Grace to you!
Many times, Jesus’ words in Scripture are shocking, sometimes provoking. He doesn’t seem to say things the usual way. His unconventional approach unsettles many waters. He has a way of making us pause and reflect.
If Jesus’ words were shocking to the Jews and the disciples at the time, it’s fascinating to see they are equally challenging to many today. His words are timeless, always relevant, because he is God.
Addressing his disciples after a noble rich man asked the question about what to do to inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus stated one of those shocking truths. It would be wonderful if we paid attention to those words.
He said: “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24).
This is more than shocking and to the apostles, it was dispiriting. They couldn’t pretend all was well; hence they replied: “If this is the case, then who can be saved?” To which Jesus replied, “For man it is impossible but not for God, for with God all things are possible.”
Whenever this text of scripture is read even today, many people are shocked, just like the disciples of Jesus were. I am surprised too.
Isn’t wealth, getting rich a good thing? I don’t know about you, but I need money. If not for any other thing, to fund the work of evangelization and charity for the poor, which is my ministry’s mission. Wouldn’t it be wonderful not to be worried about paying the bills, knowing they would be paid? Don’t you need money to pay your bills? Isn’t being rich going to reduce your stress level?
Didn’t God ask us to work hard so as to earn our living and be successful? Wasn’t it part of Old Testament biblical blessings that we shall be wealthy…? Didn’t Saint Paul promote responsibility and the dignity of labor and hard work when he told the Thessalonians that the person who doesn’t work shouldn’t eat?
Isn’t it at the core of the Church’s social teaching to encourage proper work ethic with a view to material wellbeing so as to enhance our spiritual growth? Isn’t the free market economy, supported by many Christian churches, preferred to make us rich? Isn’t it part of dream actualization to work towards financial stability?
Why is Jesus sounding pessimistic about wealth? Does he want us to grow lazy or abhor riches if we must go to heaven? The question can go on and on.
Let me suggest a simple description of “the rich,” which, I suppose, may be close to the meaning of the Word of God in this Gospel of Matthew. “The rich” is anyone who has or keeps more than he or she needs, or any one who keeps more than is necessary.
If this working definition is accepted, then we can see that Jesus’ words do not apply only to those who live in Beverly Hills, Silicon Valley or Manhattan; it also applies to all of us, including those who live in inner cities when we accumulate more than we need.
Back to the fundamental question of today’s reflection: Why is it going to be hard or very difficult (duskolos) – to use a more close-in-meaning concept employed by Jesus in the original Greek text – for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom? I have a few suggestions for our meditations.
First, anything we possess we don’t need is a distraction from God’s plan in our life. Hanging on to those things could make serving God and being of service to one another very difficult. Those things can cost us heaven.
Second, if we spend energy on what we don’t need, we unwittingly fall short of doing or spending our resources on what we need. It’s only what we need that can lead us to God. What we don’t need is junk. Toss the Junk and be freer.
Third, amassing wealth we don’t need has a way of increasing our love for ourselves. Another name for it is selfishness or egocentricism that could lead to narcissism. A narcissist hardly has a space for another person, not even God; and such a person hardly could make it to heaven. Self-absorption is heaven’s repulsion.
Fourth, riches, in the sense of what we don’t need, are to our spiritual life what excess fat is to our body. The imbalance of excess fat could be alluded to the spiritual imbalance which could occur. What we don’t need cause us anxiety and we end up spending the time we should use for more edifying things trying to protect them. The result – the path to heaven is in the opposite direction.
Five, the danger of hoarding is higher too. Hoarding isn’t simply about cluttered homes or cars; it could also be about cluttered minds and foggy spirit. Constant worries about how this stock market is doing or that home is maintained; always calculating how to manage our properties, or securities, or our shares, etc., because they are more than we can handle with a sense of balance, can be spiritually suffocating. Such is a hazard on heaven’s path. We need fresh air coming from having less than more. Sometimes, less is better than more.
Six, wealth has a lot to do with the worldly. The worldly have a lot to do with the unspiritual and the Godless. If our heart is so attached to wealth, the temptation of a false god of “what I have” and a false sense of identity that “I am worth my bank accounts” is high. The danger is God is placed secondary and our neighbor’s dignity and relevance wouldn’t even have a chance. Hence, Jesus stated that just as it is difficult for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle, so it would be for the rich to enter God’s kingdom. (I would reflect on new insights into the meaning of this “eye of a needle” saying of Jesus tomorrow).
In the meantime, if it is that difficult, though not impossible, for the rich to enter God’s kingdom, what are we expected to do?
Here is my simple spiritual advice: Whatever we have that we don’t need belongs to somebody else. We would be doing ourselves great spiritual favor if we gave it out to those who need it. Being rich isn’t bad. It’s actually good. But not using our wealth for needs is a spiritual barrier. We don’t need that barrier.
Let’s pray for one another.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on the bible readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.