And now, the much-loved stewardship sermon, in which the priest hectors you to give more money, and you feel resentful, in the time-honoured cycle. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy homily. We have just read that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Is Jesus really saying this, to us? Is that what we need to do, if we are going to be His followers? Is this the set of instructions for Christian living? That is what we often hear, when this passage is interpreted—here, Jesus is telling it, straight, if we all just sold everything we had and gave the money to the poor, everything would be fine. If you don’t do that, you’re a bad Christian. We put up with you, and we’re really grateful for your money, actually, it’s really useful, but you should know that you’re basically a schmuck. Virtuous poverty vs. filthy lucre, perhaps you are familiar with that idea? It’s a very old one. Medieval theologians pulled out this text and others from the Gospels, about possessions, and sex, and devotion to God, and called them the Counsels of Perfection. They were supposed to be descriptions of the perfect life, the life lived by Jesus, which we are supposed to imitate as closely as possible. Clearly, though, not everyone is capable of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Those who manage it, the Mother Teresas, are promoted to the ranks of the saints. The rest of us just wind up feeling that God must love us less.
But is that really what’s going on here? A serious, demanding Jesus, presenting humanity with the terms for righteousness, straight-up? I think, perhaps, that here, as so often, Jesus tells the truth, but tells it slant. Let’s look more closely at that conversation. The young man comes up to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He doesn’t say, Jesus, I see a lot of suffering among my brothers and sisters, how can I help? Not, Rabbi, I see our faith being neglected and forgotten, how can I teach people about God? No, the young man is concerned for himself, his own salvation. He frames it as an inheritance. He wants to get what’s coming to him, his legacy, he wants to ensure his place in heaven as if his claim to the family property were locked down in an air-tight will. He’s pretty sure of himself already. He notes smugly that he has kept the 10 Commandments, every article of the divine Law, all his life. What does he need to do now, he asks, secretly confident that he doesn’t needanything at all, that he’s about to get a pat on the back. What does he want from Jesus? Praise. Affirmation. Job well done, young man. Jesus just won’t play his game. He won’t reward this kind of striving for status with God. He takes the young man’s swollen little balloon of self-righteousness, and He pricks it. But here is the amazing turn, in the story. It doesn’t say, Jesus was angry with the young man, and ripped into him with well-deserved, almighty wrath. It says, Jesus loved him, and in fact, Jesus does what we often do with people we love when we feel they’re going off the rails a bit, he turns around and teases him, makes a joke at his expense. So to the young man who’s done it all right, earned everything honestly and made a good name for himself, Jesus says, oh, there’s just one more little thing you need to do: give it all up, give everything away. If you listen, perhaps you can hear him smiling through the words. Perhaps we can hear the roar of laughter, from those who were standing around, watching all of this. And the young man runs away in shock, feeling insulted, because Jesus saw through him, made fun of him. Just like in the next verse, about the camel trying in vain to squeeze through the eye of a needle. It’s a funny image, whether the needle in question was actually a sewing needle, or the nickname of a low gate in the walls of Jerusalem. Either way, we know that camel is not going to fit, and we laugh at it, but if we’re wise we laugh with some rueful self-awareness. Jesus is making fun of our desire to save ourselves, to torture ourselves into different shapes and sizes, to rid ourselves of what’s impure, to get it all right, to be perfect. But we can’t save ourselves. We aren’t perfect. Even if we were, the desire to do it to save ourselves wipes away all the perfection, because what we’re doing comes from a place of selfishness, and fear.
So perhaps this story is not an instruction manual, for the perfect life. Perhaps it’s a gentle reminder, with a wink and a nudge, not to look in the wrong direction, not to look at ourselves, at all. There is a positive set of instructions to be found, though, it comes in the verses just before this story. We read it last week, you might not have noticed it, it came just after that memorable passage about divorce. Jesus speaks to the disciples, and this time he is angry, he rebukes them for trying to manage the crowds pressing in on him and he says, “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them.” That’s our commandment, unambiguous and clear, no joke this time. It’s not about us, individually, and what we can do better, or get right, or even good enough. We are called to look around ourselves, to look outwards, at who we can welcome and let in. To look at those who are small, in all kinds of ways, in the world’s terms, and vulnerable, bringing their own needs but also their own wonder and love. What might stop them, from coming in and finding Jesus here? Judgment? The too-busy, no time for this self-importance that the disciples had? Our Lord gets right down on the ground and scoops the children up, takes them in his arms and lets them climb all over him—his robe probably gets sticky from their hands, they mess up his hair, they scream and giggle in his ear, one of them probably gave him a cold. Jesus had all the time in the world for the little ones this world sees as worthless, for all kinds of reasons. There was nothing to be gained, in being a friend to children, to disabled beggars, to outcasts and sinners, to me, and you. Jesus doesn’t seem to have been a very practical person. And not even a very serious one, much of the time—he only took a few things seriously, things and people no one else took seriously at all.
Giving money to the church is not practical, and it won’t save you. I’m not going to pretend that it will. I’m not going to tell you how much to give, because I think you’re the best people to figure out how to manage your lives and your money. You’re grown-ups, not bad little boys and girls who need a lecture. And it’s not some sort of extortion, where I lean on you with threats about God’s anger until you cough up. I’m just going to remind you, with a smile, I hope, that we do a lot of impractical things, here, some of them expensive things, if I’m honest. We spend time, with little ones, with people in their need and wonder and love. Time the world doesn’t have to spare.
Jesus never asks us to save ourselves. For us, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible. He is the one offering to give up everything, all of himself, offering us eternal life. It’s a free gift, it’s not a trade, not a negotiation. Jesus sets the terms of salvation, and they are not the world’s terms. In fact, it’s such a ridiculously unequal exchange, the only way we can really talk about it is as play, an absurd joke, except not at our expense this time, because even grown ups like us are little ones to God, the one who welcomes us with laughter and open arms.