Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 19:16-30 The Rich Young Man
Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’
Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
The average dromedary camel is around 6 feet tall at their shoulder and around 7 feet tall at the top of their hump. They usually weigh between 660 and 1320 pounds. Camels are really big. There are many sizes of needles for many kinds of sewing tasks. I checked my biggest darning needles. The longest one in the packet is 2 and 5/8ths inches long. The eye is about one quarter of an inch long. I’m pretty sure that a camel can’t fit through an eye of that needle. The camel is 336 times taller than the eye of the biggest needle in all of my embroidery gear.
This week, with several strikes either on-going or on the horizon, I’ve seen a lot of talk about how much CEOs of various companies make. Their salaries are really big. Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich shared a list of the salaries of CEOs of 8 Hollywood studios. The highest salary of the eight he listed was $51 million dollars a year. The lowest was $22 million. This doesn’t apparently count all of their compensation, like stocks and other benefits, though. Journalist Mo Ryan reported that in 2021, one of CEOs pay was more like $246 million a year... which, parceled out in a day over a year, would be about $675,000 per day. That same year, an entry level support staff position in one part of the studio he ran would have been paid about $185 a day. According to Ryan, when you combine all his compensation, this CEO makes 3600 times more per day than an entry level position in the company he runs.
You may have noticed this on your own, but it bears repeating. The four Gospels, while all sharing a telling of Jesus’ life and ministry, don’t each tell it the same way and don’t always share the same stories. Some stories make it into three or four of them. There is a version of today’s reading in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is often known as The Rich Young Ruler. It’s about someone who wants to know how he might achieve eternal life. He ends up being asked to make a significant sacrifice. Money ends up being an impediment to his spiritual growth. Jesus thinks he’d do better with a lot less of it. The wealthy man left the conversation with Jesus in grief, because he had a really big fortune. It seems like giving it up was a nearly impossible task for this man.
In high school, I read a story by Leo Tolstoy called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” In that story, a man, who begins the story as a peasant working on someone else’s land, works to purchase more and more, assuming that lots of land would insulate him from anxiety and scarcity. He claims that if he had plenty of land, he “wouldn’t fear the Devil himself.” When he purchases his first piece of land, he comes in conflict with his neighbors. When he hears that there is rich farmland in another region, he sells all of his land and possessions and moves there with his wife. The story says he’s “ten times better off than he had been.” And, yet he grows discontent.
He was going to purchase a big plot of land from someone who was struggling to pay for it, so they were going to sell it to him at a loss. But then he found out that if he moved to yet another region, he might even be able to buy a bigger piece of land for the same amount of money. When he arrives, the locals give him a bizarre offer: he can have as much land as he can mark out while walking, beginning at sun up and ending at sun down. He must start and begin at the same place. If he succeeds, he’ll only pay $1000 rubles for what marked. If he fails, he will lose the money and the land.
Though he has a dream where all the men who tempted him to buy more land in different places turn out to be the devil, he still decides to go for the locals’ offer. He marks a huge parcel of land, but the physical stress of the ordeal, along with his fear that he won’t make it, take their toll. He dies just as leader of the local people says he’s gained much land. In the end, all the land he really needed was the six-foot-tall plot of land in which his servant buried him.
In her commentary on this text, Wil Gafney cautions readers not to assume that the Gospel requires some people to live in poverty. This has been a mistake Christians have made in the past and likely continue to make. She argues that individuals and societies that approve of the hoarding of resources too readily “sanctify the poverty of others,” saying that God must intend them to be poor and requiring that they be grateful recipients of wealthier people’s grace. Any reading of this story that justifies impoverishing people because “God’s obviously wants them poor,” is a misreading of the Gospel. Jesus is not justifying the wealthy class impoverishing the poorer classes. He is telling a wealthy man that his wealth, and all that he does to gain more of it and all that he does to protect it, is a really big problem. And, it is a problem big enough to overshadow all that he does to try to live by his religious laws.
I know that some scholars have posited that the “eye of the needle” referenced here is actually the name of a skinny gate in the wall around the city that a person could fit through but a camel couldn’t. I think Jesus actually means the eye of a sewing needle. Like our reading from last week where Jesus tells a parable where a person is forgiven an impossible sum of money, the impossibility of this image is the point. Wealth, which is used to solve so many problems in this world, cannot ultimately solve the problem of eternal life. You can’t buy your way into God’s grace.
In fact, Jesus seems to be saying wealth, and the power and influence that go along with it, may actually ultimately prevent you from growing closer to the divine. Or, at least prevent this one man from coming closer to God. But, if amassing and protecting wealth was a barrier to his spiritual growth, it is hard not to imagine that it would be for ours either. I keep wanting to hold this man’s story up alongside the parable of the slave who had his debt forgiven but chose not to offer that same mercy up to someone who owed him money. And, what I think they are saying together is that mercy is at the core of our faith. This isn’t to justify suffering, but it is to call us to generosity and to warn us away from hoarding. May we never be so attached to what we have gathered up that we walk away from an opportunity to lay it down so we can walk closer with Jesus. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to amass really big fortunes. He told them love God and love their neighbors, and to trust that God could do impossible things. May we never see sharing with our neighbors as an impossible thing.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Where I found information about camels: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camel
Robert Reich: https://twitter.com/RBReich/status/1679865074943500289?t=28NPwWxLg6lNj7tPfQ23_Q&s=19
Mo Ryan: https://twitter.com/moryan/status/1679599813958967296?t=T0YFLR_MaxTu2abS-T5rHw&s=19
You can read "How Much Land Does a Man Need" here: https://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2738/
Wil Gafney, Proper 10 (closest to July 13) in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.