A sermon on Luke 18.18–30, for Kensington Community Church, San Diego, CA, accompanied by a hymn written especially for the service (PDF download).
When I started planning this service, I was excited—this passage contains maybe one of my favorite stories of Jesus’ interactions in the gospels; it’s like, a little spicy. How fun that I got to supply the pulpit this week!
But then I got to writing the sermon, and I realized… yikes.
What a terrible choice I’d made.
Because this week… this week is one of those weeks when the gospel passage preaches a gospel that I know I need to hear. It’s a passage that indicts me.
But before we I can tell you why, some background:
This passage happens towards the end of the part of the Gospel of Luke that’s all about Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus’ teachings have started to move further away from the theoretical and closer to the practical.
In the verses immediately before the ones that we just read, there’s an incident where the disciples are trying to keep children out of Jesus’ hair, shooing them away, and Jesus says “no, no, let the kids disrupt the worship. They get this stuff better than you do. The kingdom of God belongs to these little ones. And whoever wants to enter the kingdom must enter it like a child.”
Then this “ruler” shows up. The scripture doesn’t tell us what kind of ruler he is, maybe he’s a centurion, a magistrate, a judge, the CEO of some big mega-vineyard, who knows. The only hint the gospel gives us is that Luke uses the noun for a secular, not religious, leader. But the important part is, he has social capital, standing in the community. And as we’ll learn later, he also has economic capital; he’s rich.
The story is something biblical scholars call a “triple tradition,” which is to say, it appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each of these gospel writers tell the story slightly differently. Matthew remembers this guy as a “young man,” Luke remembers him as a ruler. Mark says a man ran up and knelt before Jesus eagerly asking, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” I’ll settle for “a rich young ruler with some big feelings.”
The word “eternal” there is an interesting one. The Greek word used here was first recorded in the writings of Plato, where it’s used to refer to an infinite time horizon, both infinitely into the past and infinitely into the future. Something that’s kind of “outside” of time.
One of the most respected dictionaries of ecclesiastical Greek tells us this is often used as a foil to the “fragmentary and frail” life of this world, that it’s something you seek to acquire now as much as in the future.
It’s sort of an exchange you make, where you give up attachment to the “time is money” economy and are given power over the forces of death and sin, in this life and the “life to come.”
In response to the ruler’s question about gaining eternal life, Jesus does two things: first, he kind of scolds the guy for calling him a “Good Teacher”—saying, hint, hint, no person is “good” but God.
Then, Jesus tells the ruler: you know the commandments. You know what to do already.
I imagine it felt a little like when you read interviews with a great musician, or athlete, or whatever and the interviewer asks what their secret is, then the superstar says something dumb like “practice.” Like yeah, wow, cool, so glad I bought this copy of the New York Magazine so I could hear Adele say she just practices a lot.
The ruler replies, “I’ve kept these since I was a kid.” And it’s possible to read that as a brag, but I read it more as the ruler being kind of dismayed, dissatisfied. “I’ve done that for the past 30 years, and I haven’t gotten eternal life yet? I thought you had something special to share with me.”
But then Jesus says “okay, well… there’s one thing you lack. Sell everything you have and give it away to the poor, then you can follow me in the way of eternal life.”
The man realizes that Jesus gave him instructions for something he can’t bring himself to do, and he’s heartbroken. The Gospel of Mark says “when he heard this, he was shocked,” and both Mathew and Mark say he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions. “
And then Jesus kind of twists the knife a bit.
“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
You may have heard explanations that soften this on behalf of Jesus—some say things like that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle, and it’s just hard but not impossible to get through, that kind of thing. Those tales have, time and time again, been proven ahistorical. Jesus is literally saying “trying threading your sewing needle with a whole camel, tell me how possible that is, and you’ll know how possible it is for a rich person to go to heaven.”
This is certainly one of the harsher condemnations Jesus has for the wealthy, but it’s far from being the only one. There are at least 3 common ideas people have about why Jesus is such an anti-scrooge.
Money as the result of sin
The first is that he sees wealth as the result of sin.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus condemns the greedy, he condemns those who are able to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but choose not to. James, the brother of Jesus, would later write in his epistle an absolutely scathing condemnation of the rich as an oppressive class.
James says “come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.”
He says to the rich “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud, cry out. They have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
It’s sort of the “there’s no money but dirty money” argument; the idea that you can’t really get rich in this world without having exploited the poor.
I think that interpretation has some legs to it, it’s reasonably sound… but it’s not the gospel that indicts me.
It’s not the one that made me mad I signed up to preach this week.
More money, more problems
The second idea folks have about why Jesus rags on wealth so much is that it distracts from greater things.
In Matthew 6, we see Jesus say “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” … “For where your treasure is,” he goes on, “there your heart will be also.”
