Astonishing Words About Wealth

Sermon for Sunday, October 10, 2021 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31

Jesus tells his disciples a lot of astonishing things in the Gospel. He tells them to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. He tells them to pluck their own eye out if it causes them to sin. He tells them that he will be killed and then rise again on the third day. Pretty much every time Jesus opens his mouth, he says something astonishing.

But only one time in the entire Gospel does the narrator tell us the disciples are astonished after hearing Jesus say something.* One time across all four accounts of the Gospel – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Once! And that one time the disciples are astonished by Jesus’ words comes in today’s Gospel lesson. It’s easy to miss because, for some reason, our English translation renders the word as “perplexed,” but it’s better translated as “astonished,” or “amazed,” or even “startled.” What did Jesus say to so startle his disciples?

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

Out of everything Jesus says, this seems to be the most astonishing claim he makes. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 

Like much of what Jesus says, these words go against the conventional wisdom. Wealth was seen as a sign of peculiar blessing. Wealth was seen as a tangible conveyor of worth in the eyes of God and society. Wealth was seen…wait, I’m not sure why I’m speaking in the past tense. Nothing really has changed from Jesus’ day to our own. Our society sees in financial wealth the same peculiar blessing and tangible conveyor of worth that existed in ancient times. We take for granted so-called “status symbols” like the luxury car or the second home. We invest undue influence in the rich and famous, allowing such wealth to buy the votes of politicians and sway public opinion. Two thousand years of presumed progress has not moved this conventional wisdom one iota. We hear Jesus astonishing words, and they are still astonishing: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

With this statement, Jesus turns the hierarchy of his (and our) society upside down. He challenges the unexamined views of his disciples who accept their society’s dominant narrative at face value. Of course, the wealthy are the blessed ones. Look how good they have it! But then Jesus presses even further: “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And now the narrator tells us the disciples are “greatly astounded”; but a better translation is “panicked.” Jesus is throwing his disciples’ whole worldview into turmoil. If even the rich can’t be saved, they ask (panicking), then who can?

Jesus does not answer this question. And, I’ve said this many times, when Jesus doesn’t answer a direct question, it means he wishes you had asked a different question. And we can reverse engineer that question based on what Jesus does say. He responds to the question, “Then who can be saved?” by saying, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

So perhaps the question Jesus wishes they had asked was, “Can mortals save themselves?” To which Jesus responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

For God all things are possible. This simple statement of faith is God’s kingdom put into words. God’s kingdom is the reality where God makes possible all the things that human greed, short-sightedness, and hunger for power have made impossible here on earth. Things like equal justice for all and an economy where all thrive and a society where all are regarded with the same dignity and a tapestry of relationships woven throughout with God’s connecting love. That’s the kingdom of God.

We help bring about the reality of this kingdom on earth when we reject the instinctive societal astonishment over Jesus’ words about wealth. Our society tells a story that wealthy people have earned their wealth solely through hard work and tenacity and innovation. And these things certainly are part of the equation. At the same time, wealth accrues due to various societal structures like access to education and stable employment and home ownership. For example, a 2019 analysis of census data determined that the median net worth of those who owned their own home was 80 times that of renters.

Our society tells a myth that the wealthy just have a certain something – a certain quality – that those who are poor do not. And they do have something the poor do not have. Money. Not drive, not ambition, not a work ethic. The single parents working three jobs have drive, have a work ethic. They just don’t get paid enough. And that’s the underside of the myth about wealth: If wealthy people got where they are on their own merits, then it stands to reason poor people lack those merits – and are thus undeserving of societal support. Just think of the word we use when we have no money. We’re broke. Broken. 

Somehow, our society has turned poverty into a failure of an individual’s character, rather than seeing poverty as the failure of society’s collective responsibility. And once poverty becomes a character flaw, then providing basic needs like food and shelter and childcare become entitlements rather than baseline support. Take the logic one step further, and because the poor are flawed, they aren’t entitled to those things at all.

But remember, all things are possible for God, even the rewriting of the narrative about wealth and poverty. Jesus’ words about wealth and the kingdom of God challenge us to look more deeply into our own notions about wealth and poverty. Jesus’ words compel us to discern how we have bought into the societal tale that unjustly equates poverty with moral failure. Jesus’ words invite us to work towards a society that sees poverty as society’s problem and then to enact solutions that alleviate the suffering of those who are poor.

This sounds like a tall order, I know. But I also know that God’s kingdom is the place where all things are possible, even the remaking of a society so it more closely resembles that kingdom. We pray to partner with God in this remaking every time we say the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” These words Jesus taught us are just as astonishing and amazing as anything Jesus ever said. And what’s even more astonishing is that we, you and me and all of us, we have the opportunity to make these words a reality even here, even now, as we partner with the God for whom all things are possible.

* Here I’m talking about a specific Greek verb “thambeo”; there are other words that also mean “amaze” and I talk about one later in the sermon. Thambeo appears a few other times in the New Testament, notably in Mark 1 when Jesus is casting out a demon and in Acts 9 when Paul hears the voice of Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Photo by Nicholas Cappello on Unsplash.

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Season 4, Episode 4
“What’s Your Alignment?”

The Podcast for Nerdy Christians, where faith meets fandom. This episode, we’re talking about the alignment system in Dungeons and Dragons and what we align ourselves to in our lives. We’ll also tackle some chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

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