Jesus warned that it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that for a rich person to enter the kingdom. That sounds a little harsh, doesn’t it? He went on to note it appears impossible for mortals, but for God all things are possible, which sounds like a hopeful loophole. If there’s one thing the rich are good at, it’s finding loopholes.
So, why is it so hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven? Part of the answer comes early in the life of God’s people. The Hebrews had followed Moses through forty years of desert wanderings, and were now on the verge of entering the promised land. Moses, knowing his time was at an end, gave a farewell address in which he reminded them of God’s laws and warnings. Among them was this: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses…and your silver and gold is multiplied…then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8)
It isn’t a matter of failing to walk in God’s ways. All have sinned and fallen short. That’s what reconciliation is about and available to all without discrimination. Neither does God have anything against wealth, per se. Scripture celebrates more than a few wealthy people: Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Boaz, Esther, Nicodemus, Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Joseph of Arimathea, and others. It is a matter of someone thumping one’s chest, harrumphing that they are a self made man or woman. They owe their wealth to no one else. They pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. They made it by themselves. They didn’t need help, they didn’t ask for help, they didn’t get help. As for God, if there is a God, ‘he’ wasn’t any help at all. That “I alone” hubris is what closes off the way to God’s kingdom. To oppress the poor and disadvantaged, to arrogantly disregard wisdom, to let might be the law of right and see the weak as useless, is to court God’s anger. (Wisdom of Solomon 2)
God is equally ill disposed toward those who claim God favors them over others as if they’d entered a divine partnership imparting a certain elite class status available only to the few who are tight with God. Remember when the disciples argued over who was the greatest? What did Jesus say? “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9) To be in partnership with God is to recognize that you are not the owner of anything, but a temporary steward accountable to God. To be sure, hard work, perseverance, intelligence, good planning and good luck may bring wealth into your possession. You’v earned it, but it’s yours only for a short time. All that you have will pass into the hands of someone else: sellers, buyers, heirs, thieves, the landfill. While you have it, you are accountable to God for how it’s used.
The reason it’s difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom is the ease by which they claim to have done it themselves, no thanks to anyone. That may be especially true where the self interest of rugged individualism is revered as a high ideal. Extreme individualism is easily blinded to the conditions and structures society has created that pave roads and open doors to wealth creating opportunity. It is easily blinded to the importance of community and its greater good, and it fails to recognize social structures that create obstacles for others to have access to the same opportunities. It gives only a passing nod to the roles of family, friends, mentors, connections, and pure chance that make wealth possible. It encourages the sense that class and hierarchy prove some people are superior to others, as is their right.
In our society, hyper individualism is quick to assume the only alternative is nanny state welfare that emasculates populations, turning them into lazy takers expecting someone else to take care of them. Their either this or that world view makes it difficult for them to recognize how communities, working together for the common good, make it possible for wealth to be generated. Their belief that what is theirs is theirs alone inclines them to object to paying their fair share of the cost of public goods, or to deny there are such things as public goods.
In a sense, it is their own stinginess that squeezes the doorway to God’s kingdom down to the size of the eye of a needle, and they have become the camel. Does that mean they’re lost? Thanks be to God that in ‘him’ all things are possible. Jesus told a parable about an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man treated Lazarus with contempt, but when they both died, the rich man found himself tormented in Hades while, across a deep chasm, he could see Lazarus comforted in heaven by Abraham. The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus with water to ease his suffering, but Abraham said neither he nor Lazarus had the ability to cross over. Jesus told the parable as a warning to the wealthy, but what Abraham and Lazarus couldn’t do, Jesus can. Hope remains. Rescue is offered. It has only to be accepted.
Here’s the strange part. The kingdom of God is not far off. It isn’t an afterlife reward of eternity in paradise. It’s a way of life that can be lived into now, in this life, and through the gates of death into a new and better life yet to come. How sad it is that the rich can so easily find it so difficult. Following Jesus in the way of love is to live into abundance of life. If wealth should be a part of it, the work of holy stewardship comes with it, and what a delight that can be.