Technical difficulties mean the audio of today’s sermon will be delayed. In the meantime, you can read it here. UPDATE – you can now listen to it here.
“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.” Mark tells us that the disciples were perplexed by these words. I’m guessing that most of us are as well. In the days of Jesus, wealth was considered a sign of God’s blessing. It was just assumed that those who were well-to-do in this life would also be well-to-do in the age to come. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us probably still feel that way. Surely, we know that some multi-billionaires have made their fortunes by nefarious means, but by and large, we’ve bought into the myth that money is a sign of God’s grace. Jesus won’t let his disciples live with that myth any longer, but he is not the first prophet to suggest that the rich will have a hard time getting into the kingdom of God. Amos was an unlikely candidate for the role of God’s prophet. He lived during the time of the Divided Kingdom. Amos was from Judah, the Southern Kingdom, where he made a modest living as a migrant laborer: working as a herdsman, something like an assistant shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees also known as a fig picker. Somehow, despite his lowly background in Judah, Amos found himself called to the Northern a Kingdom of Israel where he would prophesy to the powerful king, Jeroboam II. King Jeroboam reigned for 40 years of relative peace and prosperity. As the years went by, the rich got richer, and as is often the case in times of great wealth, the poor got poorer. God grew impatient with the economic disparity in Israel and sent Amos to declare a day of judgment. Again and again the prophet speaks of God’s fury over the mistreatment of the poor:
- They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way… The strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives… (2:7, 14)
- Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy… The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. (4:1-2)
- Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. (5:11)
The message of Amos is clear; God cares what we do with our money, and on the heels of the unlikely prophet’s dramatic prophecy, we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich young man.
There is a tendency to hear these things with a certain ambivalence. It is easy to hear these stories admonishing the rich and think that they don’t apply to us, but the uncomfortable truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, most Americans would qualify as rich on the global scale. The average minimum wage worker makes $15,800 a year, which places them in the top 7% of wage earners in the world. Whataburger pays its employees $11 an hour, making them one of the wealthiest 2.5%. I make $60,000 a year, which means I’m richer than 99.81% of the world’s population. The desire to always push rich a tax bracket or two higher than our own may be tempting, but the reality is that, if they were around today, Amos, Jesus, and the rest of the prophets would have been speaking to most of us in this room.
At 35, I barely qualify as young anymore, but picture this rich, young man as me or you or your son or grandson. He grew up in a religious home. He’s always been a rule follower, and went to church all through high school. He’s done his best to keep the commandments since he was a youth, but deep down, there has always that nagging feeling that God had something more in store for him. Hearing that Jesus was passing through town, the young man dropped his work and took off sprinting after him. Gasping for breath, he approached Jesus with awe and reverence, knelt down before him, and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man really wants to know the answer to this question. He, like all of us, is seeking after not just eternal life, but abundant life. For all the good he has already done, something is still missing. He knows it, and Jesus knows it, and so Jesus lists the commandments, adding one that isn’t normally in the top 10 – “You shall not defraud.”
In our Old Testament Lesson, we heard Amos decry those who “afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” The gate was the place where small claims court was held, where the rich would bring the poor before their friends who served as judges in order to extract even what little they had from them. It seems this rich young man, for all the good he had done in his life, had found ways to expand his bottom line through less than honest business practices, which usually come at the expense of the poor. This ill-gotten gain was what stood between him and the abundant life he sought. He knew it, and Jesus knew it, and so Jesus told him that he should give it all away. “Sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor,” Jesus said, “And then you can follow me.” But note the tone in which Jesus spoke to the rich, young man. Mark tells us that before the man made the choice to follow Jesus or not, Jesus loved him.
The same is true in the lesson from Amos. Even as he prophesies of the destruction of Israel, Amos promises that God’s love is never-ending, that the Lord would be gracious to the faithful remnant. The same is true for you and me today. God loves us no matter what, but in that love, God also desires of us the same thing he desired of the rich young man and the same thing he desired of the Disciples, that we drop everything and follow him. More often than not, the one thing that holds us back from giving our whole lives over to Jesus is the money piece. It was true in Amos’ day, in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. Money is the all-time, #1 idol. We worship it in place of God when we fear that we won’t have enough, when we gain it on the backs of the poor, and when we hold onto it even when God invites us to trust him enough to give it away.
It really is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter fully into the kingdom of God. Our economy simply won’t allow for us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. It is the great irony of the American Dream: we’re stuck in a life that is something less than abundant because of the abundance of stuff in our lives. How can we avoid walking away sad like the rich young man? The answer is simple, we can gain abundant life by entering into relationship with the poor. By volunteering to teach a kindergartener the ABCs, helping bring one of the 80% of Foley Elementary School students who live in poverty one step closer to breaking that cycle. By helping a high school senior buy the clothes and school supplies he needs to be the first member of his family to graduate. By spending the night on a cot in the education building as Family Promise guests work hard to make enough to get back onto the economic ladder. By swinging a hammer on a construction site to help a Habitat family get on sure footing. Wealth tends to isolate, it tends to make us think that we don’t need anyone else and, worst of all, wealth tricks us into thinking that we deserve to be where we are. Jesus invites us to think differently; to remember that everything we have is a gift from God, that first and foremost we were created to be in relationship with all of our neighbors – the rich and the poor alike – and that abundance comes by giving away our resources in love for another. Without Jesus, it is impossible to fit a camel through the eye of a needle, but with Jesus giving up our abundance in order to inherit abundant life means that anything is possible. Amen.