Help Me Shove This Camel
August 16, 2015
This morning’s passage is commonly known as the story of the Rich Young Ruler. But Mark doesn’t actually call him either a ruler or young. It’s Matthew who says he’s young and Luke who calls him a ruler. Mark just says “a man ran up.” In other words, this “man,” who ran up and knelt before Jesus is just like us. He represents all of us.
And like all of us – at one time or another – he knows there’s something wrong. He kneels before Jesus for a reason. He is experiencing some kind of dis-ease. In Mark’s Gospel, those who kneel to Jesus are all making requests for healing. The paralytic, the synagogue leader, the hemorrhaging woman, the man possessed by a demon. Everyone - except this man, who kneels and asks “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Is this also a request for healing? We don’t know the nature of the problem, but it seems that the man knows himself to be in need of spiritual restoration. He has done everything he knows how to do, but – like all of us at one time or another – he still experiences a longing, a yearning, a sense that life is unfulfilled.
Jesus does not appear to be sympathetic. “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Jesus may perceive that what he’s got before him is a high achiever. Someone who works hard, who strives to do his best, who counts on being rewarded for his hard work, who expects – in fact – that it is his hard work that earns his way into God’s heart.
“What must I do to obtain eternal life?” This man is a do-er. But Jesus’ concern is not as much the good we do as the good God does. He brushes the young man off with a conventional comment about the importance of keeping all the Commandments.
“All these I have kept,” replies the man. He really is a high achiever, spiritually speaking. With this, Mark says, Jesus looked at this man carefully and “loved him.” Loved him so much as to push on to even weightier demands. “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”
But the man slumps down and walks away sorrowfully, for he had many possessions. Much as we would, or have already, after hearing how much it costs to be a disciple. We have many possessions, too.
Here is a story of a man who is met by Jesus. Not only is he met by Jesus, but he is called by Jesus. Jesus tells him that the way to "eternal life" is that path of discipleship. Jesus invites him to be a disciple. "Come, follow me," Jesus says.
And the man walks away. It is the only call story I know of in the gospels in which someone refuses to follow Jesus. A man, an ordinary person, just like us, is asked by Jesus to join him…and he turns and walks in the other direction. And the reason is money. Money – more than anything else – keeps people from following Jesus.
If you were here last Sunday, you heard Pastor Galen speak on the very difficult passage from Mark in which Jesus says there should be no divorce and anyone who does divorce is actually committing adultery. It’s a hard, hard passage for us to hear. Especially those of us who are divorced. Galen helped us hear it in relationship to the whole message of the Gospels – a message of love and forgiveness; a message about the importance of relationships, and how challenging, but essential, they are.
This passage is a hard passage too. “Sell all you have, give the money to the poor and come, follow me.” It sounds more like Bad News than Good News. Since Jesus spoke, the nature of divorce and our relationship to it has changed. In 1st C Palestine, divorce was a quick and easy act, available almost entirely only to men, that left women without any source of support.
Our relationship to money, on the other hand, has not changed. Money got in the way of one’s relationship to God and neighbor in the first century; and it gets in the way now. Jesus said more about money that about any other single thing. All through Scripture there is a clear correlation between our faithfulness to God and how we handle our money. More than anything else, money is the most likely to take God’s place in our lives.
So we get the man’s reaction. When Jesus says “See all you have; give it to the poor; and come, follow me,” we understand exactly why the man hauls himself back up onto his feet, shakes his head sadly, turns around, and walks away from Jesus. All of us – at one time or another and in some way or another – have done the same thing.
It is no surprise that many, many people – writers, scholars, preachers – have found many, many ways to make this passage more palatable. We have spent a lot of time and energy on lowering the bar that Jesus set. We have tried very hard to shove this large camel through the tiny eye of this needle.
An ancient scribe added words to verse 24 so that it read “how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God." Check out the King James Version; it’s in there. It gives us a little wiggle room – it’s OK to be wealthy, just don’t trust your wealth. As if you could enjoy the benefits of wealth without relying on them.
A ninth-century interpreter came up with the idea of a low gate into Jerusalem called "the eye of the needle," through which camels could pass only if they stooped down low. Presumably, then, Jesus criticizes only the rich who are also proud. Unfortunately, no such gate ever existed, and Jesus' words about money say nothing about pride or humility.
Countless preachers have tried to persuade their congregations that wealth was this particular man’s weak spot; Jesus was talking to this specific individual. Thus the rest of us could assume that Jesus would not ask us to part with our possessions.
But Jesus is not infinitely pliable, nor is he interested in the dilemmas of the affluent. Jesus will not help us feel better by lowering the cost of discipleship. He is more willing to have this man – this keeper of commandments and earnest seeker of good – be cast into sorrow and walk away grieving than to crank down the gospel to meet the man’s limitations.
There is no way to shove the camel of wealth through the eye of the gospel needle.
“Good Teacher, what should I do to obtain eternal life?” “Sell what you own and give your money to the poor.”
The man knows he is missing something, so he asks Jesus what more needs to be done, what else should be added. But Jesus’ answer tells the man what he needs to give away. Not just get rid of, but give away – specifically to the poor.
