Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Aren’t there three topics that you’re never supposed to discuss in public? Religion, politics, and money. Guess what we’re going to talk about today? Money. And more specifically, people who have lots of money.
Now, typically in church, a sermon on this passage would go something like: being very rich is very bad, therefore if you are very rich, you are very bad, so repent, and take care of the poor, and give away all your money, and God will forgive you. We really connect issues of money with issues of morality, and so most of us in the church distance ourselves from people with piles of money, those in the 1% as it were, because we suspect they’re using that money to gain access to power and to give themselves advantages that the rest of us can’t afford.
It’s not surprising that we think this. In society, money really does do these things, and for those of us who value equality, it seems immoral to use money for our own good, especially at the cost of others. An example of this that pops to my mind is a recent option at the Calgary Stampede, the Midway Express wristband, where you can pay an extra $25 to get to the front of the line for all the rides, thereby skipping the 30 minute wait in line to get on the Crazy Mouse. (Why anybody would want to wait thirty minutes to get on a ride that is essentially a roller coaster where the car spins around and goes down the slide backwards is beyond me, but clearly I’m in the minority.) Anyway, to me, that $25 Express Pass is a prime example of money getting you advantages and access that come at the cost of others. For every person in the express line, the people in the regular line have to wait an extra five minutes. That $25 pass increases the gap between those who are first in line and those who are last––because of money, the distance between the rich and the poor becomes even farther apart.
And I don’t think that’s fair. Partly because my kids can’t afford to buy that pass (there’s my bias), but mostly because it violates the rule that we should all wait the same amount of time for the same amount of fun. It emphasizes inequality, and it privileges a few over the rest, and it does so on the basis of money, not merit. I would be happy if the Stampede did away with it altogether.
Now the Stampede Pass is a somewhat superficial example of the inequality caused by money or the lack of it, and I know we can come up with others that are more serious and would require more nuanced conversation, like two-tier health-care, or progressive income-tax, or paying an extra $25 so you can pick your seat on an airplane. And I’m sure we could have very vigorous conversation about these things. But I think it’s safe to say that in the church, generally speaking, we listen to Jesus say, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” and “the first will be last and the last will be first” and we think, yeah! After all, we can all think of people who are richer than we are that we would, just once, like to get ahead of. We can imagine standing on the inside of the pearly gates, all fancy and wrought-iron, kind of like a really nice English country club, and saying, “Nyah nyah!” to the rich in their Lamborghinis and private jets having to stay on the outside because they aren’t poor enough. God is here for us!
Except that that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not actually saying that the rich won’t be welcome in the kingdom of heaven. If you look really closely, you’ll see that Jesus is actually making room for them. Yes, the first will be last and the last will be first, but the last still get in. The poor get to go to the front of the line, and the rich have to go to the back, but the line doesn’t cut off. Heaven doesn’t have an occupancy limit, the gates don’t actually ever close. God is not about to run out of grace. Yes, the rich might have to wait longer than the poor, but they’re still getting in.
You see, Jesus is trying to disrupt the system of the rich getting ahead and the poor falling behind but not by reversing it. Simply turning the system on its head, so that the poor get ahead and the rich fall behind doesn’t abolish the system, it just recreates it in a new way. There’s still injustice and unfairness and inequality. Instead, Jesus shows us how God breaks apart the system, by stepping completely outside of it, by making all things possible.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is about––creating a totally new system of inclusion that is entirely free of merit or conditions or worth. This is why God’s grace and mercy and love are so mind-blowing. What God is doing is radical: welcoming in absolutely everyone––especially those whom we think least deserve it, either because they’re too rich or because they’re too poor. It tells us that in God’s eyes, all the measures of worth that we hold, whether those are measures of financial net worth, or Instagram likes, or good intentions, or selfless living are meaningless. We might as well measure our worth by our shoe size, or our bone density, or the month we were born for all the good it would do. Because God abandons measurements altogether. How we compare to other people, where we stand in line, becomes completely irrelevant. Everybody gets in.
Which is both bad news and good news. It’s bad news if we’ve spent our lives trying to accumulate wealth, and using it to get to the front of the line (which, btw, is all of us when you look at how even the poorest among us are still richer than 70% of the world). It means we’ve spent our lives on nothing, and, like the man who came before Jesus, we will be much grieved when Jesus tells us that what we have is worthless. We’ve spent all our time and energy getting nowhere and when we die, the moths and rust will consume the worth we’ve stored up on earth.
It’s bad news if we’re hoping for the great reversal at the end of time, when everybody’s going to get what’s coming to them, and those Stampede Express Pass holders aren’t even going to be allowed in the gates. It’s bad news if we’re secretly hoping for a little schadenfreude and just desserts on the Day of Judgement. Yes, the first shall be last and the last shall be first, but everyone’s still getting in.
At the same time, God’s radical welcome is good news if we’ve spent our lives trying to accumulate wealth and still ending up at the back of the line, (which, again, is all of us when you look at how 1% of the world owns 50% of it). It means we can stop spending the rest of our lives in the pursuit of wealth as a means to feeling better about ourselves. It disconnects money from morality, and frees us from thinking that if we have money, we’re doing something right, and if we don’t, we’re doing something wrong, or vice versa. It’s good news if we turn around and realize we were at the front of the line the whole time and didn’t mean to be. It’s good news if we have no hope of even making it to the line, never mind being one of the last who get to be first.
As much as we might wish it were so, Jesus is not taking the idea that was prevalent at the time––that money gets you into heaven––and flipping it on its head to suggest that money keeps you out of heaven. God does not measure our worth by money at all. God measures our worth by the amount of grace and mercy and love that God makes available to us, which is an infinite amount. God’s grace towards you is infinite, which makes you infinitely worthy to be in God’s kingdom, no matter how much money you have or don’t have. God’s mercy towards you is infinite, which makes you infinitely bold to come before God, no matter how righteous or unrighteous you are. God’s love for you is infinite, which makes you infinitely welcome into God’s presence, no matter where in line you stand. Thanks be to God. Amen.