Choices and Options (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

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During my college years, I was heavily involved in helping to lead our Lutheran Campus Ministry.  This included helping to put together worship services, planning fellowship events, and organizing weekend retreats, which we did a couple times a year.

At those retreats, we’d always invite some guest speakers, who would share with us some of the ways they lived their faith.  And I still remember one person in particular.  She was a recent college graduate who had decided to dedicate a year or two of her life after college to working with poor and marginalized people.

She spoke to us about her work, and why she felt it was her calling to do this.  And she told us that, while she had a college degree and came from a middle class family, she had decided to give it all up (at least for a couple of years) and that she had chosen to “identify with the poor.”  And thus, she told us, she really now understood what it was like to be poor, because she had chosen to live that lifestyle.

And I remember we were all pretty impressed that she was willing and able to do this.  But somehow, while I knew she felt that she was truly identifying with the poor, it didn’t seem entirely true, even if she meant it.  And as I reflected on her words, I realized why neither she nor I could ever truly “identify” with the people she was helping.  And that was because she had “chosen” to live this way.

She had a choice.  She had options.  At any point, she could have said, “I’ve had enough.  I’m going home. I’m going to go get a middle class job.”  But the people she was serving couldn’t do that.  Those options weren’t available to them, and they didn’t have the ability to make those choices.

And maybe the most important thing I learned from that discussion was that I thought of myself as a “poor” college student.  And financially, that was true!  I had no money and I already had a bunch of student loans.  But even so, I had options.  I had choices.  And it’s those options and choices that gave my life wealth.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, having encountered a man with “many possessions”, turns and says to his disciples, “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”  Now unlike the man with “many possessions”, as far as we can tell, the disciples had relatively few.  Certainly, they weren’t rich.  And so, logically, it would make sense for the disciples to start doing the happy dance and exclaim, “Yay!  That means we get in because we’re not rich!”

But they don’t.  They’re perplexed.  And when Jesus reinforces his words with this stuff about it being harder for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, the disciples exclaim, “Then who can be saved?”

Perhaps, for as clueless as the disciples usually are, they get it this time.  Maybe they realize that much of the “wealth” of life is not about “possessions”, but about having choices and options.  And maybe they see that making the wrong choices, and exercising the wrong options, is so often what keeps people from truly following Jesus into the kingdom.

After all, that’s what’s been happening so far:

  • The rich man’s problem is really not that he “has many possessions”, but that he just can’t make the choice to give them up and follow Jesus on the journey that Jesus is about to set out on…
  • The disciples, even though they have made the choice to follow Jesus, have consistently been exercising the wrong options as they follow Jesus – they’ve bickered about who’s the greatest and continually tried to exclude others (like the kids) from being close to Jesus…

And so maybe at this point, the disciples really do understand that if their inclusion in the kingdom of heaven is based on human beings making the right choices and exercising the right options all the time, “then who can be saved?”

And to this question, Jesus does NOT answer, “just try harder, pray harder or be willing to suffer more and eventually I know you’ll get it right.”  Instead, Jesus directs the disciples’ attention away from themselves, and instead towards God’s grace and mercy.  “You’re right (for a change!)”, says Jesus.  “For mortals, it is impossible.  But not for God; for God all things are possible.”

And so Jesus’ words here aren’t just about material wealth.  And they’re not really about camels or needles.  Instead, they’re Jesus’ call to:

  • Recognize that often, our greatest “wealth” comes in the form of the choices and options that God gives us each day.  Each day, both the rich man and the disciples had choices about how they would live and what they would do with their time, their talents and their stuff.  And after all, much of the reason we so often think of money as “wealth” is because money gives us choices and options that we wouldn’t have without it.  And so Jesus’ words ask us to consider what our “wealth” really is…(instead of limiting “wealth” to money or stuff….)
  • Consider, and maybe re-consider, our choices and options each day.  Sometimes, people read this story and think, “Oh, I’m not that wealthy, so this doesn’t apply to me!”  But in fact, Jesus was calling this rich man to follow him.  Giving up his stuff was intended to both do good for others as well as free him of responsibilities so he could better follow Jesus into the coming kingdom. And Jesus’ question to all of us is, how are the choices we make, and the options we choose, helping us to follow Jesus in growing into the kingdom of God, and becoming the people Jesus calls us to be?  And if those choices and options haven’t been the right ones, are we ready and willing to make different choices …?
  • Remember that, whether our choices are good or bad, they’re not finally what get us into the kingdom of God.  Instead, it’s God choice for us that makes that happen.  This rich man actually asks the wrong question.  He asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  But inheritance is something you’re given as a gift, not something you earn (like your salary).  And sometimes, the option to give up control of your life and your fate (even if it means putting those things in God’s hands!) is hard to do!  But knowing that all things really are possible for God – and not even possible, but promised – is what makes it possible for us to trust in God’s forgiveness and even to make different choices than the ones we made before …

Choices and options.  Most of us have these in abundance each day.  Some of them come from the abundance of our possessions.  But all of them come from the abundance of God’s grace in our lives.

And so Jesus calls each of us every day to recognize all the forms of wealth we have.  Jesus invites us to make choices and choose options that help us to follow him more closely into the kingdom of heaven and become the kind of people God intends for us to be.  And Jesus promises that even when we make the wrong choices, or choose the wrong options, God’s promise of forgiveness is always there for us, because nothing is impossible with God.