Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Mark adds an element to this passage which the Matthew and Luke don’t have. After He first says, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” which Matthew and Luke basically share, Jesus goes on to say, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!”
That secondary comment may seem to give an escape clause, as in, “Whew, so as long as I don’t ‘trust’ in riches, I’m good.” This is true in a theological sense, but shouldn’t diminish the impact of what Jesus says. Matthew outright says, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Very little escape hatch there for “the rich.” Luke says what Mark does, but doesn’t add the bit about “trusting in riches.”
The point is, we have to face the blunt edge of Jesus’ words. The rich have riches, and it is hard for them to enter the kingdom of heaven. We’re glad Mark refined our understanding a bit by talking about “trusting in riches,” but we make the wrong conclusion if we think, “So, as long as I don’t trust in riches, I’ll be OK.” Rather, the conclusion should be something more along the lines of, “I am a rich man; that puts me in a very precarious situation.”
One conclusion keeps the riches somewhat removed from the person. They are something he can keep a distance from and not trust in. The other conclusion recognizes that wealth is baked into the person’s outlook, his very DNA, so to speak. The riches make the person “a rich man,” and that in itself is essentially dangerous. How hard it is for them to enter life.
By way of parallel, it would be like the difference between saying, “How hard it is for a fat man to enter life” vs. “How hard it is for one who loves food a bit too much to enter life.” One can be fat and not necessarily love food, which is where the escape hatch comes in. But if one is simply fat, by the former phrasing, he will always be in a dangerous situation until he sheds his fatness.
This also accords with Jesus’ statement that the solution to the precarious situation of the rich man is to sell everything. Were the danger merely with trusting in riches, Jesus might counsel in a Dave Ramsey sort of way, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with riches, just don’t trust in them.” No. Jesus clearly warns against being rich, and the preventative is a radical gesture, to sell everything and give it away to the poor.
Jesus comes at things from His eternal, cosmic perspective. He knows of death. He knows of eternal death and eternal life. He knows the blessings of eternal life. He knows what salvation is. He knows that it’s more valued than anything, that the treasures in heaven are eternally greater than the treasures on earth.
He also knows the draw that the treasures on earth have, how they deceive people into thinking they can create heaven on earth. This is where the “trust” element comes in. The rich believe they have a heaven on earth. It’s like a contingency plan just encase this whole Jesus thing isn’t really right.
Jesus lays it out clearly: sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And in fact, after our Gospel, when Peter brags how he and the disciples did just that, Jesus commended him and promised a hundredfold reward in heaven.
We could set it up as an intriguing thought question, “What would you do if Jesus came down and said, ‘Every dollar you give away here on earth will secure for yourself, in multiples, an eternal treasure in heaven.’ ” Were that to happen, who wouldn’t give away everything. Here’s the thing, Jesus did say that, in our Gospel for today. Why wouldn’t we believe Him? Perhaps it’s a matter of, “Will the Son of Man find faith on earth when He returns?”
More likely we’re driven by theological constructs like, “We’re not saved by works, so selling everything and giving to the poor couldn’t be what Jesus really means.” And we get to this point based on how the narrative develops after our verse for today. The disciples are shocked at Jesus’ words and say, “Who then can be saved?” If even the disciples couldn’t bear Jesus’ words, certainly we shouldn’t be expected to either.
And further, Jesus Himself then says, “With man this is impossible.” Yeah! It’s impossible to live up to what Jesus said to the rich man. But not for God, Jesus added. And then, as we’ve been meditating on, we recognize that Jesus is the one – our God – Who gave up everything, gave to us, and took up the cross.
So, we might think this is a solid theological construct, that the Gospel is meant to show us how far we fall short so we rely on Jesus. That would be a great conclusion but for one important detail. The rich man goes away sad, and Jesus did say His words about camels and eyes of needles.
Also, the rest of the New Testament warns against riches. Jesus said, “But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation.” St. Paul writes, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.” We could go on and on. It’s not that being wealthy prevents you from salvation, as we see there are rich people in the New Testament, but that it has so many pitfalls that the poor are spared.
The rich tend to fall for boutique and trendy spiritualities and movements. The rich tend to have to overwork or prioritize their schedules above the Lord in order to secure their wealth. The rich often acquire their wealth by at some level endearing themselves, their services, or their products to the world, and that can lead to compromises. The rich often end up justifying their wealth – knowing what they hear from Jesus – by manipulating God’s word.
The proper use of wealth is the proper use of any of God’s gifts, to use them generously for others. If someone is wealthy in prayer, wisdom, knowledge, service, know-how, administration, or whatever, the Lord wants us to use these generously for others. And the Lord knows the calculus has changed from one of economics – my labor has value and must therefore be for sale – to one of grace – you can’t run out of what you have an eternal supply of.
Jesus lived out this truth, and He invites us to follow His path. Instead of seeking escape hatches from Jesus’ words, Jesus invites us to set our minds on things above, where our life is hidden in Christ. When by faith that vision comes in focus, we will see the wealth of this age exactly as Jesus with His insider information sees it. As nothing.