October 14, 2018 – Pentecost 21 B
17As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
I heard a story about a man who got rich the hard way. He earned a fortune through shrewd business dealings and a lot of hard work. He worked and he worked and he worked until he retired. After he retired, he looked at his vast wealth and began to ask himself what he could do with what he had. So he began investing in the markets and investing in his community. Despite this, he always made sure he had enough for himself. And as he continued to grow older, he began to worry if he had done enough. So he prayed, asking God to give him a sign that he was saved, that, when he died, he would go to heaven. Much to his surprise, God called out to him and told him, “You don’t need to worry. You’re going to heaven. Jesus paid the price for you. I’ll see you when you get here. But remember, you can’t take your money with you.” Well, as you can guess, this pleased the man greatly. But the thing is…he wasn’t used to being told “no”. So a few years passed and his prayer changed from “thank you for saving me” to “do you think, maybe, I could bring just a little of my money with me?” After a few years, God began to get annoyed, called to him again and said, “Okay, fine. One bag. No more. And it has to be something you can carry, we don’t have a baggage claim here.” Again, the man was very happy. He decided that gold would be the best, as he wasn’t sure if the dollar, pound, or yen has any value in heaven, so he took as many gold bars as his could and put them in a duffle bag and set it next to his bed.
A short while later, the man died and he arrived at the pearly gate with his bag of gold bars. Peter welcomed him to heaven, but said, “You’ll have to leave your bag here, though.” The man insisted that he had special permission. Peter checked his forms, shook his head, and said, “This is highly unusual. I’ll have to check with God first,” and he apparated out of sight. A minute later he returned rather confused and said, “Well, you’re right. You can bring it in, but I need to inspect the treasure first.” The man smiled and unzipped the bag, but his smile faded as Peter began to laugh and asked, “Why in the world did you bring a bag full of paving bricks?”
I think that the unnamed man in our gospel lesson today can identify with that deflated feeling. He was so proud of himself and what he had done. Yet Jesus tells him that all he has left to do is give it all away. I can hear all the responses: “But I worked so hard for that!”, “What will I do if I get sick and need the money while I recover?”, “What about my children?”, “Why should someone else get my stuff?” I imagine these are some of the responses I would have, anyway. I, like you, have worked hard for what I have. Why should we give it all up? It almost feels like Jesus is picking on the man for being rich. He seems to be a nice guy, he’s surely an upstanding member of the community, and, given our propensity to measure God’s love by the stuff we have, he certainly seemed blessed. To our privileged ears, it almost feels like Jesus is preaching that you have to do something to get to heaven, thereby making poverty a work of righteousness.
But I wonder if, instead of preaching some sort of legalism, Jesus is actually orienting this man to the riches of the kingdom of God. We know what we treasure. But the treasure of the kingdom of God is not gold and houses and stuff we can purchase and hold. Instead, the treasures of the kingdom of God are people. When we treasure something, we care for it. When we treasure a car, for instance, we get the oil changed, we rotate the tires, and we drive carefully. When we treasure people, we care for them; we feed them when they’re hungry, we tend to them when they’re sick, we comfort them when they’re grieving, we celebrate with them when they find joy, we stand up for them when they are beaten down by injustice. The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom of a clenched fist, grasping and holding on, but rather a kingdom of an open hand, giving what we have received. It’s not easy, it goes against everything our culture and society has been built on, but it is the way of God.
Jesus shows us God in the flesh, and we see that God also has an open hand. God is not hoarding and scrimping, but freely giving. God freely gives what God has; peace, love, joy, community, and life even in the midst of pain and suffering and death. This is the way of the kingdom; an open hand, receiving freely from the Creator and giving freely to all of creation. Instead of our wealth, our gifts, our resources being an end to themselves, they become a means by which God’s love is felt and heard around the world. This is how the kingdom of God is made real, right here and now.
This life of faith, this kingdom life, is a life of reconciliation and relationship. It brings us to the table with people, the true treasures of God, and it brings us to recognize God’s face in others. Genesis speaks of humanity being made in the image of God, the imago Dei, and you, with all humanity, bear that image. We cannot possible repay God for the love, peace, gifts, and passions that you are given, but we can use it to care for the true treasures of heaven – people, the image bearers of God.
This sounds like a beautiful message, and it is, but this is also a deep challenge. Because this message of love and grace and peace is something we share, with an open hand. It is for everyone, not just those with means and status. We cannot control or limit it. We cannot grasp it and hoard it. It calls us to stand up and stand with the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed. Jesus tells the rich man to sell what he had and give it to the poor. And Jesus still challenges us: give what you have been given. Use your ears to hear the voice of others. Use your voices to speak out against injustice. Use your feet to spread the gospel and stand up for those who cannot stand under the weight placed on them. That is what God has done for you. You are loved and you are reconciled with God. Live with hands open, receiving from God and giving freely to the world. The true treasure of God is not a bank account or mansion, but love, peace, and grace. The treasure of heaven is people. The treasure of heaven is you. Amen.