Some places are difficult to enter. It’s difficult to enter the freeway during rush hour. It’s difficult to pass the entrance exams and gain admission into the top schools. It’s difficult to enter a fine restaurant if you don’t have a reservation (and a lot of money!).
Is it difficult to enter the Kingdom of God? We might not think so. It seems that all we need to do is put our trust in Jesus and be baptized. But notice what Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading. Here he talks about it being difficult to enter the Kingdom of God.
In particular, Jesus says that it is difficult for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom. Last Sunday we heard the story of a rich man who spoke to Jesus about entering the Kingdom. “Good teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told him what he must do, but the rich man couldn’t do it – so he walked away. Today’s reading is the follow-up to this story. Jesus obviously feels that it was the man’s wealth which kept him from entering the Kingdom.
Why is wealth such a barrier? What is it about money and possessions which makes entering the Kingdom so difficult?
In last Sunday’s sermon Pastor Lehrer pointed out just how radical this teaching of Jesus must have seemed to the people of his day. They were used to thinking of rich people as those who had been blessed by God. This was certainly based, in part, by their scriptures, which told of the great wealth of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the glories of David and Solomon, and even contained proverbs such as: “The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it” (Proverbs 10:22 ESV).
At the same time, the Old Testament also contains warnings about wealth. Today’s first reading, from Ecclesiastes 5, is a good example. It starts with an admonition against the love of money – much as Paul once explained that “the love of money is the root of many evils.” Loving money speaks to an attitude of the heart and is, of course, the greatest danger.
But the text then goes on to detail other problems with wealth. It says: “When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep” (v.11-12). These verses speak to the anxiety that comes from trying to manage wealth.
Worldly wealth can make it easier to ignore God simply because of the many demands it makes on that person’s time. Yes, there are some rich people who live lives of leisure, but more often those who are rich are extremely busy. The more money a person has, the more time it takes to manage it. Likewise, the more money a person has, the more other people make demands and requests upon that person. Just as it’s difficult to get into a top school or secure a table at a fine restaurant, so also it’s difficult to get an appointment with a rich man, because that man’s usually got lots of business to tend to.
The Ecclesiastes text goes on to talk about the importance of finding joy in our work and accepting the lot which God has given us. These are very important teachings too. But there is also one more word of warning here. Verse 13 speaks of the grievous sight of the man who keeps his wealth, not sharing it. In God’s Kingdom, wealth brings responsibility. Abundant blessings are to be shared.
This speaks to the temptations wealth brings. Wealth not only brings time constraints but also gives opportunities which might be abused. Money gives us opportunities to go places, see things, do things and acquire things—so much so that we may plumb forget about others.
Luke’s Gospel records a parable of Jesus which speaks to this. “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21 ESV).
Worldly wealth makes it easier to ignore God because of the temptations wealth brings. Wealth brings so many opportunities that ongoing activities such as listening to the Word of God and saying our prayers might quickly seem boring. We’ve all observed people who pursue a lifetime full of interests without stopping to think at all about God’s Word.
“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.” Jesus even uses a well-known illustration to make his point, saying, “It will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
And yet, did you notice, that before this illustration is used, Jesus repeats that line about “difficulty,” but this time without referring to wealth. He simply says, “How difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God.” The point is clear—all of us have difficulty entering the Kingdom.
“Wealth” is a construct that we use to compare one person’s opportunities and acquisitions with another’s. But in another way, each of us is wealthy. Each of us is given many opportunities, each day, to choose our path. Each of us has acquired from God many gifts and blessings.
As such, all of us face temptations with these opportunities and acquisitions. And, as we know, all of us have at times misused the wealth God gives.
The disciples of Jesus were certainly aware of this predicament. They knew their lives did not measure up. Notice their immediate question to him: “who then can be saved?”
Jesus gives an answer which the disciples had heard before, but never in that particular context, to that particular question. He says, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
Just a short time earlier Jesus had shared this message with a man whose son was gripped by an evil spirit. The man wanted to know if Jesus could heal him. Jesus could – and did. Here, Jesus was giving assurance of his power to heal sin. What was impossible for man was not only possible for God, but God would certainly do it.
Jesus would indeed heal his disciples from the predicament of their sinfulness. He would die on the cross to become the sacrifice needed to atone for their sin. Then he would rise from the grave to defeat death and clear for them the path to eternal life.
In the same way, you and I cannot save ourselves, for sin will always be a part of our lives this side of heaven. But Jesus has saved us by overcoming our sin. When we believe and confess this we have entered the Kingdom of God. We may still have difficulty with our believing and our living out of that belief, but the truly difficult part has been done for us by Jesus our Savior. With God all things are possible.
I wonder if Jesus was getting ready to make this connection with his disciples that day. After all, he had already started to tell them about his upcoming death. Instead, Peter speaks up, like he often did. “We have left everything and followed you,” said Peter, making a comparison between the disciples and the rich man who had walked away.
The text doesn’t say it, but I’m sure that Jesus, as he did with the rich man, looked at him and loved him. Peter was obviously craving a compliment from his teacher. Jesus could have once again put Peter in his place, reminding him that it was God’s power which was making this great victory possible and not Peter’s decision to follow. But Jesus doesn’t do this. Instead, he tells Peter and the rest that they will be the ones who are truly wealthy.
We may wonder why Jesus, who had just issued such a strong warning about wealth, would turn around and make a promise of wealth to his disciples. But Jesus’ wealth was different. And the text explains why.
The wealth Jesus gives is the best wealth. It is the wealth of the Kingdom of God. Our ears tend to hear numbers when we think of wealth. Jesus uses a number here—one hundred-fold. Such a big number sounds wonderful. And it is! But more important than the number is the gift itself – people.
Jesus had described the Kingdom in terms of leaving behind that which was most important to them. The disciples had literally left their families in order to study under Jesus. Now they discover that their reward was inheriting an even bigger family—one-hundredfold in size. By following Jesus they had met hundreds of others who were committed to working in unity toward God’s purposes of casting out evil and calling people to faith. Their wealth was in the fellowship of believers.
As wonderful as this life in the Kingdom is, Jesus doesn’t want us to have any illusions about it being easy. He wouldn’t paint an easy picture for the rich man and he won’t do it for his disciples either. Yes there will be hundred-fold blessings, but Jesus also slips in the short phrase “with persecutions” too. In this life there will be trouble. Not everyone will appreciate the way of Kingdom living.
Still, persecutions are a small thing to endure when compared with the glory of the Kingdom. The fullness of that glory will be seen in the age to come—the day of resurrection, when all the saints are raised to life eternal. In that day God will bring forth the new heavens and the new earth that He has promised, and God’s Kingdom will be realized in the way it was always meant to be. In that day we will all know what God’s true wealth is really about.
Until that day we listen to God—to both His warnings and His promises. Those of us with worldly wealth should heed His warnings about the temptations this wealth brings. All of us should remind ourselves daily of His promise to bring us into the Kingdom through His Son.
Entering the Kingdom may be difficult, but all things are possible with God. Our part is to work towards God’s purposes and do so with faith. May God lead us in this calling, and may the blessings of the Kingdom be yours, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.