Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Easier To Be the Rule, Rather Than the Exception

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven of God!" The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Mark 10:23-25

Two weeks ago I was in a discussion with the life group I lead and I asked the question, "Can a rich man make it to heaven?" The overwhelming answer was yes. A discussion then ensued on the issue and these comments and arguments were made: Jesus said it is hard, not impossible; it is not the money, it is the heart; as long as you don't let it be your god; it is what you do with your wealth that matters; wealthy is a relative term; the eye of the needle was a gate in a wall ... etc. (note--my Bible in each gospel account reads "eye of a needle" not "the needle" which concerns me that we too easily rationalize away the literalness of scripture)

Also many human examples of exceptions to the rule were brought forth. This discussion was similiar to every discussion on the topic I have heard or participated in. I imagine this is true for most readers of this blog (if there are any).

The discussion was good and the points excellent, often backed with scripture. If I recall correctly, only one or two people in the discussion actually hinted the scripture should be considered as a very serious warning. Before I go further, I will tell you this group of young men and women have such sincere hearts for Christ, and they are better examples of Christian discipleship than most adults I know. They hold a dear and special place in my heart. They are examples to me.

However, several days later, the discussion and the topic were still weighing heavily on my heart. It occurred to me that we always focus on being the exception concerning this scripture. That is, we don't seem too worried about being the rule or considering the risk. We cannot dismiss the seriousness of Jesus's words. He spoke clearly on the problems of riches and the conflict riches create with the Kingdom. If we take these words literally and seriously, we have to admit that Jesus knows the majority of the rich will fail to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. If this is a fact, then is trying to be the exception worth the risk? Isn't losing my place in the Kingdom of Heaven just too great a price to pay?

My concern is that among Christians, and in the Church, we have shied away from frankly, openly, and seriously engaging in these soul life or death questions. Jesus calls us to be exceptions in the world but also warns us about becoming the rule. I recently read of one very successful businessman, Dennis W. Bakke, who lives on 1% of his income giving the rest away. He is challenging others to do the same, saying this is how our society will prospere, by sharing our wealth. (don't get hung up on the 1%, focus on the intent and the method).

Just so this blog isn't too dire, accusatory, or out-of-context, I include the next two verses, Mark 10:26-27--The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possble with God."

I don't think Jesus was trying to say that with God a rich man can make it to Heaven. This lesson to the disciples was immediately after Jesus's conversation with the rich, young ruler who walked away saddened that he was not willing to give up his riches. I think Jesus was saying that with God, we will be able to let go of our riches.

What are your thoughts, arguments, disagreements?


Preston said...

Well, I'll chime in here. I think we have misunderstood certain aspects of this story. First, when the young man asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. We know that a first-century Palestinian Jew was not thinking about going to heaven. He was looking for YHWH to intervene again in history, violently liberate Israel, and install the Messianic kingdom. So, the young man is saying that he's on board with the revolution Jesus is about to begin. Moreover, he has money, which any good rebellion needs. I think that the disciples' response supports this interpretation, as they too were expecting a military kingdom. "Who then can be saved?" Because it's a given that rich people are going to be very important to the rebellion against Rome and the ensuing reign of Israel. The notion of the afterlife is not on anyone's mind, I don't believe. From my understanding, that is a Platonic idea that we have superimposed on the text any time we read "kingdom of heaven" or "kingdom of God."
Therefore, when Jesus responds that the young man needs to sell everything and that it is oh so hard for rich people to enter the kingdom, he's not talking about how to get to heaven or who is going. He's describing the kingdom that he came to install - a kingdom of forgiveness, love, mercy, social justice. So why is it so hard for rich people to participate in God's kingdom, that is, in life as God intended it to be lived? Well, we know that riches compete with our allegiance to God's kingdom, and Jesus said we can't serve God and the lesser god Mammon. Riches also tend to make us think that we are independent, whereas in God's kingdom, we should be like children, recklessly trusting the Father. Riches also tend to get in the way of being carefree givers. The simple fact that a man is rich means that someone else is poor, and that kind of inequity is totally opposed to the kingdom way of living.
So, my point is that I think that Jesus is saying here that you can't be rich and live the way that He wants you to. When Zaccheaus gives his money away, Jesus replies "Today salvation has come to this house." Why? Because Zaccheus was now going to heaven? I think not. Zaccheus had just embraced a kingdom ideal and had been "saved." Not from the fires of hell, but from a life of selfishness and greed and enslavement to Mammon. He was getting it, he was breaking free and tasting the abundant life that Jesus offered. The rich man couldn't do it. He didn't trust or love Jesus enough. He didn't embrace the notion of a kingdom of people with nothing to lose loving each other and their enemies. So he remained a slave to his fallen state. Typical rich man response, Jesus says. Zaccheus is the exception.

Tony Arnold said...

Very interesting thoughts on earthly kingdom v. heaven. Regardless of whether one reads it in the context of after-life Heaven or being part of the Kingdom of God we are to be establishing here, Christ was adamant that riches are a severe risk to fulfilment.

Thanks Preston for posting, it is greatly appreciated.

gdc said...

Very Interesting . . . and very troubling. I read Tony's post with great appreciation, because I just had a very similar experience (lifegroup discussion that went about the same way, although I may have been a little more insistent than Tony, just from his description) but just before offering what amounted to a fairly simple "amen," I read Preston's most thoughtful comment. Certainly something to ponder; not only in this context, but also in a broader "scriptural interpretation" context. I am indebted to both of you. Thanks.