A sermon based on Psalm 90:12-17 and Mark 10:17-31 preached on August 9th, 2015.
What is the Kingdom of God like? What can I compare it to?
The disciples ask Jesus to explain what he means when he talks about “The Kingdom of God.” It’s a never heard-of-before phrase. We don’t find it in scriptures until it comes from Jesus’ own lips, and the disciples have no idea what it means. I bet when the disciples asked Jesus to explain to them what he meant by the phrase, they were anticipating a hard and fast definition, a very concrete explanation of what this Kingdom of God is, what it’s made of, where it is. But straight-up-the-middle explanations are not Jesus’ style. Jesus is much more poet than engineer. Much more artist than scientist.
Some translations have Jesus asking himself,
How can I illustrate it?
The Kingdom of God is not a place a cartographer can pinpoint on a map. It’s more like a something a sculptor forges out of a piece of clay. Throughout Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we hear Jesus compare the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, yeast for baking bread, a hidden treasure, a lost coin found by a destitute woman. Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like wheat, like a fisher’s dragnet, like a priceless pearl, like a thief barging in.
For those out there who like no-nonsense, solid answers and definitive statements, Jesus would have driven you up the wall. Every time he talked about what the Kingdom of God was like, it came out in the form of a riddle, a joke, something cryptic and unsolved. Jesus’ parables were meant to get people talking, asking more questions of themselves and others. His parables invited people in that way, and in some cases, they were meant to offend our sensibilities—to knock us out of our old-fashioned conceptions of who God is and how God works.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart wrapped up its final show this week after a 16-year run. I don’t know if you are a fan or not. I certainly am. I think one of the reasons why The Daily Show is so popular is it makes people laugh. Jon Stewart knew that the greatest way to tell the truth was to get people to laugh at it. Laughter opens and loosens us up and invites us into truth. Like nothing else, humor has the power to draw us closer and keep us listening for the truth.
The Kingdom of God (or as Matthew refers to it, the Kingdom of Heaven) was Jesus main idea. It’s what every one of His parables was about. But even though it’s just about all He talked about, there’s one big misconception we have about it that needs to be cleared up. Whenever Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he wasn’t trying to describe what the afterlife will be like. The parables of Jesus aren’t sketches of heaven—the place we go to when we die. The Kingdom of God as Jesus understood it and describes it to us, is a here and now reality. It’s not only something for later. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is already happening “On earth as it is in Heaven,” as he put it in the Lord’s Prayer. And not unlike the political satire of The Daily Show, Jesus’ parables about what the Kingdom of God is like would have made people laugh. The world of Jesus’ parables was so different from the way the world actually worked that they were absurd.
The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ sketch of what the world should be like. It was His way of describing how things would be different, right here and right now, if God was the One in charge. The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ way of inviting us all to imagine the world as it should be. And sometimes, don’t we find ourselves laughing because we realize things are so far from the way they should be? Kingdom of God, as Jesus preached it, is a different way of seeing the world.
Jesus uses many images to tell us what the here-and-now Kingdom of God is like, but the one he uses most is a party. The Kingdom of God is like a party that everyone’s been sent an invitation for, but few actually choose to come. This story of Jesus and the rich man has many challenges for us.
The rich man comes to Jesus for a reason. No one approaches Jesus like this man did unless there’s something in their life that they know is lacking. This man knows he’s missing something, but he doesn’t know what, but he thinks that Jesus might be able to help him figure it out.
The thing is, throughout his life, this man’s done everything right—all the externals, at least. He’s followed all the commandments since he was small, he’s well-off financially, which in both his day and ours is a sign of blessing. But still, there’s something nagging at him. And Jesus knows exactly what it is. The rich man asks Jesus,
What must I do to obtain eternal life?
Jesus tells him,
Go and sell what you own—every bit of it, no kidding, for real, and give the money to the poor. Then come follow me.
Jesus recognizes right away that the thing standing in between this man and his ability to know, see, and enter the Kingdom of God was his money. That’s because this man loved his wealth more than he loved anything else, he’d become captive to it, it was his salvation. Jesus tells him to go and sell it all and give the money away because what he owns really owns him, and as long as money is this man’s greatest security, there’s no way he’ll be able to find eternal life—money is the obstacle that keeps him from noticing that the Kingdom of God is right there in front of him. Getting rid of his wealth, Jesus knew, would move the man to a point where he might be truly receptive to God.
But that’s not what the man chooses. This rich man is the only person in any of the gospel accounts to walk away from Jesus. Jesus offered him real freedom, and he just couldn’t do it.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ says over and over again that money itself is a spiritual power. It’s a competing deity. It has unparalleled sway over us. Money has the power to take God’s place—it’s the thing most likely to get in our way of being truly receptive to God. Few things are more difficult to overcome than our preoccupation with wealth and material goods. And the heart of the matter is this: We look for salvation in whatever it is that we love most, pay attention to most, and give our heart to most. And we make that thing our god.
Because of his choice to find salvation in his wealth instead of in God, the rich man’s eyes will never be able to see the here-and-now reality of the Kingdom of God that stands right in front of him. He doesn’t have eyes to see it or ears to hear it, because they’re focused elsewhere. And that’s why Jesus proclaims here that the wealthy stand just as much of a chance of being a part of the Kingdom of God as a camel has squeezing through the eye of a needle.
This story isn’t about who’s going to heaven or not after their time on earth is through. This story isn’t about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about who gets it and who doesn’t. Until we get to a point where we finally realize that nothing in this life can offer us the security, confidence, and promise that Jesus can, we too will never know the Kingdom of God. We’ll never get it. We’ll never be able to see it, even though it’s always right in front of us.
Notice, though, the peculiar instructions that Jesus gives to this rich man. Jesus doesn’t tell him to simply give away all his money and belongings. Jesus doesn’t say,
Go, dump everything you have in the trash and liquidate all your assets.
He doesn’t say,
Just forget about it all, leave it behind, and come follow me.
No, he says,
Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then come follow me.
Again, Jesus knows what this rich man needs to do to realize how he’s gone wrong. This rich man has lived his entire life self-sufficiently. He’s never needed or wanted for anything. He may not even know what poverty looks like. So, with Jesus’ instruction to give all of the money this man has made off of his stuff and give it to the poor, Jesus is trying to pull this man out of himself. He’s trying to get him to see how his wealth has kept him from seeing others.
Back in Jesus’ day, there was no Huntington City Missions or ECCHO’s or Salvation Army’s. If you gave money to the poor, it meant you walked into their neighborhoods all on your own—down into the alleyways, into the slums—and you handed them your money. You had to look them in the eyes, you had to smell their body odor, you had to see the deplorable conditions under which they lived. Jesus knew that this man needed to be confronted with how others, very unlike him, lived their lives. And the rich man knew what Jesus was asking him to do, and he couldn’t do it.
The Kingdom of God is a party and everyone’s invited. Some will be first in line. Some others will walk away from the invitation.
It’s at the end of our passage for today that Jesus says,
Many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.
There are those who, because of their vast resources, will always find themselves in first place, no matter what they do, no matter where they go. In the kingdoms of this world, money speaks the loudest, it will always get you the most prominent seat at the most prominent table at the most prominent parties, but not so in the Kingdom of God. When God is in charge, the first will be last and the last will be first. That’s what it will be like when the world is as it should be. That’s the topsy-turvy ways of the here-and-now Kingdom of God.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!