If it wasn’t a bit disrespectful, I’d have to say that at this point in the story, Jesus has pulled off the biggest bait and switch in history.
For the opening couple of years of his ministry he’s been all “the Kingdom of God is at hand”, “good news for the poor”, “the year of the Lord’s favour”, recovery of sight for the blind, healing for the sick, deliverance for the oppressed.
He’s been preaching, in short, a story quite consistent with the role that the crowds have placed him in – a prophet, a man in the line of Elijah and John, calling the people of God to true worship, true obedience, true life; and promising them – or at least allowing them to believe – that the kingdom they have been crying out for, the Kingdom that they read of in their scriptures, the Kingdom in which the people of Israel would once again be free – that that Kingdom was at hand, forcefully advancing.
And now with the crowds at his back and his loyal lieutenants at his side, he is heading for Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish power, but also, within the province, the centre of Roman power.
And then suddenly he starts to tell a different story. How the Son of Man must suffer, and die. How his followers must themselves take up their cross.
Now there’s a phrase that we’ve probably lost the power of, by reading it in spiritual terms. Taking up your cross in the day of Jesus was an image that was very specific, very full of meaning for those who heard him: it meant to face arrest and execution. We don’t have any phrase that carries that same weight, in a society enlightened enough to reject execution; but one might imagine Bonheoffer, who I quoted last week, reading those words as he walked to the scaffold, and hearing “if any would follow me, they must place their head in the noose”…
Bait and switch. Promised the Kingdom was at hand, suddenly the disciples were expected to grasp that this Kingdom didn’t come with earthly power, military success, political influence; but that it came with suffering, weakness, and death.
What sort of Kingdom was this?
And today, their preconceptions, their mindsets, their worldviews, were in for another radical shake up. Because of this rich man (a rich young ruler, in other gospel accounts) who seems to be exactly everything that a good Jew, a worthy citizen of the Kingdom, should be.
By his own account, which Jesus doesn’t challenge, he’s lived well. He’s kept the law, lived the way God wanted him to. I don’t think we need hear in his words the sort of arrogance or lack of self awareness that they are sometimes read to suggest; he isn’t claiming to be perfect, to have never broken any of the rules. That’s not really the way the Torah worked. His claim is that he has lived a life in keeping with deep meaning of the law, what Jewish tradition calls “the living Torah”, of which the written word of the law, the “written Torah”, is but a reflection. All of this, he says, I’ve done.
He’s wealthy, and he is one of the good guys; a man truly blessed by God.
But Jesus looks at him, with love, and says “you lack one thing”.
Interesting choice of words, really. Not “there’s one more thing you need to do”. Not “there’s one rule you’re not following”. Not “there’s one fault you need to overcome”. But “you lack one thing”. This was a wealthy man. “Lack” was not a word that would usually be applied to his life. If he lacked something, he could get it.
So what did he lack? What was Jesus’ point?
We might look at Jesus’ words that followed and suggest that he lacked generosity; that he was too attached to his wealth; and clearly that seems as if it might have been so.
But I wonder if Jesus might actually have been playing a rather different game, echoing back to the man the question he asked. As if to say “yeah, you’ve lived well. But something is still missing, right? There’s something you still feel you need. That’s why you’ve come to me – you know you lack something, but you don’t know what it is. Tell you what – you want to discover what it is you lack? Get rid of your stuff, it’s in the way, give it to those who need it – don’t worry, you’ll have treasure in heaven – and follow me. I’m not going to tell you what that thing you lack is; maybe there isn’t even a word for it. But if you follow me, you will find it.”
And the man leaves, shocked and grieving. But you know, there is a part of me that thinks maybe he didn’t just walk away. Maybe he was grieving for what he was about to leave behind. He loved his stuff, and he was going to miss it.
It was going to be very hard for him to follow. But maybe he had the courage he needed to do it.
We simply don’t know. So it probably doesn’t matter to us.
What matters is what comes next.
Jesus turns to his disciples and hits them with the punchline. “How hard it is for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God”.
And they are perplexed. Well, perplexed that does seem to be the default state of mind for the disciples. Perplexed now because this goes against everything that they think they know about the way the world is.
For these men and women, living as they did in a society with clear social order, and little social mobility, a society in which that social order was closely tied, interwoven with, the religious order; it was obvious that those with wealth, power, respectability, would have the best chance, the first chance, to enter the things of God.
It’s not just that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing – for of course, the wealthy and powerful who were corrupt were all too well known – but simply that in everything in life, those at the top got the first choice, the best pick, most opportunities.
You can see it in the disciples’ response to Jesus’ words “how hard it is for those who are rich to enter the Kingdom” – “then who can be saved? If they can’t, with all they have going for them, what chance do we have?”
Now surely that is the set up line for Jesus to hit them with “the first shall be last and the last first”. “It’s hard for them, they are now first, they shall be last. You, currently last, shall be first!” It would be a beautiful way to wrap the story up.
But he doesn’t. He looks at them and says, loosely translated, “yup. Mortals, eh. Sucks to be you”. Surely he then pauses, just for a moment, before adding “or at least it would, if God were not involved.”
I don’t think Jesus is trying to tell his disciples that because they are poor they are in a better place than the rich. I think he’s trying to tell them that they are in exactly the same place.
That all the things they think matter when it comes to entering God’s Kingdom, don’t.
That the things that they might think give some an advantage before God, don’t.
Because before God we all fall together into the one category: “mortals”. “with mortals it is impossible”. Unable to save ourselves.
Anything we have which we think might give us a leg up into the Kingdom, forget it.
Generations of good solid Presbyterian forefathers? Nope.
Honours degree in theology? Nope.
Good, respectable, life? Sorry.
Being able to recite the books of the Bible (I’m sure many of you can. I can’t)?
A lifetime of service to the Church. No.
Education? Wealth? Name? Title?
All of us – we are camels looking down the eye of that needle, and saying “I’m a camel. That’s a needle. This is not happening.”
But with God, all things are possible.
Even for camels.