Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Impossible Possibility

Text: Mark 10.17-31

“A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound… money makes the world go round.” So sings the Emcee in Cabaret, but it’s not a new idea. Karl Marx was wrong about almost everything, but he was right about one thing: Consciously or unconsciously, we usually act in accordance with our economic self-interest. But long before Marx Jesus said much the same thing.

Jesus had a lot to say about money. He told us that hearts would be found in the same place as our treasure. He told us that the measure of a life well-lived is how much we give, not how much we receive. He said, “Blessed are the poor, but woe to you who are rich.”

Today’s gospel reading contains two of Jesus’ “hard sayings.” The first one is obvious: Jesus’ command to the affluent young man to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. But there is another even harder saying hidden in today’s gospel reading that we will get to in a few minutes.

Britain’s former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, is one of my heroes. When I was studying in Britain she was in her second term and was elected to a third term during my time there. However, she was incredibly unpopular with British intellectuals, including most of the clergy, although I think there is little doubt that her policies laid the foundation for the prosperity most Britons are enjoying today. A key element of “Thatcherism” was the sale of state-owned industries, such as British Petroleum, British Aerospace, and so on. I ran into a friend one evening, a priest, who was out walking his dog. He began to rail at Mrs. Thatcher and her lack of compassion for the poor. Finally, I said, “But John, the Prime Minister is just doing what Jesus told us to do…. Go and sell all that you have.”

Seriously, though, was Jesus telling us that we must sell all that we have? Was he saying that unless we embrace poverty, we cannot follow him? The quick and easy answer is to point out that Jesus requires only one person in all the gospels to make this sacrifice. When he dines with the corrupt tax collector Zacchaeus, Jesus does not tell him to sell all that he has. Zacchaeus offers to give half of his possessions to the poor and to reimburse anyone from whom he has stolen by a factor of four, and Jesus appears to give Zacchaeus his blessing.

So are we off the hook? Can we keep our houses and cars and bank accounts, unless Jesus personally requires us to sell it all or unless, like Zacchaeus, we need to make amends for a life of crime?

When he was on his deathbed, comedian W.C. Fields asked for a Bible. Fields had never displayed any interest in religion, and his friends were astonished. ”Why do you want a Bible?” they asked. “I’m looking for loopholes,” Fields replied.

Like Fields, we want to find loopholes. We want to believe that there is some fine print in the Bible that says that we can amass great wealth and also follow Jesus. We want to believe that Jesus was talking about someone else when he said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.” But the sad fact is that all of us have our hearts in the wrong place. All of us are too firmly tied to this world by chains of money and possessions.

Jesus can’t possibly be talking about me, can he? If I were a corporation I wouldn’t make the Fortune 500 list; I wouldn’t even make it if they expanded it to a thousand or a million. When it comes to wealth, I’m not only not in the same category as Bill Gates, I’m barely on the same planet. Wealth, however, is relative. To be wealthy in the world of Jesus, was to have a roof over one’s head and enough food to eat. When I taught New Testament at Samford University, I had to work hard to convince my students that when Jesus talked about the rich, he was talking about them (and their teacher, too, of course). The average student at an American university is fabulously wealthy, not only in comparison with the average person in the world of Jesus but even in comparison with about two-thirds of the people in the world today.

All of us want to negotiate with Jesus. I know I do. “Jesus, I’ll follow you… I’ll give up everything I have, except…” What? What is the one thing you would not give up to follow Jesus? I know that if a heavenly voice roused me from my sleep at 3 am and said, “Go and sell the Steinway grand your parents bought for you in high school” I would ask for a second opinion. What would you not give up? The money you have saved for retirement? The vacation house at the lake or the beach? But Jesus does not negotiate. Matthew’s version of this story read, “If you would be perfect, sell your possessions and give everything to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.”

I have to give the young man a lot of credit. He did not try to negotiate with Jesus. He may not have been willing to pay the cost of discipleship but he understood it. In fact, he understood it so well Mark tells us that he was “shocked and went away grieving.”

The first “hard saying” of Jesus is his challenge to the young man who was seeking to “inherit eternal life:” “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” The second (and, I think, harder) saying comes in the discussion Jesus has with his disciples after the young man’s departure.

He tells them that it will be as hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Now, it is sometimes argued that the “eye of a needle” was a narrow gate in the wall around Jerusalem. That is not correct. The gate known as the “needle’s eye” was built long after the time of Jesus. Jesus meant a real camel and a real needle. In other words, he was saying that it’s impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. His disciples were astonished. They assumed that the rich would have an easier time of getting into God’s kingdom because they could do so much good with their wealth. So they asked, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus’ reply to that question is today’s second and harder saying: “For mortals it is impossible…”

“For mortals it is impossible” is a hard saying because deep down most of us believe that if we really, really try, then we will be to enter the kingdom, to get into heaven. We won’t even have to sell our possessions as Jesus asked the affluent young man to do, because unlike him, we know that we will do so much good with our wealth. We’ll give to our church, the United Way, our college alumni fund, support political candidates who will write good legislation and enact wise policies. Of course, we won’t be able to do this all by ourselves. We will need God’s help. But isn’t that what the very next verse says: “With God’s help all things are possible”?

Ah, now that’s a problem, because the new translations have corrected a mistranslation in the earlier versions. The King James’ Version reads, “With God all things are possible.” “All things are possible with God” is the RSV’s translation. But the New Revised version translates the Greek correctly: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

“With God all things are possible” implies that all that we need is to get God on our side and try a little harder. It’s like the old bumper stickers that said, “God is my co-pilot” which always made me wonder why the less qualified person was in the pilot’s seat.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth called the Christian faith the “impossible possibility.” A virgin give birth to the savior of the world? Impossible. The infant in the manger God incarnate? Impossible. An executed criminal who rises from the dead on the third day? Impossible. The rich enter the kingdom of heaven? Impossible. The poor enter the kingdom of heaven? Also impossible. But that is God’s business: turning impossibilities into possibilities.

The French mystic Blaise Pascal said, “Those who seek God have already found God.” Those who seek God have already found God because the desire for God is a gift. I think the young man who asked Jesus what more was necessary to inherit eternal life was sincere, but I think he wanted to have eternal life AND riches. There is a great fascination with spirituality in our age. There is much good in this but the danger is that spirituality life will become just one more hobby. For example, Madonna has become interested in Qabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. I can imagine an interviewer saying, “Now, Madonna, tell us about some of your interests.” “Well, I do yoga, support animal rights, and .. uh… oh , yeah… I’m getting into Qabbalah.”

I think a story from the Buddhist tradition may help us understand why Jesus made the young man an offer he COULD refuse and why the man went away grieving. Like Jesus, people routinely came to Buddha seeking spiritual help. “Master,” the man said, “I know that you have attained enlightenment. What must I do to become enlightened?” The Buddha looked at the young man, and said, “Do you really want to be enlightened?” The man said, “Yes, I really do.” “Come with me, then.” The Buddha and the man walked down to the lake. “Lean over and look into the lake,” the Buddha said. As the man leaned over the surface of the lake, the Buddha seized the man’s head and held it beneath the water until he was half-drowned and then released him. “Now, when you want enlightenment as badly as you wanted air, come and see me again.”

The kingdom of God is not our achievement; it is God’s gift. It is only by grace that we will be able to seek the kingdom with all our hearts, to think nothing of giving up everything and following Christ; to be as desperate for God as a drowning man is for air. Amen.