As we heard last Sunday, God does not mean us to be independent agents. Not everyone is meant to be married or partnered…but God did not create us to be act solely with our own interests in mind. We are created for relationship. And that includes the way we use our money.
We are already in election season. A season in which we often hear the question: “Are you better off than you were four (or eight) years ago?” For those of us on the path of discipleship, shouldn’t the question be “Is my neighbor better off? Is my community or my nation better off? Is the world better off?”
When Jesus tells the man to sell what he has, give the money to the poor and follow him, he is also asking all of us to use all we have to care for our neighbors. If we are using what we have for our own benefit, Jesus’ words are, indeed, Bad News. If we regard our wealth as intended for someone else’s good, the picture begins to change.
In a November 2011 TED Talk, social researcher and Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton presented some of the research he’d been doing on money and happiness. “Money can’t buy happiness,” he told the audience, is an idea many of us resonate with. But we’re wrong. Money can buy happiness…if you use it the right way.
A CNN poll, he says, found that when people win the lottery they believe they’re going to be happy for the rest of their lives. But instead their lives are ruined. They spend all their winnings and go into debt. And their families and friends bug them for money, ruining their social relationships.
Norton and his colleagues wondered what happened if, instead of spending money on themselves, people spent money on others. Would that make them any happier?
In one of his studies, undergraduates were given envelopes with varying amounts of cash inside. They were also given instructions as to what to do with the money – spend it on themselves or others. The students who spent the money on themselves bought earrings and makeup and Starbucks coffee. Those who spent it on others gave money to the homeless, to their relatives or bought something – like Starbucks coffee – for someone else. When asked about the experience, the latter group reported a marked increase in happiness; the former group did not. This was true no matter how much money they had found in their envelope. And it held true in studies performed in other countries, with other types and ages of people. Money can buy happiness…if we spend it on someone else.
Now I know you know that eternal life is not the same as happiness. When Jesus talks about eternal life, he means the abundant life of wholeness that is lived in and with and for God, a life that time cannot stop. Eternal life is salvation – which means health and wholeness – both in this world and the world to come. It includes happiness if you define happiness as a deep sense of fulfillment, but not if you define happiness as an absence of suffering or persecution.
So we cannot say that money can buy eternal life, even if we might be willing to say, with Michael Norton, that money can buy happiness – as long as we know how to spend it. But we can say that, as we live the abundant, eternal life to which Jesus calls us, we come to understand that the money we are entrusted with is meant to be used for others’ benefit.
There are three conversions necessary, the great 16th C reformer, Martin Luther, said: the conversion of the heart, the conversion of the mind, and the conversion of the purse. In all three case, the conversion consists of turning away from a focus on one’s self, towards a focus on others – God and neighbor.
“See what you own and give the money to the poor.” Jesus calls the rich man to a relationship with his neighbor – both for the benefit of the neighbor and for the man himself. Jesus knows that there are few things more important for us to do than to share our abundance. From volunteering at a food bank to giving money to make sure fewer people need a food bank, each time we share what we have with others we are blessed as much or more as the recipient of our care.
Jesus doesn't command him to give away what he has in order to cause him grief or to test him, but rather out of love. And he loves us just as much, regardless of whether we regard his command as something terrible and difficult or as something wonderful and liberating.
Will Willimon, who was a college chaplain before he became Bishop, said that one night he presented this story of Jesus and the rich man in a college dormitory Bible study. He asked the gathered students, "What do you make of this story?"
One student said thoughtfully, "I wish Jesus would ask something like this of me. My parents totally control my life just because they are paying all my bills. And I complain about them calling the shots, but I am so tied to all this stuff I don't think I could ever break free. Maybe Jesus thinks otherwise about me."
Willimon was astounded. What he had heard as severe, demanding BAD news, these students heard as gracious, GOOD news.
Jesus invites people to be his disciples: divest! Break free! Let go of your stuff! Follow me! I believe you can do it!
Brothers and sisters,
- What gets in the way of your salvation?
- What is the obstacle between you and wholeness, from being the complete person God created you to be?
- What insulates you from living an abundant, eternal, Kingdom life?
These questions are not asking what you should add. They are asking what you should get rid of.
William H. Willimon. "Preaching to Affluent Young Adults, or Lord, Help Me Shove This Camel," Journal for Preachers, 2002.
William H. Willimon. “The Peril (and the Promise) of Being Met by Jesus. Mark 10:17-31Proper 23 - Year B.” October 11, 2009. Day1 radio program. http://day1.org/1473-the_peril_and_the_promise_of_being_met_by_jesus
David Lose. “Jesus, the Rich Man, and All of Us Lousy Stewards.” Posted Sunday, October 07, 2012 at Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1487
Martin Luther quote from Thoughts from Pastor Lisa. “Quotes: Treasure in Heaven.” http://pastorblog.cumcdebary.org/?p=2847
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Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31.” Posted October 11, 2009 on Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=402
Michael Norton. (November 2011) How To Buy Happiness. Video file. http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_norton_how_to_buy_happiness?language=en