It’s sort of a “more money more problems” perspective.
It’s the reason property crime rates are higher in Kensington and in La Jolla than they are in Logan Heights.
And for what it’s worth, Jesus is not alone in saying this—it’s not like, his innovation. Pirkei Avot is this incredible collection of wisdom from Jewish elders; the collection slowly grew from a century or two before Jesus’ birth to a couple centuries after. I was gifted a copy translated by Rami M Shaprio a while back. In it, the Rabbi Hillel—whose work Jesus likely studied and whose grandson was a friend of the Apostle Paul—is recorded as saying:
More flesh, more worms.
More things, more anxiety.
More lovers, more illusion.
More maids, more exploitation.
More servants, more robbery.
More Torah, more Life.
More learning, more wisdom.
More counsel, more insight.
More charity, more peace.
Acquire a good name, and you acquire fame,
but acquire wisdom, and you acquire eternity,
awakening to Reality
in the timeless moment
of the eternal now.
I can hear in that a tradition Jesus is stepping into; something Jesus is engaging with. A tradition that values learning and wisdom and eternity more than temporal things, and even calls temporal things a distraction from the eternity stuff.
Money is a fog
I think that’s probably a good guess at what makes Jesus so mad about money, and a totally reasonable interpretation. But I’m more drawn to this third one—which, to be fair, is related to the second.
The third idea is that wealth limits your access to the gospel; it’s a fog that clouds the good news from your vision. Money somehow weighs you down, makes it harder for you to “get” what Jesus is teaching.
In both Luke 16 and in Matthew 6, Jesus warns that you must either be devoted to God and despise wealth, or be devoted to wealth and despise God. Wealth is not just a distraction, it is a master that simply will not let you, its servant, see God’s kingdom. You “cannot,” he emphasizes, “serve both God and wealth.”
In both Mark and Matthew, when explaining the parable of the sower, Jesus tells us that sometimes the “lure of wealth” “chokes out” the word of God.
In the sermon on the plain, Jesus gives a bunch of “blessings” and a bunch of “woes.” He includes a blessing on the poor—“blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” Jesus goes on to give a few other blessings, but notably, no other group on that list is told that theirs is the Kingdom of God: the same thing Jesus said about children just before our rich young ruler showed up.
Then later, in the woes section, Jesus says “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
You’ve already got your prize; you don’t need the Kingdom of God.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
“You have already received your consolation.”
Interdependence vs FIRE
I’ve shared this before, but I grew up pretty broke. My parents worked so, so, so hard to provide for us, and I mean hard. Harder than anyone I’ve ever met. But still, they had pretty bad luck early on, and the odds were kind of just stacked against them.
We lived paycheck to paycheck. We were always reliant on other people. At times we relied on government assistance or charity to help supplement the grocery budget. I remember my parents talking about how at any moment, our rent could be raised to an amount that would become a de facto eviction notice. We relied on the kindness of friends from church who did things like sell us a car at a ridiculous price—I think we got our station wagon for $25, and this was not at a time when a gallon of milk cost a quarter.
We needed other people.
And my parents were also incredibly generous. My mom would constantly provide meals to other kids at my school and their families, or share coupons with a friend, or let one of my classmates use our printer to print out homework when their family couldn’t replace ink. If my friends or any of my siblings’ friends were having a tough time at home, my mom was the first to offer a couch to sleep on. My parents gave faithfully to their church and to charity.
That pattern is one I adopted in college.
I was often reliant on other people. My “financial aid” friends and I took turns hosting “family dinner” on Saturday nights. More than once I relied on a generous dining hall cashier to let me both get a dine-in meal and take a to go box for lunch the next day. When I had to miss class for work, I was reliant on classmates to help with notes, and on professors to be a little extra flexible with deadlines.
At the same time, I was working very hard to get to “financial independence.” I worked 5 jobs, a total of 40-60 hours a week, and I did that while taking extra courses so I could save money by graduating early. I slept an average of 3 hours a night. I was so constantly tired I would like, hallucinate my way through writing papers. (Which, for the record, I do not recommend.)
But I would do anything to set myself up for a future where I would not need charity—where I would not need anyone else—to get by.
And for the most part, I succeeded.
I worked hard, plus I got pretty lucky, and at an earlier-than-usual age I could provide for myself without charity or support from parents or needing to borrow money or anything like that.
Then once I hit that goal, I decided I needed to be able to be even more independent.
I followed these blogs that talked about “FIRE” or “financial independence by retiring early.” They help you calculate the exact savings you would need so that you could, by 30 or whatever early age, be able to ditch your job at a moment’s notice and still get by just off investment income.
But as I’m sure you can tell by the fact that I’m still working, I have not yet retired early.
