The United States is a country made up almost entirely of middle class people. Or at least, that’s what we tell pollsters when we’re asked to describe ourselves. In most recent polling, nearly 90% of Americans declare themselves to be “middle class”. Perhaps they’re “upper middle class” or “lower middle class”, but “middle class” nonetheless.
This has led at least a few statisticians (and others who are good at math) to note that if 90% of people are in the middle, there isn’t much left to be in the middle of! And, that statistic has also led to quite a bit of quantitative analysis about income and wealth, showing that many people who call themselves “middle class” are actually quite wealthy or quite poor.
But whatever the reality actually is, 90% of Americans still think of themselves as “middle class”, neither rich nor poor. There are several likely sociological reasons for this, including the fact that:
• Admitting you’re “rich” sounds kind of pompous and arrogant; and after all, it’ll make you an even bigger target for identity theft…
• Admitting you’re “poor” is kind of depressing, and often brings on judgment from others about why you’re poor…
• Most people define “rich” as “richer than me” and “poor” as “poorer than me.” And since I’m neither a Saudi Prince nor a homeless person, I must be somewhere in between – that is “middle”!
And since very few, if any of us, considers ourselves to be really “rich”, it’s easy not to get too worked up when Jesus says, “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.”
Well sure, I guess it probably is. It must be if Jesus says so. But I’m not “rich”, so it really doesn’t affect me. Let’s move on to the next of Jesus’ sayings.
And that SHOULD have been the reaction of Jesus’ first disciples. I don’t have any polling data to know how many first century people considered themselves “rich”. But as far as we know, the disciples were not particularly a well off group. Many of them might have been what we’d objectively call “middle class”. A bunch were fisherman, who might have owned a house and a workboat. Matthew was a tax collector, and many of you know how lucrative being a government worker is! As far as we know, most weren’t at the absolute bottom of the economic ladder of the time. But in no way shape or form were any of them “rich.”
And so you’d expect them to simply pity this “rich” guy who leaves Jesus shocked and grieving. Maybe they might feel a little smug (after all, THEY had left what little they had.) Or maybe they wouldn’t even give it a second though.
But instead, Mark says that they’re “greatly astounded.” Somehow, they understand this “camel through the eye of a needle” stuff to apply also to them. And they ask in amazement, “then who can be saved?”
As dense and clueless as the disciples usually are in Mark’s Gospel, maybe this time they actually get it! Maybe this time they realize that “rich” isn’t just about how much wealth or money they have, or their relative financial position in relation to others.
Maybe they realized that being “rich” is fundamentally about the ability and desire to:
• Maintain control over your life (the “rich man” figured he could earn his way to eternal life by doing exactly what he was supposed to do; and maybe the disciples figured they were sort of doing the same thing because they were obediently “following Jesus”… )
• Trust your own “security” to meet the challenges of life … (the rich man had “many possessions” so that he never had to worry about food or shelter; but the disciples were probably tempted to do the same things with whatever possessions they had…)
• Insulate yourself from other around you … (following Jesus meant engaging in situations that the rich man had worked hard to stay away from – if he had enough money, he didn’t have to deal with people in the streets and he didn’t have to put up with obnoxious bosses or difficult clients; and yet, over and over, the disciples try to do the same thing…)
So maybe having lots of money and lots of possessions made it easier for the rich man to do all those things. But probably the first disciples realized those things are what all human beings often try to do. The disciples struggled with them as well. And so they wondered, “who then, can be saved” if these are all basic human tendancies?
And when they asked, “who can be saved”, they weren’t just asking about eternal salvation in heaven. They were asking about living into God’s kingdom right here and right now. Indeed, how do any of us live into God’s kingdom?
And the answer Jesus gave was that you can’t. At least not by yourself. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”
And so when Jesus calls us into his kingdom, he doesn’t care whether we’re financially rich, poor or in the middle. But he does call us to follow him by giving up the mindset of “rich”. And this means that following Jesus is about:
• Trusting in God’s promise instead of your own ability to manipulate the outcome … (for many people, “grace” is about a “second chance” to get it right; but finally, it doesn’t depend upon you getting right if given enough chances – living into God’s kingdom is about giving up control of who gets in, even for yourself!)
• Confidence in God’s help, instead of your own ability to avoid the dangers of life … (I’m glad I have all kinds insurance to help insulate me from financial problems; but God isn’t like “insurance” – in the sense that God will protect you from bad stuff happening; Jesus called his disciples to follow him into some pretty tough situations, and he calls us into some pretty tough situations as well; and living into God’s kingdom is about being secure in the knowledge that God will be present and help you through whatever happens, instead of somehow hoping God will keep you away from difficult times and situations…
• Engaging with people whom Jesus calls us to be in community with – instead of trying to insulate ourselves from difficult relationships; lately, many of us have realized that we live more and more in “silos” of people who think and act like us; But Jesus called his first disciples to engage with people who didn’t think and act like them – and to love them, not to tell them how wrong they were! And often, living into the kingdom of God is about being open to being God’s instrument of love and hope in the lives of others, instead of being an island unto yourself …
NONE of those things are easy. And none of us can do any of them perfectly. And that’s why being included in the kingdom doesn’t depend on us getting it right, or even making sufficient progress so that we get a “most improved” award.
Instead, living into the kingdom of God means trusting that what’s unlikely and even impossible for us really is possible for God. Living into the kingdom means trying each day to do better, even while realizing that our progress or lack thereof isn’t what counts before God. And living into the kingdom is, most of all, about believing and trusting that God really does want to give us all the things that are impossible for us.