You May Already Have Won.
I went online this week to find out whether the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes still existed, and I found out, it does. The sweepstakes patrol still goes around the country knocking on the doors of unsuspecting magazine readers, catching them in their bathrobes, and announcing to them that they have won millions. I remember my childhood fascination with the sweepstakes: you could win even if you didn’t order a magazine—at least officially there is no purchase necessary, and the prize amounts were out of this world.
Jesus tells a couple of parables that sound a little like the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. He says the kingdom is like a man who finds a treasure—it is his lucky day! In his joy, he hides the treasure in a field and then goes and sells everything that he has and buys the field. Or the kingdom is like a merchant of fine pearls who happens across the best pearl he could ever hope to see. He sells all that he has and buys that pearl of great price.
The kingdom is better than the best thing you could imagine. It is something that, even when you sell everything you have for it, it feels like you just won the sweepstakes.
When Jesus looks at the man before him who is seeking eternal life and loves him, I imagine he is exuberant as he says to him, “Go, sell what you have, and give the money to the poor—and you will have treasure in heaven—and come, follow me!” You may already have—no, you already have won!!
Shock and Grief
But the story does not have a happy ending. The man goes away shocked and grieving because he had many possessions. Imagine the camera rolling, and the person in the bathrobe saying to the prize patrol, “No. No winners here.” They step back and the camera catches the door closing and clicking shut.
Jesus comments, “How hard it is for someone who has wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples who see the whole thing, and we who watch from the comfort of thousands of years in the future, know that this story is not going the way we want it to go. Like the disciples, we wonder, “Who, then, can be saved?”
Then and now, wealth has mostly been seen as a blessing from God, and often as a sign that God is particularly fond of you. We are so sure of this that often when we talk about this story, we try to find something—anything—that the man has done wrong that will explain the sad ending to the story. It couldn’t be that his many possessions—in and of themselves—were the stumbling block, could it?
- We decide that the man is self-righteous about having kept the commandments. I mean, who can do that, right?
- Or maybe the problem was not his many possessions but his attachment to them—so then the moral of the story is about wearing our wealth lightly, and not being afraid to share.
Why Is It Hard to Enter the Kingdom?
I have spent the week trying to figure out why it would be hard for someone who has wealth to enter the kingdom of God because I thought, if I could figure that out, figure out the nature of the roadblock, I could avoid it and have both the wealth and the kingdom. And if I could figure it out, then I could tell you, and then together we could have both the wealth and the kingdom. I tried. For all of us, but especially for me, I tried.
I did not have much success. I do not think that the man in the encounter with Jesus did anything wrong before he walked away grieving. His many possessions simply limited his imagination for what was possible. We think of wealth as expanding our possibilities. The warning from Jesus is that wealth can also limit them—it can limit our sense of possibilities to the point that we miss that treasure in the field, that pearl of great price. While we bend over the computer screen, checking on our accounts, the kingdom of God passes by our window.
The Prodigal Son and Sin
Maybe an example of the way wealth limits our vision will help. You know the parable of the prodigal son. A son says to his father, “Give me my share of the inheritance now,” which the father does. The son goes into a far country, spends all his money on fast living, and then, when there is a famine and no one helps him, he finds himself feeding pigs and realizes that his father’s servants are eating better than he is. He returns home, and his father throws a party. For the purpose of this example, we’ll leave the story there.
The New Testament scholar Mark Allan Powell ran an experiment with this parable. He asked people in different cultures how sin is manifest in the story. He wanted to know, “Where is the evidence of our human brokenness?” The American Protestants who answered Powell’s question overwhelming pointed to the dissolute living of the young man. He spent everything on wine, women, and song. That is the evidence of sin in the story. When Powell asked the same question of Lutherans in Tanzania, they saw the story differently. The sin in the story is that the young man was starving and no one gave him anything.
