Reflections by Jerry Webber

Friday, June 1, 2018

Another Kind of Kingdom

In my last post, I wrote about a kind of freedom which is quite different from what we ordinarily think of as freedom.

Mark 10:17 - 27 records the encounter of a young man of moral and religious upbringing who in every outward way was a model of propriety. He lived according to the expectations of devout religious life. And he would have been seen as "successful" by cultural norms, which valued wealth as a sign of virtue and God's favor. In short, from the brief description of him contained in the Gospel account, he had everything going for himself.

Jesus saw, however, that he was attached to his wealth, and could not part with that which he had accumulated. By clinging to his possessions, he declined Jesus' invitation both to extend charity to those in need and to follow Jesus as a disciple. His attachment to what he possessed meant he was not inwardly free to move as the moment dictated. His movements, rather, were governed by what he held onto . . . or perhaps better, by what held him.

The man sulks away from Jesus, sad because he has not been able to part with his wealth. He has missed an opportunity to do good for others and to follow the Messiah.

[It may be worth spending time with the story at this point. The man "went away sad, because he had great wealth." What was the source of his sadness? I'm pondered several possibilities:
**Was he sad because he recognized that his wealth had a hold on him?
**Was he sad because he knew he was not inwardly free enough to follow?
**Was he sad because Jesus asked so much from him, something that he was not able to do at that moment?
**Was he said because he truly wanted to follow Jesus, just not as desperately as he wanted to hold onto his wealth?
Why did he go away sad?]

Today I want to say a word about Jesus' editorial comment, offered to his disciples after the man went away sad.

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at Jesus' words, so he said again, “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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God is not a "kingdom" in any way in which we are accustomed to thinking. For one, it is not a place. Jesus is not describing "heaven," and is NOT saying that it is hard for the rich to get into heaven. The kingdom of God does not equal heaven. It is not a physical place that looks like Narnia, or like a New Zealand-ish Lord of the Rings set, or like streets of gold.

The kingdom of God -- or the kingdom of heaven, depending on which Gospel narrative you read -- is a way of being and seeing and doing life that is characterized by God at the center. It means taking upon oneself a particular stance for life, adopting a particular posture for life . . . a stance or posture shaped by God which has at its core a God-connection which animates all of life. For example, I've heard Fr Thomas Keating talk about our lives as a "lived experience of Jesus", and that gets pretty close to what I'm trying to convey. To enter the kingdom of God means to enter this centered way of doing life on God's terms and in God's way, to take on this life-stance for oneself.

What does it mean to be a God-connected person and then to live out life in a God-animated manner? I'm not talking about our ideas of what being "God-connected" or "God-animated" look like. I'm not talking about what preachers preach or what theologians speculate. I'm talking about the actual experience of entering this alternative way of being, seeing, and doing.

This stance toward life is resisted, for example, by the posture that has our own self-interest at the center, or our own attachments at the core. In the Gospel story we've considered, the man's wealth seems to be at the center of his decision-making and life-choices. He is attached to his possessions and thus, those possessions impact the stance or posture from which he does life. He is not inwardly free enough to enter the kingdom of God, that is, to be, see, and do from his God-center.

Of course, your attachments and my attachments, the things which prevent us from entering the kingdom of heaven, may be altogether different from the money at the center of this man's issues.

I think it is worth noting that while the man in the story is "rich" in possessions, in material wealth, we are all rich in some way -- just as we are all "poor" in some way. Having an abundance of money is almost a ready-made attachment for most people. Even those who do not have much money or material wealth can obsess about having more, so Jesus' saying about riches is not merely for those who have large bank accounts and portfolios.

But in truth, it is difficult for those who are "rich" in anything to enter the kingdom of God. It is difficult, no matter where your own "riches" lie:
** rich in money and possessions
** rich in education
** rich in intellect
** rich in creativity
** rich in talent or skill
** rich in relationships
** rich in ___________

Wealth, in whatever realm, is always heavy. Being rich in anything weighs us down, lures us to trust our riches, and can become a hindrance to living fully the life that God has designed for us. Riches hinder our capacity to say, "Yes!" to entering this life-stance called "the kingdom of God."

So even if you and I do not think of ourselves as rich in possessions, we are invited to hear Jesus' words about the areas of life in which we ARE wealthy.

The camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle reference is outrageously glorious. YOU can't do this, no matter how hard you try. I can't do this, no matter how hard I try. It's just not gonna happen! But God's realm is working in people who live with some combination of wealth and poverty, who are rich in some things and poor in others. What we cannot do, like shoving a camel through a needle's eye, is entirely within the realm of God's doing.

In other words, on this one day the rich man may have sulked away sad because he could not respond to Jesus' invitation; however, on another day perhaps he would return again, this time realizing that his efforts/wealth/money could never outpace God's love, mercy, and generosity.

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