Read Matthew 19-23-20:16
Yesterday I took a slight detour - an important one, I think, but more focused on how the religious leaders of Jesus' day are portrayed in the New Testament and what that might mean for contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue.
So I never really got to the rich young man, whom I think really belongs with today's reading anyway. Matthew follows the story of the man who did everything right except for one thing - he loved his possessions more than he loved God - with this statement about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
I remember hearing a sermon once from a "successful" pastor in an affluent congregation that totally explained this text away, justifying the wealth of the parishioners as long as they remained generous to the congregation, and by extension helped the pastor to maintain his lifestyle. How hard it is to preach this text in a consumer society such as ours, and how much more challenging among the "haves" than among the "have nots."
Maybe that is the first place to begin. I served my entire life as a parish priest in two relatively affluent suburban contexts. They were great places to live and good people among whom to serve. But it is so easy in such places to fall into the "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. And then we convince ourselves we really don't have very much after all; at least not as much as our neighbors. We can feel, alternatively, either grateful for what we do have or envious for what we do not have - but we don't feel "rich."
Whenever people would travel to places like El Salvador,where we developed a covenant relationship while I was in Holden, that worldview would be challenged. They would be among the poor, who yet seemed in many ways to be spiritually rich. I think those experiences were better than any preacher wagging any fingers about money.
It's interesting how people twist themselves about what Jesus says about camels and needles and wealth. Some say in Aramaic the word for camel is close to the word for yarn so something was lost in translation from Aramaic to Greek - and that Jesus is not using a mixed metaphor. How hard to get yarn through a needle, to be sure - but at least the metaphor works. Others point to a gate in Jerusalem where called the "eye of the needle" where the camel needed to "unpack" to make it through; again the metaphor works.
But I think humor works at helping people see the truth and maybe Jesus is just being outlandish so we can really reflect on how much we have, and then dare to ask, "how much do I need?" A friend of mine used to be fond of saying, "you can get a camel through the eye of a needle but it makes a hell of a mess for the camel!" Now that's funny!
If we aren't careful, our possessions will possess us. In fact even if we are aware and careful, our possessions can still possess us. It's hard to be really honest about this, but what we need when we think about money is brutal honesty. The challenge for the contemporary church is that Jesus talked a lot about money - and at best we do so only once a year when we are asking for it. We tend to act like it's dirty, but "give us some, please."
Money is not dirty. But it can become our god, and it is a false god because it cannot deliver on its promises. It cannot keep us safe and secure even though we sometimes think it will. What it can do, and like all idols does do, is get in the way of our relationship with the living God.
This is a longer post than I've been writing for this series and maybe I've moved already from preaching to meddling. But there is even more in today's reading, so let me say one more thing and then I'll call it a day.
This story about the workers in the vineyard never seems "fair" to those who are committed to capitalism and feel an hourly wage should be paid for each hour of work. But it seems especially "unfair" to those who are salaried and have health insurance and a nice home and a couple of cars. The truth is that day laborers - migrant workers - know what it's like to live one day at a time on "the usual daily wage." No one who wants to work - even an hour - should have to live on less than the usual daily wage. Just think about what that means!
The parable has lots of levels of meaning for sure; some even theological. But the economics of this story are fairly simple - a continuation of this theme of the last being first and the first being last. If you are the vineyard owner or even the guy who works hard all day in the hot sun then you cry out how "unfair" this is. But if you are the one who couldn't find work until the last hour, and you still get enough to eat and a place to rest your head that night, you know God is good, and generous and your heart is glad.
Our world, where the Kingdom of heaven is meant to break in, is a long ways from where we need to be.