“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24, ESV)
I’ve heard that passage my whole life, and I’ve heard the same interpretation of it each time. My Sunday school class just a few weeks ago was talking about it, and we all had the same discussion with the same discomfort and same sort of muted relief and acceptance that I’ve seen every time: Rich people will have a hard time being saved, the story about a small gate being called the Eye of the Needle is a myth, and how rich is rich? And does it matter? Because even though it’s impossible by human means, God can do anything, so even rich people will be able to go to heaven. But I’m really questioning that interpretation now.
The other day, my wife and I were talking about the cultural differences between Toronto and Dallas, particularly about money and about how people interact with each other, and this verse popped into my head. Suddenly, I felt like the standard interpretation is sort of the truncated version, and the bulk of what Jesus was getting at got lost somewhere along the way. I’ve always heard this verse applied to salvation, to conversion, to heaven and the afterlife. But now I’m wondering if that’s not really what Jesus was getting at. I’m wondering if this is more about sanctification than salvation, about right now than it is about the future.
In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard tries to shift evangelicals’ perspective on what Scripture means by kingdom. A kingdom is the realm in which the king’s will has force. If what Willard said is true, then when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he’s not pointing to heaven, he’s pointing at where God’s desires have weight. Those with wealth don’t have a hard time getting into a good afterlife; they have a hard time letting God’s will have sway right here and now. Perhaps a paraphrase of that verse might end up, “It’s so hard for rich people to live how God intended and fulfill what he desires!”
Money is tricky stuff. I saw research a while ago that correlates having more money in a society with having less empathy, and not just empathy for the poor, but empathy for anybody. Wealth doesn’t automatically mean that you don’t care about other people, but it seems that human nature does lend itself toward this. Somehow having money seems to trigger something in our hearts that says, “Who cares about anybody else? Just care about yourself.”
For that matter, the more money you have, typically the more power you have, and if you have lots of power, what need is there for God? What’s he going to do that you can’t do for yourself? Just having money can tempt us to ignore God or just forget him.
And with money also comes more distraction, either in the responsibility to keep businesses running or in having entertainments and amusements always at hand, and let’s face facts: the lure of Netflix or the urgency of a business transaction is often much stronger than the call to devote some time to being with God or loving the annoying neighbor.
Having money is a spiritual and emotional obstacle. God can help those blessed with it (or maybe cursed with it? Or maybe both?) to move beyond that hurdle and live well, to enact justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly (Micah 6:8), but it’s an uphill battle. Not a losing one, but still uphill.
My money gets in the way of my spiritual life. Not that I’m wealthy (1%? I’m not in the top 50%…), but neither am I living paycheck-to-paycheck or failing even to make ends meet, and my money affects me. It probably affects most people reading this. I don’t think I’m called to sell everything and give to the poor, but neither can I safely ignore the implications of what Jesus actually said. Without his help, it is effectively impossible for me to be part of his kingdom, to really be on his side. I need him to help me recognize what money does to me and guide me through that so that I can love well, live humbly, act justly, and show mercy as he did. How hard it is for those who with money, any money at all, to live well right here.