As we read through Luke, we keep coming back to money. That is no surprise, knowing Luke is the “social justice gospel.” Luke’s Jesus talks about money almost as much as Matthew’s Jesus attacked the Jewish religious leaders.
Is it wrong to be rich? That’s a loaded question. It is also an impossible question because “rich” is entirely relative. Are you rich if you make more than $50K in America as that is roughly the median household income? Are you rich if you have three cars? Are you rich if you have one car and don’t have to ride the bus? If you are a welfare mother in Memphis with four kids to feed, you are poor, right? But isn’t she rich compared to a many people in Africa or a leper in the slums of Calcutta? And does how you use your money make you more or less rich? And what do you have to do to not be rich? How much do you have to give away? Do you have to stop clothing your kids at Aeropostale and shop at Wal-Mart instead? But aren’t you still spending more than at Goodwill? You can always give up more, so trying to draw a line between poor and rich seems a bit arbitrary, slippery, and maybe even self-serving.
Here is a better question: Does wealth make following Jesus harder? I feel much more comfortable answering that one, and “rich” can remain as relative as it clearly is. It seems Luke’s answer is a resounding “yes.”
Jesus saw that he [the rich young ruler] had become sad, and said, “How hard it is for those with possessions to enter God’s kingdom! Yes: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.” (18:24-25)
First let’s deal with Jesus’ wording and one misconception: I like the way N. T. Wright phrases the first part of Jesus’ response, “those with possessions.” This is a reminder that the real issue in possessing something with clenched fists as if it is our own and with an unwillingness to let it go. Rich people can do this. But poor people can too. Trying to serve our selfish desires while also serving God, that is when the problems come. Next, there once was a belief that there was a now-lost gate in ancient Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle” that was very short, so short that camels had to get down on their knees to crawl through, and that this is what Jesus was referring to here. Hence, it is not impossible for a camel to go through the “eye of the needle,” and it is not impossible for rich people to enter God’s kingdom. However, F. F. Bruce and others have made it clear that there is absolutely no archaeological evidence for such a gate, and the next two verses make it clear that Jesus is talking about an impossible feat.
Does having money make some things in life easier? Certainly. That is why most parents get a bit nervous when our kids say they want to grow up to be artists and musicians, not dentists and pharmaceutical salespeople. That is often why we encourage people to stay in school (there are better reasons, but let’s be real about a lot of people’s motivations). That is why we encourage our kids to work hard, to seek promotions, to save, to eliminate debt, to invest and squirrel away for retirement. The American Dream — I daresay, all of capitalism — is based on the belief that money makes life better or easier and we wouldn’t be going on three hundred years of American capitalism if it were not at least partially true.
But in a culture like America (and Canada and Europe and free Asia and so much of this “flat earth,” as Thomas Friedman called it) where the philosophy of materialism (all that exists is that which is tangible and material) and the practice of affluence (let’s have as much of that material as possible, because it will make me happy and solve my problems) are part of the dominant worldview that is in opposition to that described in the Bible, it is absolutely imperative that we hear Jesus clearly here and decide whether we really believe what he is saying. This is a proverbial “line in the sand.” Attachment to material possessions makes following Jesus harder. It becomes easier to become attached to material possessions the more we become able to attain possessions (i.e., when we are rich, whatever that means in a given context). The more we have, the more we feed the desire to have. The more we try to satiate our needs with stuff, the more we teach ourselves that stuff makes us happy, thus do what it takes to be able to procure stuff. These are not comfortable words to write. They are very indicting. They confront the very culture most, if not all of us, are living in. But they seem to be what Jesus is saying.
Let me end with a concrete example of what I am talking about here. Each summer and often once or twice during the school year, a group of my students and adult friends travel to an orphanage in Ghana, West Africa that we help support at our school. These kids come from nothing and, though their quality of life at the orphanage is actually pretty good by African standards, they still lack much of what we would call essential. Nonetheless, the most common statement I hear from students who return from Ghana is this: “I wish I were there. I can’t wait to go back. Life is so much simpler there. Those kids know what really matters. They teach me that so much of what I have is unnecessary. I think they are actually happier than I am.”
Could it be that our affluence is, in fact, making life with God harder?