Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
As I prayed about this passage this week, I was deeply troubled. I realize that I feel guilty about my wealth. And I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough money. I have a hard time thinking about money. (I think I’ve confessed you all before that I avoid doing my taxes just because I dread even thinking about the family budget.) When I was a child, I was taught that it isn’t polite to talk about money. And it certainly isn’t polite to talk about how much you have or don’t have, how much you wish you had or how much you give away. It’s worse than talking about politics. It is a subject that is filled with shame.
And maybe this passage is the source of some of that shame. Jesus seems to be saying that rich people are bad, they will never get into heaven. He is judging people because of their money. WAIT A MINUTE. That’s not the Jesus I know. That’s not the loving God who accepts everyone. Cognitive dissonance. I can’t believe both of these things at once.
So I want to get into this passage and figure out what Jesus is really telling us about money and us.
First of all, we know that the rich young man in this passage is a remarkable person. He acts in a way that is contrary to his status—he runs towards Jesus which is not a fitting way for a nobleperson to act. Then he kneels before Jesus, not a posture that a noble person would take before a teacher. And then he calls Jesus “Good teacher” a rare title indicating that he is sincerely interested in learning from Jesus. This young man is one who wants to do the right thing. He is a follower, he has been following the commandments since his youth.
What does Jesus say to him, what does he think about him? The gospeler tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him. (Whew! Here’s the Jesus I know.) Jesus gives this young man his full attention. Jesus cares about him and wants to instruct him. He tells the young man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." He doesn’t send the young man away. He doesn’t criticize him for what he has done well, but he tells him what to do next. I can relate to this kind of teaching—it’s like when I say to the boys: “Good work on that piano piece, now just play it again with the dynamics. Or “great run on the field, but you need to focus more when you kick the ball.”
Jesus is encouraging the young man to take the next step, to give us his money in addition to all the other good things he has done. But the young man isn’t ready to hear this teaching. He isn’t ready to take that next step. And so he turns away, shocked and grieving.
Jesus then tries to explain what just happened to Peter and his disciples. He gives them the parable about the camel. He says, that it’s as impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle as it is for a rich man to get into heaven. But this isn’t the end of the lesson. He tells them that “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
Jesus is pointing out that young man thought that he could do all the right things and get into heaven. And so Jesus gave him an even harder task—giving up all his money. When the young man realizes that he can’t do this, then he thinks he’s not going to be able to get into heaven. But he has missed the point—it’s not about what he can do or not do, it’s about trusting in God and letting God act in his life. It’s about following Jesus with nothing held back.
Following Jesus is not just about being nice and doing the things that are pleasing to God. For each of us, there are easy commandments and hard ones. This is the lesson about the hard one. When you face the hardest commandment (whichever one that is for you), that’s when you have to give up your sense of control, you have to trust in God. You have to face the reality that you are the camel—you cannot get through the eye of the needle by making yourself a better person. No matter how good you try to be, there is something that is impossible for you to achieve alone. This is the moment, when you have to give up, trust that God is working in you, God is working with you and nothing is impossible.
It’s a huge thing to give up our sense of control. Maybe it’s harder for us because we have so much power—here in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, even the poorest among us have choices about how we live. We have opportunities and freedoms. We live in the illusion that if we try hard enough, we can achieve anything we want to. Maybe in places where people have less, it is easier to see that we are not in control. Maybe in those places it is easier to recognize our interconnectedness with one another and our reliance on God.
And so back to my shame about money. Jesus is really telling the rich young man that he must give up the sense of control and security that his possessions give him and follow Jesus with no safety net. I have to confront the anxiety that I feel about having too much or having too little. I have to trust that in every moment, God is with me, working in me helping me to see the right thing to do, and helping me to live into that heavenly Kingdom. Rather than worrying about whether I’ll have enough in the future, or whether I should give more away today, I should be looking to God, listening for God’s help.
This is a really difficult lesson, but it’s difficult for a different reason than I originally thought. I used to think that it was a difficult lesson because rich men can’t go to heaven. Now I think it’s a difficult lesson because it’s about listening for God’s way, following God with no safety net. It’s about giving up on our own sense of power and control. When we give up everything, brothers and sisters, houses and fields, money and power—then we will receive God’s bounty. Jesus promises us that we will receive a hundredfold—even with persecutions, and eternal life.
I can’t know what that means for me or for you—what is the hundredfold that I will have here and now, what will eternal, new life look like or feel like? I’m sure that it’s not about money. But with God, all things are possible. Trusting, discerning, listening, praying. . . Here is where the riches lie. My prayer today is for the rich young man. Instead of turning away shocked and grieving, I pray that he (and we) might hear Jesus’ message and do the hardest thing, give ourselves over to God, trusting in that love, peace and justice which is at the heart of the Word. Amen.