). The rich young ruler has just come and knelt and asked His question: “how can I get into heaven?” Jesus gives five of the ten commandments (plus one on insider trading 🙂 and the rich young ruler perks up and says “so far, so good!”. Then, Jesus says just one teeny thing he’s missing: sell everything, give it away now, take up the cross, and enjoy treasure in heaven as he follows Jesus.(!)
You’ll recall the rich young ruler goes away sad. But Jesus loved him. Jesus loves him! He does not go “Yuppy scum! Like I’d let that guy into My Heaven!” No! Jesus loved the rich kid, is actually cut up to see him go. Look, from reading the Gospels carefully, I can tell you: if Jesus displays any preferential option, humanly speaking, for a certain social class, it’s for the upper not the lower. None of His friends appear to be peasants. Women of means surround Him, provide for Him, you see. He’s always having lunch at Les Bon Georges with one percenters. Matthew was a hedge-fund manager before he was an apostle. Jesus’ old pals, Abraham and David, were rolling in it. Bethany was a gated community (I think).
I see a distinction between treasure and riches in Jesus’ usage. Treasure is something wonderful, delightful—a pirate’s chest filled with gold, diamonds, and donuts; the ’68 Camaro you had in high school. Treasure could be your grandpa’s Remington shotgun, your Ivy League degree, fantasy football dominance, your winning smile, your garden, your shoe collection, eternal life. Whatever.
Treasure is fine. Jesus frequently calls His Life and Kingdom a Treasure (but He never calls it riches). Treasure is meant to be shared with your pirate friends. It’s something buried on a desert island, marked with an X on the pirate’s map, something for which you sail the 7 seas over. Treasure is not riches because it’s not really yours. It’s the King’s, what He died in battle to win for us, buried on a magical island, and marked with His cross. The Code says we all share it, wear it, squander it, fling IT back God’s way to see how it boomerangs back…
It’s when Treasure turns into riches that we have a problem (and really that’s a faith problem, a matter of trust). Riches are what happens when we possess treasure as our own—when we say “Mine! I earned it. Don’t you touch it.” Then our Treasure has become riches. The rich trust in the great possessions they have now; the poor trust in the great possessions they’ll have when their lottery ticket hits. Neither have any Treasure!
Now, you know who gets Treasure? Peter gets it! He says “we’ve left all to follow You” (He’s trusting in Jesus, not his stuff). Jesus slyly warns that whoever sails the 7 seas (for Christ’s sake!) gets 100 times more in right now! You hear that as promise. Peter sees it as a problem. With all this treasure coming his way, it could be tempting to grab it, keep it, turn it to riches, and perish. So, by faith, Peter goes 100% pirate, has his Treasure buried all with Jesus, marked with an X, just waiting happily, eagerly, for Jesus to dig it up (along with him). That’s how you get into heaven, with treasure. Humanly speaking, it’s an impossible journey, really. But Jesus whisks you away to His island, by His Cross, on His ship, and initiates you into a new Life of Faith—the Faith which makes us neither poor nor rich, just pirates with Treasure; and Peace, surpassing understanding guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.