Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were astonished at his words. Again Jesus said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
In February of 1848, a pair of German philosophers published a pamphlet in England at the behest of the Communist League. The pamphlet made a small splash at the time it was published, but it would go on to become one of the most consequential literary works of the last two hundred years. This was not because of its literary eloquence or artistry, but because it introduced some powerful ideas which were eventually bought into by some powerful people who attempted to put them into practice on a national scale. The world has never really recovered. The pamphlet, of course, was the Communist Manifesto, and the philosophers were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Now, neither man cared a bit about the Christian faith, but they have had many ideological followers who do claim such a banner, and have tried again and again to reconcile the ideas of Marx and Engels with the ideas of Jesus. This passage is one of the most important of such efforts. Let’s see if we can’t get our hearts and minds around what Jesus was saying here this morning.
The basic idea of the Communist Manifesto and of Communism generally is that every problem of humanity is ultimately an economic problem. Some people have more than others. The reasons for this imbalance in resources are inherently injustice and the only possible solution is for the people as a whole to take the excess of the wealthy and redistribute it among the poor. When the people, then, control all the means of production, everyone will be equal and happy. Justice will have thus been served. Breaking this down even further, Communism as a government system is essentially institutionalized envy.
When people who have soaked in these kinds of ideas – which, by the way, tap into some basic longings that are common among all people; namely, the desire for a just society and the desire for a convenient target for the frustration that comes when our life situation isn’t all we desire it to be – come to the New Testament and find Jesus saying things like this, they see a fellow traveler and start looking for more places He was on the journey with them.
But is this line of thinking really what Jesus had in mind? I don’t think so. Aside from the fact that the ideas of communism weren’t even around in the first century, I don’t think Jesus’ point here was to disparage wealth and the wealthy in general. He was making a statement about the state of the heart toward God once a lot of wealth gets involved in the conversation. The difference may seem subtle, but it is important. The context helps point us in this direction.
Remember, this is Jesus responding to a scene that would have shocked the crowd. A wealthy man had come up to him asking about eternal life. The man revealed that as far as the folks of his day were concerned, he was doing everything right. Now he was coming to Jesus for the final ingredient. He knew something was still missing and thought Jesus might have the answer. Seeing this man’s curiosity and his passion, Jesus was genuinely excited about the prospect of his following Him. He gave him one last thing to do and he was going to be all the way there: Sell everything and come follow Him. As we talked about yesterday, this wasn’t about the man’s wealth. It was about his heart. Jesus knew this was something that was going to get between him and following Jesus, so He told him to get rid of it. He wasn’t trying to discourage the man or insult him. He told him this with love in His heart. This was about giving the man an opportunity to turn his passion into action and lay hold of the eternal life he genuinely sought.
But he couldn’t do it. His wealth had too great a hold on his heart. The crowd was shocked at Jesus’ command. Jesus was sad and disappointed that the man couldn’t break free from the sin that was holding him back. When Jesus said what He did in our verses for today, I don’t think there was anger in His voice. I think there was disappointment. If there was anger at all, it wasn’t at the man. It was at the money that had stolen his heart from God.
This brings us back to Jesus’ words here; words that shocked the disciples even more than what had just happened because of how they had always thought about money. Money and prosperity generally have always been seen as an obvious sign of God’s favor. After all, if God wasn’t happy with someone, why make their life so easy by giving them such great resources?
The truth, though, is harder to see. Economics simply are what they are. Economic systems work whether we want them to or not. In some systems, some people just happen to have the right combination of talent, hard work, good ideas, and good opportunities (which themselves may or may not be available on a broad scale depending on the particular economic and social systems in place) that they are able to make fantastic amounts of money. Character may play a role in this wealth creation, but not necessarily in the ways we think. If the economic system is such that it rewards character traits generally considered to be not good, then people we consider to be not good are going to get rich. God may not be happy with them, and there may be a reckoning coming one day, but He does not intervene in our systems on a case-by-case basis the way we would sometimes like to see Him do.
In other words, bad people living terribly immoral lives sometimes get rich, while righteous people who do everything to the glory of God struggle to make ends meet. That’s simply how the world works. And, systems, like Communism, that wildly misdiagnose the real problem and fundamentally fail to understand human nature, aren’t going to make it any better. They’ll simply make it another kind of bad. If you want evidence of this you need look no further than every single nationalized application of Communist ideas ever put into place in any nation in the whole history of humanity.
If Jesus wasn’t downing on wealth here, though, then what was He doing? He was reminding the shocked crowd of the inherent dangers of wealth. While having wealth isn’t a bad or evil thing per se, being wealthy does give us the illusion of having control of our lives. If we have enough money, we can obtain just about anything we want. We can solve just about any problem that comes before us. We can buy cures for some of the worst diseases. We can avoid consequences for some of our worst decisions. Money gives us the illusion that we’ve got everything under control. We are good and we don’t need God. And this illusion is powerful. Incredibly powerful. It is far more powerful than we generally understand or appreciate. Jesus didn’t want this moment to pass without helping the group gathered there understand it so they didn’t fall prey to it in their own lives.
Getting into the kingdom of God requires surrender. It requires the complete surrender of our lives to Jesus. We can’t hold anything back. Well, the more money someone has, the less they have to surrender in their daily life. Someone accustomed to not having to surrender on a regular basis is going to have a much harder time surrendering to Jesus in an ultimate sense than someone who is more accustomed to surrender. Thus, it is harder to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.
Here, then, is the challenge point for us: Following Jesus requires surrender. How comfortable are you with that notion? How practiced in it are you in your life generally? What are the things in your life that keep you from surrendering to Him fully? How willing are you to see those things go if it means laying your hands on eternal life? Or, to put that another way, is there anything you’d rather have than eternal life? Let me ask that again: Is there anything you’d rather have than eternal life? You can have it. No one will stop you. But eventually the consequences of having it will come due and they will be eternal. There is still time now to make the necessary shift in priorities to have what Jesus is offering, but there will come a time when all sales are final and you don’t know when that will be. It’s better to go ahead and make the shift from self-dependence to total surrender while you can. This man refused. Don’t follow his example.