One of the consequences of the fear-filled age in which we live is that it is more and more difficult to get into almost any public building. Two months ago my tiny Swiss Army knife almost kept me out of a hospital emergency waiting room, of all places. Before I could call on a friend was in the ER, I had to bag and sign for the knife. Other times are not quite so dramatic; occasionally I go to the courthouse in Little Rock to do business, and I get half way there and remember that I have a Swiss Army knife in my pocket. I now have my own little planter on the street a block away from the courthouse where I hide the knife. It is the price I must pay to get in the building. Likewise, it is hard to get past the guards in any number of office buildings now unless we can prove we have an appointment. And then there is Little Rock’s Clinton Library: every time I walk in it, with its metal detector, I wonder if the experience is designed to remind us how hard it is to get into the Oval Office, even if, as in our case, it is merely a copy of the real thing.
But in some sense it has always been thus. Big city nightclubs are notorious for having velvet ropes outside the door and bouncers who look over every potential patron to see if he or she will fit in based on their clothes or personality or hairstyle. Or consider bars and checking of driver’s licenses. And as even the most honest restaurant manger knows, a bill taken from one’s wallet, properly folded and slipped from palm to palm, has often caused a table miraculously to open.
So there we have it: we live in a world where there is always a cost of admission into the place where we want to be, admission built on what is in our pocket, or the right clothing and attitude, or the attaining of a certain age, or a bit of money discreetly passed. Certain barriers have to be overcome so that we can get what we desire. It is no wonder, then, that a man runs up to Jesus in today’s gospel and asks what he has to do in order to inherit eternal life. He wants to be on the inside, and the human experience has always been that there will be a judgment call made before admission is granted.
What I hope you do not take away from this story is that the answer from Jesus is that the way into heaven is financial poverty, even if Jesus does tell the man that he lacks one thing, the selling of what he owns, and then follows that comment with another one about the camel getting through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich person entering the kingdom of God. Jesus is going way beyond the cost of admission or clean pockets or being a legal adult, and here is why.
First of all, it is fairly apparent that Jesus is toying with the man who comes to him. This man takes himself way too seriously, and never gets the point that Jesus is making fun of the whole system. After all, have you ever thought how artificial it is to determine who can get in a nightclub by whether or not he is wearing pleated or flat front trousers, or a turtle neck sweater versus a European cut shirt? If the bouncer doesn’t want you in, there will always be another reason why you don’t make the grade. Or as I like to say when people start deciding who ought to be in the church or outside it, what passes for purity today might not pass muster tomorrow.
Jesus’ questioner wants to hear what it takes to get in, and he is quick to state that he has met the requirements. Jesus’ overall response is that if you think it is all about requirements, then there will always be another one. If you noticed, Jesus first adds, “You shall not defraud” to the Ten Commandments, as yet one more test for entering heaven before he even gets to the part about giving away what one owns. Jesus appears to be saying, “If you keep all ten, there will be an eleventh. Keep eleven; I’ll find a twelfth.”
The second reason why I think Jesus is trying to get way beyond rules in this lesson is that the gospeller presents us readers with disciples who fall into the same trap as the original questioner. They take themselves way too seriously as well. You see, they think the test to get beyond the barricade and through the door is to meet every requirement that the man could not bring himself to meet, that is, give up everything, and by golly, they are quick to say that they have in effect followed all twelve commandments. But Jesus replies that such actions are not so special. Anyone who has given up things will be rewarded just like these disciples who think that they pass muster when others don’t.
Jesus is telling us that it is time to rethink what the kingdom really is. We are not standing outside the kingdom with a barrier separating us from it. No, we are already in it. Getting in is not a prize. There is no test that we must pass, no password that we must whisper, no cost of admission that we must pay. The four gospels tell us that Jesus has paid the cost on the cross, as impossible as it sounds. That truth is shown in the true punch line of this gospel, “For God all things are possible.”
That is the message that none of us really wants to hear: “For God all things are possible.” We want a God of limits because that is the way human beings are. We are so used to standing in line, always worried if we are good enough. When we see someone taken aside in the airport for a pat down after a penknife has been found in his pocket, we are so used to telling ourselves, “The fool should have known better.” We want a God who, of course, can do nothing but send Hitler to hell; who, of course, will do no less than damn the terrorist to eternal fire; who, of course, will do nothing less than make our cheating neighbors squirm when they come before the judgment seat. In a world in which everything has a price, what we really want is a God who publishes the price list so that we know exactly what it costs to get in. That is precisely what Jesus’ questioner and the disciples wanted.
But when all things are possible, when the bouncer leaves the door wide open, which is what Jesus is doing by making fun of the whole system, then we start hearing good news. The rich can enter the kingdom as easily as the poor, the scared as easily as the risk taker, the sinner as easily as the saint. It is not about getting into the kingdom so much as it is about the kingdom getting inside us.
One of the things the church does poorly each fall is run a stewardship campaign. Because we are so used to being denied entrance unless we are willing to give up something, we make the church a mirror of those times we have to stand in line and empty our pockets. But we can do better. What I am about to say may not be good for your budget next year, but here goes. God loves you whether or not you give $100 or $100,000 to the church, and you are welcome no matter the size of your gift. There is no admission fee.
I cannot strong arm or berate you to give. All I can tell you is my own story. I have discovered that the more I give away, the less money then controls me, and the less that money controls me, the less I think I have to have. The reason we think we have to have all that stuff in our lives is because it can be used as the price of admission somewhere. But I am beginning to realize that perhaps I am already where I need to be. That awareness has become good news in my own life.
I give to the church and its work because in some way I can’t yet comprehend, I trust that God is making that good news plain to others as well. I know for a fact that social welfare agencies more efficiently spend money to help the poor than does the church, but in church we do something unique; we build a place where rich and poor, dark-skinned and light-skinned, liberal and conservative, can sit down and share bread and wine because we know that the risen Christ is holding us together. I am firmly convinced that such sharing has the power to change you and me and the towns in which we live and ultimately change the world. We are getting a glimpse that the kingdom is already around us and inside us, and I want to be a part of it.
Such a way to live can be good news in the life of anyone who struggles with bills and keeping up with the Joneses, anyone who struggles to be accepted, to get past the barrier at the door. The world may demand an admission price, from giving up knives to giving up privacy. But there is no barrier in this place. The price has been paid. When we discover that truth, our lives will change forever. Amen.