One of the many highlights of my life in the last dozen years or so has been my ability to travel to Jerusalem on a number of occasions. If you have never been, I can’t encourage you enough to seize whatever opportunity arises and go. Your life will be immensely enriched, your heart broken and broken open, and your faith challenged and changed. If you have been, you will know what I say is true.
It has been a privilege for me to see the holy sites, and to meet people who make Jerusalem their home. I have also learned a thing or two about travelling in Jerusalem. One of the secrets to an incredible visit is: if a door is open, walk through it. On occasion you will be yelled at in any one of dozens of languages and sent scurrying out as quickly as you came. Other times you will be welcomed and embraced like a long lost relative. I have feasted with Palestinian refugees; prayed deep beneath the Church of the Resurrection where tradition tells us Jesus spent some of his last hours; had tea with an Armenian family and shown parts of the Armenian Quarter most people will only read about in guide books; been welcomed into a Jewish home for Shabbat, and all because someone asked, or looked or simply walked through a door. (Now lest you think everything in Jerusalem is like that, I have also been asked to leave; had doors firmly closed on me and on one occasion been scolded in Greek because I clasped my hands behind my back during the Divine Liturgy!) But generally speaking, I think my advice is sound: if a door is open, walk through it, because it may never be open again. (As an aside, this may in fact be good advice for life, and not just for Jerusalem!)
For the first two or three times I was in Jerusalem I walked past a door, almost daily, that was always closed and locked, even when the sign said very clearly, and in English, that it was open! This great door, just down a way from the Church of the Resurrection guarded the entrance to the Russian Mission in Jerusalem. It was always closed and locked, until one day, much to my surprise, it wasn’t. Knowing that it might never be open again I grabbed my companions and headed in. It was like walking through a time warp. We left Jerusalem and entered pre-Revolutionary Russia with pictures of the Czar and Czarina and members of the Russian Royal Family hanging on the walls. But deep in the basement of this building lay another surprise. With each step down we took, it seemed we descended another century. Finally we reached the bottom and there stood the wall of the city of Jerusalem from the time before Christ. And there in the basement of the Russian Mission, twenty or thirty feet below modern Jerusalem we stood face to face with the Eye of the Needle.
Now the ‘eye of a needle’ is not just a figure of speech but was a small opening in a walled city which could easily be guarded and through which people came and went after the city’s gates were closed. As my companions and I soon discovered as we clambered through the opening, it wasn’t easy for us to get through, never mind a camel! And that seems to be the point Jesus is making.
This saying about the needle’s eye and the camel come within the account of the rich young man. In many ways he is an admirable sort, in fact, I can see him (or indeed her!) sitting here in this chapel today, there and there and there. My hunch is most, if not all of us would fit the description of the main character in today’s passage. Most of us do our best to be good; to do the right thing; to be honourable, and most of us succeed most of the time. There is nothing arrogant or presumptuous about him. He is basically a good, decent and honourable person, just like, dare I say, you. And there is the rub. This story isn’t just about him. This story is about you. It is for that reason that this story cuts to the bone, and makes us squirm for in no uncertain words, Jesus tells his audience that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10: 25)
Who here today does not qualify as rich? You and I may not be members of the 1%. We may all classify as part of the 99% but my bet is we are all in the 70, 80 or 90% bracket. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are rich and we are precisely the kind of person we meet today in the young man: good, decent, honourable … and rich. It is to us that Jesus speaks when he says “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.” (Mark 10: 21)
Jesus startles and disturbs us, because wealth and possessions are here not the signs of God’s blessing that preachers of the prosperity gospel would have us believe, but hindrances to our share in the kingdom of heaven. Who among us would not be shocked and turn away grieving hearing that the very signs of our success: our possessions and wealth are the very things keeping us from the kingdom of God. And Jesus pulls no punches as he hammers his message home. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23) This is not the encouraging message most of us want to hear yet it is a reminder to us (and indeed to the disciples) that there is a real tension between wealth, possessions and being a disciple of Jesus.
Yet the answer is not simple. Peter, thinking he has done exactly as the rich young man was instructed proclaims “Look we have left everything and followed you.” (Mark 10:28), Yet Jesus tells him “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10: 29, 30)
Throughout his ministry Jesus constantly holds before us the things which hold us back from fully following him. On one occasion he challenges the ties we have to family and home by telling us to “let the dead bury their own dead.” (Luke 9:60) On other occasions he invites into deeper discipleship those who are willing to “take up their cross and follow.” (Mark 8:34)
Over and over again he reminds us that our identity as disciples comes not from who we are or what we own but whom we follow. In a sense that political slogan from the 1992 Presidential election “It’s the economy, stupid” bears a gospel word for us. It bears a gospel word because how we spend our money and how we use our possessions is a marker of our Christian faith.
The world and culture we live in is vastly different from the one in which Jesus and his disciples lived. Yet some things never change. Now as then, family ties and economic status shape and mold us and, for some, indicate our worth as humans. There are those who believe that if we come from a “good family” and have the economic means to consume then we must be worthy of entrance into the kingdom. But the economy of the kingdom is based not in how much we earn, what we possess or even who we are but how we use what is at our disposal. And how we use what is at our disposal says a great deal about whose we are and whom we follow.
The rich young man “was shocked and went away grieving” (Mark 10: 22) because what he owned shaped his identity. He could not free himself from his possessions in order to follow Jesus. For us who are also rich the struggle is real and constant. Our culture tells us that our identity comes from how much we own and how much we can consume. Our politicians speak of us as taxpayers and not citizens, ranking our value to the nation by how much tax we pay (or how cleaver we are in avoiding paying taxes) implying that those who pay more are somehow more equal than those we pay less. Yet our faith tells us that our value comes not from how much we own or what we consume but by whom we were made. As the Psalmist tells us we “are marvelously made.” (Psalm 139:13)
For us who are rich, today’s gospel bears no easy out. It is unreasonable to think that any of us could flee penniless into the wilderness. Instead we find ourselves in an incredibly difficult place, yet one full of promise. And the promise lies in Jesus’ reaction to the rich young man, for Jesus looked at him and loved him (Mark 10: 21) and in the same way he looks at us and loves us as we struggle to discover who and whose we are and one of the telling signs of that is how we spend our money and use our wealth.
Every time we pull out our wallet and slap down or swipe our credit card, or hand over our cash, or, even still, write a cheque, is a gospel moment. For in that moment, and in all those hundreds of moments every day, and every week, and every month we make a choice. Like the rich young man we can choose to find our identity in what we earn, what we own, what we consume, or we can find our identity in whose we are and whom we love and who loves us in return.
Between bank bailouts and economic collapses, Occupy movements and Wall Street moments one thing is clear, it really is about the economy, stupid. But for us as followers of Jesus it is more than that, for the economy of the kingdom of God is about how we spend our money, not as consumers and taxpayers, but as citizens and saints, not of this or that nation but of the Kingdom of God. So next time you pull out your wallet, remember that you are in a kingdom moment, remember who you are and whose you are and who loves you. Remember that your worth comes not from what you can consume, but who in fact made you and ask yourself “how am I building the kingdom of God with this credit card, right here, right now?”