As I thought about this parable, and before I knew the findings of Powell’s study, I would have said that the sin was the rudeness of asking your dad for an inheritance before he was dead, or that all that fast living was a sign that the man was better at using people than loving them. But it would never have occurred to me that a community of people in a far country not helping a stranger who foolishly burned through an inheritance was a sign of human brokenness, a sin. The young man is like the definition of the undeserving poor. Those far country people don’t owe him a thing, I would have said.
Powell’s argument is that we see things like sin and grace differently from different social locations. Our culture and economic status shapes our vision of what we imagine that God likes and dislikes. Our wealth shapes what wholeness and brokenness look like to us. This, I think, is why it is hard for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God: we are like the muggles in Harry Potter’s world: muggles—the non-magical people—cannot see Platform 9¾, and because they cannot even see the platform, they can never get on the train for Hogwarts.
Like a Bad Boyfriend….
We believe that wealth is the way we make sure we stay in control of our destiny. I know I do, and I am pretty sure I’m not the only one. Here are some of the things we “know,” and we do not question whether they are true: Money buys better housing, better health care, more insurance, better education, more experiences of the world, more beautiful things. It helps us protect our loved ones. It makes us less dependent on others. It saves us from being a burden.
When we have money, we share it, of course. We know the commandments, and we try to observe them. We are not thoughtless when it comes to our deserving neighbors. But whether we have wealth or not, and no matter how much we share it, we still believe in it. We trust it is a means of gaining safety and control in a world where weather, health, government, and jobs can change in the blink of an eye.
So here is the danger: while you and I have been focused on accumulating resources and avoiding taxes and debt, the pearl of great price has slipped through our fingers. The treasure in the field: we never noticed it. This is the greatest danger we live with: not that we will outlive our resources or our usefulness, but that we will live out our days too preoccupied with our resources to recognize our incredible luck, namely that Jesus just asked us to join him on the road! Notice for just one day how many times money is on your mind. How does it worry you, or make you feel secure, or require decisions, or inspire daydreams, or quash them?
What the man talking to Jesus (and his 21st century sons and daughters) cannot see is that there is life on the road with Jesus, more and different life than there is in our accounts, our insurance policies, and our practice of checking and double-checking our assets. We cannot see it because it is the nature of wealth to make us blind to any source of life beyond itself. Wealth is like a bad boyfriend that way, always telling you things like, “No one will ever take care of you like I can,” and “You would be nothing without me.” Even when we know these things are not true, the message is still seductive. How can we escape?
With human beings it is impossible, Jesus says. We cannot see what we cannot see.
And then Jesus himself becomes God’s visual aid for what is impossible for humans. Equal to God, he becomes very small, a baby in fact. As a human being, he is unencumbered and very vulnerable. He is a servant, a peasant, a guy who doesn’t even want to be called, “Good Teacher.” He empties himself, the apostle Paul says.
On the way to his death, he gives his life away. He creates a community out of tax collectors and prostitutes, so much of a community that when people tell him his mother and brothers are asking for him, he looks at those gathered around him and says, “These are my mother and my brothers and my sisters.”
He lives and dies and, raised from the dead, he heads back to Galilee to the places where people like the rich man had encountered him on the road. I kind of wonder if he didn’t go looking for that guy.
“For God, all things are possible,” Jesus said. What sorts of things are possible with God? A community is possible that helps a spendthrift in a famine. Freedom from the illusion that we can buy what we need is possible, and so is freedom from the fear that when we cannot buy what we need, all is lost.
There is a whole other world on the road with Jesus. As he walks alongside us, what we know changes. This is our hope. He is our hope. May he find you in your worries this week, and in your security. And when he does, may you recognize him as your very own hidden treasure, found.
I got help this week from Bishop Larry Wohlrabe’s “Through the Needle’s Eye,” and Matt Skinner’s Working Preacher post from 2009. The material from Mark Allan Powell is in his book, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap between Pulpit and Pew (Abingdon, 2007) –Pastor Mary Hinkle Shore