Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 10/11

          One almost can’t help but try to soften today’s gospel lesson in which Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.  Ever since he said it, people have tried to distance themselves from what might be the hardest of the hard sayings of Jesus and there is no shortage in the variety of ways that people have tried so here are a just a few; you can decide which one you favor.

          Maybe the most common is “I’m not rich.  Jesus isn’t talking to me,” permitting you to quickly move on to something a bit more palatable even though according to worldly standards all of us are rich, some are richer than others.  That however, still doesn’t discourage us from making the “I’m not rich” claim.  A second possibility involves the editing job that was done by an early scribe who took the phrase “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 changed it to “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God.”  If you looked in your Bible you’d probably find a footnote that says that some ancient authorities use that version.  So…with that you can admit that you’re rich but that you don’t trust in your riches, so again you can say, this isn’t about me, Jesus is talking to someone else.

          Then there’s the camel through the eye of a needle thing.  Of course a camel going through the eye of a needle is absurd, it’s impossible; but a ninth century interpreter came up with a way to make it less impossible; he came up with the idea of a low gate leading into Jerusalem that was called “the eye of the needle;” it would not be easy for a camel to go through such a gate but a camel that stooped could make it.  In other words, entry would be difficult, but not impossible, the resulting interpretation being that that only the proud rich, too proud to stoop, would not be able to enter, so again we can say, “I may be rich, but I’m not proud; Jesus isn’t talking to me.”  The trouble is, according to archeological evidence, there apparently was no such gate.

As an aside there very well might be an editing error in this passage as the pairing of a camel and the eye of a needle really doesn’t make sense but the error is more likely to be that some scribe wrote kamelos, the Greek word for camel, instead of kamilos, the Greek word for rope, accidentally changing an i to an e.  Correcting that one letter the phrase would read, easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, which is a more logical pairing of words, but that doesn’t change the meaning; whether rope or camel, it’s still impossible.

Another way to get yourself off the hook though, is to say that this story is specific to this individual as Jesus identified his “weak spot” in order to make a point to him but that we shouldn’t generalize and say this is intended to be advice for everyone.  A variation on that is to say that this is another example of Jesus’ use of hyperbole; the command to sell everything and give the money to the poor is meant to be recognized as impossible thus causing us to become aware of our dependence on God’s grace.  After all we say, if someone actually did what Jesus said, in many ways it would just create another problem, another poor person with no means of support, but this time it would be me, or you. 

That’s probably my excuse of choice when it comes to this story but you can see there are plenty of options, the reality being that none of us want to really consider even what this text might be saying because what it might be saying is that every one of us is an idolater, worshiping at the altar of the idol of consumer capitalism.

The Bible is full of cautions about idolatry, worshiping other gods.  We’re tempted not to take those cautions very seriously because we’re not inclined to worship little statues and piles of rocks like the people of ancient Israel.  But I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that the real religion of this country is consumerism with the underlying assumption that more is better and that if you want it, you need it.  We all worship there and we celebrate our religion every year with a festival that starts around Thanksgiving and ends on December 25th, a festival that is measured by how much stuff is bought and sold.  But it’s not just December; we’re pretty faithful about worshiping this god all year round.    

I grew up listening to the Beatles, I have most of their albums and they’re still in pretty good shape; but when I heard a few weeks ago that all their albums had been digitally remastered and were being released in a deluxe box set of 13 CD’s and other assorted paraphernalia for $259.99 and all those who know about such things said you won’t believe how good they sound, they reeled me right in and I thought, “I don’t need it, I already have most of the music; but I want it.  In fact I think I have to have it.”  I hesitated, awhile; I waited for Amazon to knock the price down, but then I finally ordered it for $179.99, saving $80!  (that way I can talk about how much I saved rather than how much I spent)

What that means though, is that I have $179.99 of what I consider to be discretionary income.  That means, I could have given that money to the charity of my choice in order to help the poor, to help others in need, but the charity I chose was me and not one of you would criticize me for it because you would say, “You’re a pretty good guy; you work hard; if you want that box set you should have it,” and also because if you did criticize me it would open you up to criticism for your latest frivolous purchase of something that you really didn’t need, but you wanted.  So having made my confession, if you like I can open the confessional booth after church.

“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”  Like the rich man, we walk away shocked and grieving because we have many possessions.  It makes you wish Jesus didn’t talk so much about money and possessions. 

This has to do with stewardship, being good stewards of the gifts we’ve been given, but the chances are that you probably already know that.  There’s a well known sociologist of religion at Princeton University who says that in his studies he has found that pastors and lay leaders do a good job of teaching about stewardship; people understand the concept and their intentions are good but having lives invested in consumerism, we hear, we know that we could and should give more to the church or to charity, but it sure isn’t easy, tempted as we are by the promises of consumerism.  It’s much easier to talk about stewardship than it is to live it.

In the end, this story is untamable, it leaves no easy explanations; the tension remains.  The story resists simple explanation and denies loopholes thus making us uncomfortable.  In our discomfort we try to talk around it looking for something to soften it and get us off the hook and we can be pretty successful in convincing ourselves that it doesn’t say what it says; or maybe we play the comparison game convincing ourselves that while guilty, we’re not as bad as some…but the words remain…and we know it, just like the man in the story knew it.

Even if we can’t accept this as a literal command, and we can’t, no one is going to do what this says and sell everything and give the money to the poor, even if we can’t accept this as literal, we also can’t deny that literal or not, this saying of Jesus is a call to reexamine our lives, especially to look hard at the idols at whose altars we worship.  Jesus consistent message, echoing the prophets of the Old Testament, was about care for the other, attending to the needs of others especially the poor, the outcast, the stranger.  Idols in our world are not statues and piles of rocks but they are the things that cause us not to take the way of Jesus seriously, the things that cause us to be self centered rather than neighbor centered.  As always, Jesus defines the neighborhood pretty broadly.

We are all more like the rich man than we might like to admit.  According to worldly standards, he had everything, yet he came to Jesus asking what he needed to do to inherit eternal life.  Having everything, he still knew that something was missing.  For us we know that more stuff isn’t the key to happiness, but we still try to buy it for ourselves or for the children, the grandchildren, whoever.  We’re seduced by the promises of happiness made by of the god of consumerism even though we know those promises don’t deliver what they say.  They leave us unsatisfied, always wanting more.   Like the rich man, we know something is missing, something that can’t be bought.

The challenge of this text should trouble all of us, it should make us uncomfortable; hear though verse 21, “Jesus looking at him, loved him.”  Jesus did not condemn the rich man, he loved him.  As we try to make Jesus’ words say something else, as we struggle with our own weaknesses, it’s important to hear that.  Out of love, Jesus calls us to live in a different way because it is a way that really does satisfy.  It is the way of God and God’s kingdom, the way that Jesus modeled in his life and in his death.  It is a way that does deliver on its promises.   
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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