The Cost of Inheritance
There are no volunteers in the kingdom of God; only disciples. Our lesson this morning concerns a young man eager to meet Jesus and learn what his gospel of eternal life requires. Jesus begins with the expected, answer, one that is almost predictable: “Follow the Ten Commandments.” The young man claims to have mastered these rules when he was a child, which seems hard to believe. Listening the daily news causes me to violate at least three of the ten.
In any case, Jesus takes him at his word and tells him the one thing that stands in his way: selling everything, giving the money to the poor, and following Jesus. Because he was rich, this proved to be too much for him, and he turns away from Jesus.
There are no volunteers in the kingdom of God; only disciples.
In the church, we often make much of the need for volunteers. We need teachers, ushers, people to staff our ministries, folks to lend a hand with this workday project or that mission ministry. There is a problem with this approach, though. When we look at the story of Jesus, there is not a single volunteer who lives up to their promises. Those who follow Jesus are those whom Jesus invites. They have the choice to respond, yes, but the invitation always precedes the willingness.
The young man in our story is a perfect case in point. Here he comes, kneeling down in front of Jesus, apparently ready to do what Jesus requires. He is the perfect volunteer. But when Jesus tells him what he has to do to pass muster, he bails out. Being a volunteer is not enough. We must, first, be invited.
The truth, of course, is that everyone is invited. The difference between the volunteer and the disciple is this: the volunteer thinks they are offering their gifts out of their own generosity; the disciple acknowledges that they are saying “yes” to what God has initiated. This may seem like a small point, but in truth, it makes all of the difference. And that’s what the rest of the lesson bears out.
It’s important to note that this story has been open to wild misinterpretation – which is absolutely unheard of in the history of the Church. In today’s lesson, Jesus tells the young man to sell everything, give the money away to the poor, and follow Jesus. He cannot do it because, we are told, “he had many possessions.”
On the one hand, it is important to remember that Jesus gave this instruction to the one man. And that man’s possessions built an insurmountable barrier to his faithful discipleship. Jesus did not say “Whoever wants to follow me must sell everything they own and give the money to the poor.” This specific challenge was intended for this specific person.
And yet, before we are too quick to let ourselves off the hook, it is at this point that Jesus turns to the disciples and drops this little nugget: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
And this is where our reinterpretations come into play, efforts to make this statement more palatable. As early as the 5th century there were suggestions of mistranslation. Maybe someone misheard the Greek, because the words for “rope” and “camel” are really very close. Others have tried to force the point that it was a confusion of an Aramaic pun, that the words for “camel” and “louse” are very similar. So Jesus was just telling a joke.
I don’t know about you, but this possibility seems about as likely as “blessed are the cheese makers.”
The interpetation I remember hearing most often as a child was that the image of the camel was intended as a sign of humility. You see, there was a low gate into the old city of Jerusalem called the eye of the needle. For a camel to pass through the gate, it had to kneel. Therefore, the story went, if we can kneel before God, even with our wealth, we can enter the kingdom of God.
Unfortunately, there was no such gate in Jerusalem.
In other words, Jesus was just being really difficult: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
And remember: this is the same Jesus who said, “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow.” I can understand why would we work so hard to wrangle ease out of difficult messages; otherwise, being a Christian is just too hard. It is too bad, therefore, that Jesus often says things that are meant to provoke, challenge, even disturb those who heard. Welcome to the discomfort of discipleship.
Let’s stick with the discomfort for a moment. In the case of today’s lesson, let’s ask this: What does it mean to be “rich”?
Here in the United States, the top one percent includes those whose income is $500,000 a year and up. But since Jesus’ reference to “rich” does not mention anything about nationality, we would do well to expand the question globally.
And in that realm, it takes $34,000 per person, after taxes, to make it into the top one percent. For a family of four, that means a net of $136,000 per year. And by those standards, almost half of the richest 60 million people in the world live in the United States.
Maybe that describes you, maybe it doesn’t. Our family falls short of that mark. But before we breathe a quick sigh of relief and let ourselves off the hook, consider this: on average, the poorest five percent in the United States is on par with the richest five percent in India.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus does not give us any caveats. He doesn’t say that people who work really hard are exempt, or that there are different standards based on where they live, or if they inherited their money, or if they have a mortgage, or a student loan debt, or if they’re really nice, or if they go to church every week. There are no exceptions. Being rich is, quite simply, an impediment to being faithful.
I wish I had a neat way to wrap this all up, or that I could find a sideways glance of an interpretation that could help us stick this landing. Instead, the one solution I can see is for us to sell everything we own and give the money away to the poor. That’s it.
All right! Who’s with me?
Yeah, me neither…It’s a terrifying notion! What would it really look like to sell everything? If I were to sell my house, and my car; if I were to empty out my bank accounts and sell my guitars – OK. It just got too real. I don’t think I can do it.
And that is surely part of the point. The breadth of Scripture points to the fact that none of us can ever measure up to the perfection the kingdom of God requires. And because this is true, every single one of us stands in need of grace. It doesn’t matter how good you are. You still ain’t Jesus. And that, friend, is why you need Jesus.
Ultimately, the promise here is one that is meant to convict us, yes, but mostly to free us from the stuff that holds us back. Look: there is this gap between what discipleship requires and how far we are able to fulfill it. And the gap is not small. But if we know – really know – that God bridges that gap for us, what is it that this certainty could free us to do?
Picture this gap between us and God as though it were the Grand Canyon. We stand on one rim, with God barely visible on the other. How will we ever get there? It’s impossible, right? That is, if we think it’s up to us. Trying to reach God on our own is as absurd as leaping into the abyss, Thelma and Louise style. But if it’s up to God, for whom all things are possible, then perhaps we might feel free enough to try and jump anyway. Rather than falling to our doom, we are actually letting ourselves go into God’s limitless embrace!
We can let go of the things that hold us back from following God because God is the one who provides it all anyway. Maybe it is too much to imagine selling it all and giving the money to the poor…perhaps that feels like going full Evil Knievel. So…what would it look like to give up even just a little bit? And what would it look like to respond not as a volunteer, but a disciple, recognizing that the invitation itself comes from God?
Many of you are familiar with the concept of the “tithe” – that is, the giving away of one-tenth of one’s income (which, as you may notice, falls 90% short of the “sell everything” mark). The tithe is probably the most straightforward way to look at how willing we are to give it all away. So with tax season coming upon us in the not-too-distant future, here is one possible invitation to discipleship for you, in four simple steps:
- Know what your income is.
- Know how much you give away.
- Figure out what percentage that is.
- Figure out what it would mean to increase that percentage.
Let’s try out an example. Your income is $50,000 a year, and you currently give away $3,000. That works out to 6%. If you were to increase your giving to 7%, that would come out to $3,500 a year, or an increase of $10/week on your current giving. Is that doable?
Perhaps yes, perhaps no; but just as Jesus encouraged the rich young man to sell everything, I’m willing to bet that our call to discipleship contains a very real, tangible, financial component. Recognizing this is not something that binds us, but frees us.
And that is the point. Because not only are we invited into this life of discipleship, we are also invited to be an invitation. We are the voices God has chosen to invite others to follow Jesus. You are meant to be Christ’s hands and feet, Christ’s own words for the many who are hungry to hear what it is that God promises.
There are no volunteers in the kingdom of God; only disciples, those who hear the invitation and respond to the freedom it promises! Let us open our ears and hearts to where it is we are being called to go!