26 February 2012
One of the keys to reading, understanding, pondering, and obeying the written word of God, the Bible, is being able to tell the difference between what is a metaphor and what is not.
Jesus is the Lamb of God= metaphor
Render unto Caesar= not metaphor
The four horsemen of the apocalypse= metaphor
Love your neighbor as yourself= not metaphor
As a rabbi, a teacher, Jesus is excellent at using metaphors and stories to catch the attention of his audience and to help them view God and God’s expectations in a new way. Consider Jesus' use of the lost coin, lost sheep, and lost son (Prodigal son) to illustrate God's desire for restoration and healed relationships with creation.
Jesus can work a metaphor. However, “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” is not a metaphor. Since the 1200s, when the priest of the Catholic Church realized it was better NOT to anger the wealthy patrons who were keeping the church open and growing bigger and bigger, people have tried all kinds of ways to make this a metaphor. You can read commentaries that talk about the “Eye of the Needle” gate around Jerusalem that was either so low that camels had to get onto their knees to enter it OR it had a sharp curve in it, to make it more difficult for caravans and attackers to enter, and camels had difficulty with the tight turn.
The truth is, Jesus meant exactly what he said. People who own lots of stuff can easily become owed by that stuff. Your god is that one which you hang your heart and your stuff can easily consume you and become your focus, your god. When that happens, you are missing out on the kingdom of God at hand and you potentially endangering your ability to appreciate the kingdom that is to come.
Notice that Jesus looks that the young man and loves him. Jesus sees how hard he is trying and Jesus loves him too much to let him stay like he is… mastered by his possessions. “Sell all you have and give it to the poor” is hard, no matter who you are, but especially when what you have is how you define yourself and how you want others to define you.
Let me say here that I have lots of stuff. My house is full of things that I would be very upset to lose. And I confess, while I could definitely do with fewer things, I don’t want to sell everything I own. But I don’t want it to own me. I don’t want keeping my things or using things to keep up with other people to be the focus of my life.
Additionally, if you sold everything and gave it to the poor, what happens to you? You become dependent on the goodwill and generosity of others. This is Jesus’ expectation of the disciples, the people who will follow him most closely… that they will be received, treated kindly, and thus be able to spread the news of freedom in God. That kind of life depends on someone being able and willing to do that.
Part of the distinction we have to make here is between our salvation and our sanctification. I know those are two words that aren’t usually in any kind of conversation other than the one we’re having, but stay with me. Our salvation is the Jesus AND me process, the part that happens by God’s work for all in Jesus the Christ. In Revelation, names get written into the Book of Life by Jesus and by Jesus alone. If it were up to us to get in there, it would be impossible. But as Jesus says, all things are possible for God.
That’s salvation. Our sanctification on the other hand is about how the Spirit is shaping us now. That’s the God IN me process. Within the process of being formed in the image of God, we are granted gifts of time, resources, and talents. Everyone here is rich with those things. You may not think so, but each one of us has enough to share of at least one of those things- time, resources, or talents. And you will have to answer to how you use those things. In Revelation, that’s the second judgment- the accounting for what you did with what you were given.
Do you have to sell everything? Maybe. Maybe not. What’s true for the rich young man may not be God’s intention or call to you. But what is true is that what you have, what I have, what we all own can get in our way. It can get in God’s way… in the way of how God is trying to change us… in the way of how God is trying to use us…
In the season of Lent, we look toward Easter and we think a lot about how salvation was achieved. But our Lenten disciplines, what we take up or set aside, are more about sanctification, about being shaped, about living more deeply and more broadly into our faith.
In this season of wondering and wandering, we are called to consider how we are rich, what we are doing with our riches, how we are being called to be spent for the sake of gospel freedom?
It is very easy to be possessed by our possessions, but the result is flat, lifeless, and draining. There’s a better way… a fulfilling way… a way of abundant life… life in communion with God through Jesus the Christ.
To whom do you belong? It’s not a rhetorical question. And the answer is not a metaphor.