Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Sit up and take note. This is a story in which Jesus talks to someone much like us. Take a moment to put yourselves in his position. We may only have one car, we may have downsized to an apartment, we may not have a lot, but compared to most of the people of this world, we are rich. And some of us clearly do have nice houses, cars, and possessions, even rich in relationship to most Americans. Many of the stories of the Bible speak of Jesus interacting with those who are poor, or sick, or rejected, or blind, disregarded in some way.
“As Jesus was setting out on a journey….” Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but I think it might be. Jesus was going someplace. He was on the move. Part of what enabled him to do that was his lack of material things. Everything he absolutely needed, he could carry with him, most notably the approval and mission he had from his Father. Everything else he needed, he opened himself up to receiving from God through the people he met and the land he crossed. He is truly a person of the exile, living a life of wilderness wandering. But he wasn’t on the journey to learn to be one of God’s people. He was on the journey to show us the way through the wilderness to be part of God’s family and so that we could learn to trust the one who is trustworthy.
“A Man ran up and knelt before him and asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.’” This man approaches Jesus. If everything was all right, he would never have left the house. But something is not right. I can relate. Do you feel it, too? When things aren’t right who do you go to? Or do you have a place you go? This makes me wonder how many spiritual leaders this man approaches before he comes to Jesus. Somehow, he’s come to the one who is trustworthy, who has the key to eternal life. We all have access to Jesus. We can come to him. We can come to him in prayer. We can come to him in Scripture, in the Bible. We can come to him in each other, in relationship to the body of Christ. So we come and kneel before him and we confess that something isn’t right. Life, as I’m living it, is not abundant. Life is not fulfilling. Something major is missing. I hurt for this world. I hurt for the systems I’m a part of that destroy people and God’s good creation. I wake up at night and think of all those separated from their families by flood or war or famine. I worry about the destruction and pollution of this earth. I grieve my losses and consider my sins, and worry about what others think of me.
Jesus says, “Why do you call me good. Only God is good.” He deflects the praise, which is not a sign of what the man really thinks of him, but a polite greeting from one person trying to get into the good graces of another. Jesus may well know the man isn’t going to be calling him good for long.
Jesus lays out the commandments. But the man has kept the commandments and still isn’t living an abundant, eternal, satisfying, fulfilling life. Something is still missing. Martin Luther has pointed out in his writings that the 10 Commandments are really a minimum requirement. It is a minimum not to take a weapon and take another person’s life. But do we not take another person’s life when we steal their livelihood from them by cheating them or charging them too much? Don’t we take a person’s life when we find them sleeping under our stairs and we shoo them away? Don’t we take a person’s life when we add to air pollution so that it gives children asthma? This man has followed the commandments, checked them off his list one by one. Yet he has not found or shared abundant life.
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him. It is a tender moment. Jesus loved him. Agape love is a self-sacrificing love. Maybe this is partly why Jesus didn’t want him to call Jesus “good.” Jesus is self-sacrificing. He gives himself up for the love of his friends and for the abundant, eternal, fulfilling life of the world. Jesus knows what it takes to find eternal life—self-sacrifice. He knows that this man’s possessions won’t fulfill him. He knows that actually this man’s possessions are holding him back, keeping him feeling safe and secure, keeping him tied to his home base, keeping him from following Jesus. They are keeping him from following Jesus literally on his way to the cross, from learning from him. They are also keeping him from following the way of Jesus, which rejects possessions and material things and embraces relationship and connection and vulnerability, which you just don’t have when you surround yourself with comforts. Jesus’ self-sacrificing love is something he calls us into, because that does lead to abundant, fulfilling life for all.
Jesus then talks to his disciples about how hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter God’s Kingdom—harder than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Many of you probably already know that the entry gate into a city was referred to in those times as the eye of the needle. Sometimes you get camels trying to get through the gate that are so loaded up, they aren’t going to make it. With a needle and thread, they are pretty useless without each other. It’s pretty hard to thread a needle until you’ve had a lot of practice.
I thought of that sewing needle and I thought of that gate into the city and I thought about eternal life verses the kind of life we’re living surrounded by possessions and comforts. All of these needles are pinch points, they are points of transition. In all transitions there are certain things we let go of. That’s what we fear. If we let go possessions or positions in the community or relationships or anything, we are afraid that we will grieve, that we will be vulnerable, that we will be pained.
But what we fail to consider is what is on the other side of that eye. If God is the one we say God is, and if we trust God, we have a vision of the Kingdom of God that is worth letting go of everything in this world and moving through that eye, that transition, that little death, that pinch point. I stood on the beach this week. Somehow the sun on the water and the dog and bird footprints in the sand and the little crabs and jellyfish and shells and rocks and sounds of the waves and the sight of blue water and blue sky that melted into one another, in some ways overwhelmed me with the hugeness and power of this world, reminded me of the cycles and seasons throughout the ages and going forward, and made me feel connected to distant shores and people, and plant and animal life, the salt water matching the salt of my tears, the sun warming me and the water, at once feeling so small and so connected. Nothing I had or was could give me the gift of the ocean. It is not kept for rich or poor, but available. There is a glimpse of what lies at the other side of the needle, the other side of the gate, the Kingdom of God.
The scriptures describe a reality in which we will not grieve or mourn, no one will be hungry or sleeping in the parking lot, no one will have more than they need and no one will go without, but we will all gather around a table of abundance and feast together in community and fulfillment and satisfaction and eternal life.
With a needle and thread, they are pretty useless without each other. If we are the thread, we can do very little on our own. Until we are threaded we won’t be fulfilled, we won’t be able to do our job, no matter how fancy we are. Secondly, it’s pretty hard to thread a needle until you’ve had a lot of practice. When a person first tries to thread a needle, usually they will try to stick the thread through the eye of the needle. Sometimes we’re like that, too. We try to force ourselves through the pinch point, win the Kingdom of God with our works, by being nice or enough. But sadly we just crumple against the needle, like this rich man. However, someone with experience will tell you, hold the thread still and pass the needle over it and you will likely be successful after just a few attempts. First get the thread wet in baptism. Then, pass the needle over. We cannot force ourselves into the Kingdom, but the Kingdom will come to us. We will not be comfortable. We will let go of things that don’t fit with God’s justice, that hurt our neighbors, that protect us from needing each other. We will have to let go of the things we think give us life and give our life meaning, but we will find what is eternal life, fulfilling, abundant life. We will find Kingdom life, or rather it will find us.