Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Apples and Oranges

Just when I think Jesus has a zinger left in his quiver, he goes and gets soft on me. Today’s gospel lesson about it being harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:23-30) is the perfect place for Jesus to shatter Peter and the disciples’ worldly expectations of success. But then, right when the moment comes, Jesus tosses them a softball instead of a high-and-tight, 95-mph, better-duck-or-your-career-is-over fastball. What happened?

Jesus is continuing on from his encounter with the rich young man (see yesterday), and he explains what has happened (why he sent the man away discouraged) by making the hyperbolic comparison with the camel and needle. It’s the ultimate teaching that those who hold onto their wealth can’t fit into God’s kingdom. That’s a hard teaching, and it’s supposed to be hard. We’re supposed to be challenged by that. We’re supposed to finish this lesson and squirm in our seats more than just a little uncomfortable at Jesus’ words. And we can tell that the disciples were there—they were right at that point. Peter says, “How then can anyone be saved?” And Jesus’ initial reply should be enough—“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” But then he keeps going.

Peter, hoping to make himself feel better, asks Jesus, “Master, what about those of us who have left everything to follow you?” And Jesus replies, “Those who have left their earthly life and all the stuff that comes with it behind will inherit treasure in heaven—100x what they left.” That’s nice and all, but it caters to my human need for physical remuneration. And I don’t like that part of me. I want to know what sort of reward I’m going to get.

Do you remember that great moment in Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner’s character looks at the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson and says, “What’s in it for me?” It’s a moment when the main character breaks down a little bit and shows his human side in an almost repugnant though still endearing human quality. That’s not what we’re supposed to do. We’re not supposed to follow Jesus just to get a heavenly reward. I hate to say it, but this isn’t the kind of equation that lends itself to a cost-benefit analysis. You shouldn’t become a Christian because you think the heavenly reward will be 100x richer than your earthly life. That’s like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. God’s kingdom doesn’t work that way.

There is a reward, and that reward is far greater than anything we have on earth. I think that’s what Jesus means when he uses the 100x multiplier. It’s an image rather than a calculation. But the quality of eternal life in heaven is so completely magnificent that it doesn’t lend itself to a comparison with earthly wealth.

But this is supposed to be a comforting passage. We’re supposed to realize that there is a good reason for giving up our earthly life. And Jesus is using whatever words we can understand. In this case, it’s about reminding us that there is a reason we accept the sacrifice of the Christian life. There is something more wonderful waiting for us. But it’s not as simple as more money or more happiness. It’s immediate fellowship with God. But how do you describe that?

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