Because, you see, in the pursuit of not needing other people, I had absolutely destroyed my soul.
I neglected time with family. I turned down every invitation to spend time with friends so that I could instead spend time doing freelance work. When I was at networking events and people asked what my hobbies were, I’d totally just make something up. I had no hobbies.
I wound up, at 24-years-old, in a full-blown midlife crisis. And like, if 24 is when your “midlife” hits…
the math is not good for you.
I had to force myself to slow down a bit, start investing time with friends, and to ditch the freelance stuff. Well, some of the freelance stuff. We’re working on it.
But I digress.
The Kingdom of Heaven & to whom it belongs
In our Monday night discussion series on the parables, we’ve been talking a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven, or as the New Revised Standard Version translates it here, the Kingdom of God.
One of the parables we read talks about the Kingdom of Heaven as a place where everyone counts.
One talks about the Kingdom of Heaven as a place where you don’t have to fear.
One parable tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where the last are first and the first are last; where your value is not in the amount of work you do or in your social status, but in the fact that God says you have value.
One talks about it as a place where everyone has enough to eat and the food is good; everyone has all the medicine they need, and beauty is all around.
One talks about the Kingdom of Heaven as a great treasure, worth more than anything in the world, as an opportunity to take stock and decide if all the stuff you count on is actually what counts.
And each of those things… each of those things are made harder to wrap your mind around when you don’t need other people.
If I have enough money to not rely on anyone else, then I get to pick who counts to me.
If I have things that are worth stealing, I have reasons to be afraid.
If I am pursuing wealth and status, I am pursuing a value that is about what I earn, not about the fact that God values me regardless.
If I have enough to eat and the medicine I need and even some art to beautify my home because I have pursued it for myself, I’m going to have a much harder time imagining a world where those things just… freely exist?
If I have enough to not need anyone else, maybe I already have my “consolation.” I’ve received my heart’s treasure, and now I’m stuck. I can’t wrap my mind around a greater treasure.
But, if I am already poor, if I already know I’m reliant on my neighbor to get by, then it’s not so hard to imagine a God who asks me to become interdependent with my neighbor.
What seals the deal for me, what makes this third interpretation the one I am most sold on, is thinking about to whom Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven belongs: the poor, and children. Two groups of people who are experts in needing help to get by.
That experience of always needing other people is something the author Judith Butler calls “precarity.” It’s a state of constant precariousness, of always being on the verge of a crisis if no one else were around to help, brought upon by political, social and economic circumstances. Stuff outside of your individual choices.
Judith Butler does not call precarity a bad thing. In fact, she describes it as an affirmative good. Precarity is what brings us together, it is what reminds us, as Sam quoted Mother Theresa saying last week, that we “belong to one another.”
Butler critiques unequal precarity—she critiques circumstances where some people are pushed to the edge and have need, while others do not. In those circumstances, Butler says, the ones who do not need their neighbor do not have the impulse to give to their neighbor, to rely on their neighbor.
Were Judith Butler my therapist, she might say that the breakdown I experienced as a young professional was specifically because I’d been so successful. Because I did not rely on anyone else, I lost the social bonds that gave me access to my own humanity and to that of my neighbor.
She would still say that my younger self experienced an undue burden, an unfair amount of precariousness… but at the very least, I hadn’t forgotten that I belonged to my neighbor and that they belonged to me.
What you get when you sell all you have
So when Jesus tells the young ruler, “sell all you have, distribute the money to the poor, then you’ll have treasure in heaven, then can you follow me,” I think what he’s saying is something like “if you want to enter eternal life, first you have to get it, like really get it, and you’ll only do that if you’re someone who needs other people.”
Jesus is telling him to sell all he has so he can purchase… precarity.
So he can purchase the reliance on God and neighbor that is required for him to be someone who can be relied on by God and neighbor.
I suspect that’s why, without fail, every time I have read this story in the context of a high-poverty community, and when I read it while that was my circumstance, it came off as this joyful story about how all things are possible with God and how it’s not a sin to be poor. People with extreme need do not have a hard time imagining what life is like if everyone needs their neighbor to get by.
And it’s also why—again without fail—every time I read this story with a wealthier congregation, and every time I’ve read it since my life got less precarious, I’m stuck with my mouth dropped, noticing just how impossible of a request this is. I’m stopped in my tracks before I even hear Jesus talk about how God makes the impossible happen. It can be so much harder to see how, when you sell all you have ’till all that’s left is the people around you, things will still work out.
But Jesus does not leave us without hope.
“What is impossible for mortals is possible with God,” Jesus says.
And Peter follows up with an example to prove it: the disciples left everything behind for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and got back in return eternal life, in this age and in the age to come.
They chose to need God and one another.
They chose to purchase precarity.
And we, my friends, can do the same.