If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.
I assure you: it will be very hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom of heaven. I repeat: it is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
Yesterday I reflected on the rich man who came to Jesus and asked him “what good thing” he could do to gain eternal life. Jesus told him that there was no specific “good thing” he could do. Jesus told him that he should obey the commandments, especially those that promote love, peace, and harmony. Here’s what happened next: “I have obeyed all these commandments,” the young man replied. “What else do I need to do?” Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he was very rich. (Matthew 19:20-22).
POW! Sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Deafening silence. Followed by sadness.
Well I’ve heard this scripture preached many, many times. Christianity really struggles with this one. First of all, no one wants to sell everything they have and give it to the poor. If you give up all your money you relinquish control over your survival. Money is our security blanket, our force field that protects us from life’s dangers. At least we like to think that. Of course this isn’t what Jesus preaches. He says that we shouldn’t worry about life’s practical matters (See Days 49-53). Jesus teaches us that we should rely on God, not money, to provide us with our daily bread (See Day 42). Jesus never had a job, but he could feed thousands with a couple of fish and loaves of bread (See Days 133 and 141). He said that all you need is faith that God will provide.
I rely on my money for security even though I know that it’s really not the path to true peace of mind. We accumulate money to provide us with security in our old age, but experience tells me that it’s very common for the elderly to be stripped of their money by unscrupulous people or the medical industry. While faith in money is a source of security, money is also a source of worry. A source of worry big enough to break up friendships, families, and marriages. In the parable of the sower, we learn that “the worries of life and the love of riches” are among the many things that stunt or halt our spiritual development (see Day 125).
Second, even though Jesus says that he doesn’t like money (See Day 47), we still hang on to the pagan belief that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. We talk about accumulated wealth as a blessing even though Jesus says in today’s scripture that it’s really a curse. I am reminded of the people from a neighboring church who said they would bring some warm clothing to our church for the homeless on the condition that they could pray for each of them. We said no. Their implied assumption is that lack of money is a sign of God’s disapproval. If someone is impoverished must be the result of sin in their lives. Lack of prosperity is a sure sign that God is mad at them. Umm….Not true, according to this scripture. Lack of financial resources could actually be a sign of spiritual health and God’s favor (See Day 130). I think Jesus would advise that we should ask the poor to pray for the rest of us. The rich are the ones who are going to have to struggle to get into heaven, not the poor. The rich are the ones who need the prayers. Those folks from the church down the street should go to the Gold Coast if they want to pray for. Or Lake Forest. Or Lake Geneva would be a great local alternative for them. They could go to Lake Geneva and try to convince the people there that they need prayer because they are rich.
Third, we wonder what giving all of our money away would accomplish. We would then become dependent on the largess of other people who have not yet given all of their money away. If everyone gave all of their money to the poor, the poor would be the new rich. Who would they give their money to? The poor, who are the old rich. Then all of the money ends up back where it started. Maybe the point is to keep it all circulating until it eventually evens out. Who knows.
Finally, church leadership throughout history has taken advantage of this scripture by implying that Christians can achieve eternal life by giving their money to the church. And while the church does indeed help the poor, it also keeps a lot of money for its own support and self-perpetuation. Jesus doesn’t say to give it to someone who will give it to the poor for you. He says to give it directly to the poor so that you will build up riches in heaven (See Days 45 and 100), like that show Secret Millionaire where some rich person makes lots of friends and a sense of accomplishment by giving money away to unsuspecting people. Priceless.
And it’s also important to note that Jesus doesn’t say that everyone needs to do this – only those who want to be perfect. On Day 37 I reflected on the fact that Jesus says we can indeed be perfect, whole, and complete. I think there is some validity to the interpretations of this scripture that point out that if the man was really at peace with himself he wouldn’t be asking Jesus how to achieve eternal life. He would already know in his heart that he was acceptable in the eyes of God. Jesus saw that the man’s money was holding him back, so he told him to give this burden away to those in need so that he might grow spiritually and find peace. And then, once he had divested himself of the responsibility of wealth, he would be free to pull up stakes, follow Jesus, and find abundant life.
A challenging scripture indeed. It’s hard for us to accept that Jesus teaches that money is a curse, not a blessing. Money makes it hard for us to step into the Kingdom of Heaven. It weighs us down, holds us back, and gives us a false sense of security. It takes up our time and causes us to worry.
I think Warren Buffet has the right idea. He made a decision to will his money to charity rather than giving it to his children. I’ve heard him say that he told his children to go out and make their own money because it would be bad for them to inherit his wealth. Together with Bill Gates he has created “The Giving Pledge” a campaign to encourage the world’s billionaires to make a commitment to give most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Wikipedia says that as of last year, 113 billionaires have signed the pledge. They have all vowed to give their money to the poor after they die rather than willing it to their families.
One of the funniest things I’ve heard relative to this scripture is that there was a gate into the city of Jerusalem called the Needle’s Eye that was on the small side. It changes the meaning of the scripture to from it being “impossible” for a rich man to get into eternity to it being “a little more difficult.” And here’s what good old Wikipedia has to say about that theory:
The “eye of the needle” has been claimed to be a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. This story has been put forth since at least the 15th century, and possibly as far back as the 9th century. However, there is no evidence for the existence of such a gate.
Variations on this story include that of ancient inns having small entrances to thwart thieves, or a story of an old mountain pass known as the “eye of the needle”, so narrow that merchants would have to dismount from their camels and were thus more vulnerable to waiting brigands. There is no historical evidence for any of these, either.
Cyril of Alexandria claimed that “camel” is a Greek misprint; that kamêlos (camel) was a misprint of kamilos, meaning “rope” or “cable”. However evidence for such a Greek term is weak, there is little or no Greek manuscript support, and it goes against the standard principle of textual criticism that errors tend to happen towards the easier reading, not against it.
Like a drowning man clinging to a life raft we tend to do whatever it takes to cling to the idea that money is good and lack of money is bad. Humanity’s addiction to wealth is a tough one to break, even though Jesus says it’s bad for us. In this scripture, I think he meant a real camel, the animal with humps. I also think he meant a needle, the kind you use with thread. I think he meant that it is “very hard,” not “inconvenient.” It’s my opinion because it is very consistent with all of his other teachings about money. He never, ever says it’s a good thing or that it’s a sign of God’s favor. He always says that money is bad.
When you think about it, money is a way of getting what you want without having to be nice to people. If we didn’t have money we would have to rely on barter and our relational skills. Think about it. If we didn’t have money we would have to work harder on being nice to other people and the world would be a better, kinder place.
According to Jesus, no one needs any money at all. God will provide all of our needs if we have faith in him. Mind boggling, don’t you think? Goes to show we have a long ways to go to get where Jesus says we need to be. We are all like the guy in this scripture, walking away from this scripture sad and disappointed because compared to most of the people of the world, we Americans are very rich. But there is always redemption. The best thing about this story is the last part, but that’s the subject of tomorrow’s reflection. Until tomorrow….peace, love, and poverty to you all.
What does this scripture say to you?