Money can’t buy happiness, but neither can poverty. This rather catchy phrase by a German-born teacher and academic, Leo Rosten, has a ring of truth about it. But it also goes against today’s gospel, where Jesus gives a jaw-dropping piece of advice to a wealthy man: ‘Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; then come, follow me.’ The man is gobsmacked by Jesus’ proposal and departs, prompting Jesus to comment publicly: ‘It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ So, essentially, it seems that we are all doomed, damned and condemned unless each one of us makes ourselves as poor as a church mouse. No, I’m not going to tell you that giving all your money to me is the perfect solution to finding happiness!
In fact, today’s gospel has very little to do with money or with being wealthy in a narrow, financial sense. So, what is it all about? In order to find out, we have to look more attentively at today’s gospel. The main character, an unnamed man, seeks Jesus’ advice. His question has two distinctive elements: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life.’ It hints at the man’s mindset; eternal life can be acquired as a reward, a payment for his good deeds. It’s a transaction: life eternal in return for good deeds. Jesus’ opening line sends a warning signal to the man: ‘No one is good but God alone.’ To back up this assertion, Jesus lists a number of Commandments; those that most people tend to breach. The man’s response ‘I have kept all these from my earliest days’ causes Jesus to look at him steadily and with love. But Jesus’ next sentence is a sucker punch. The call to give away all his possessions to the poor is a step too far for the wealthy man. Saddened, he goes away. Subsequently Jesus makes a comment that astounds his followers: ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’
It’s too easy to jump to the superficial conclusion that – in Jesus’ opinion – financial wealth is bad, purely and simply. Such a conclusion is as easy to reach as it is mistaken. The phrase ‘those who have riches’ used by Jesus in this context actually refers to a boastful, arrogant attitude and an air of condescending superiority. Some of you may be aware that I play video games. As in real life, you need to earn virtual ‘currency’ or ‘resources’ or ‘abilities’ in order to progress in a game; and, just as in real life, it’s a hard and time-consuming activity. As in real life, you are called upon to use your virtual gains judiciously. But there comes a point in a game when you have amassed enough of them to feel rich; and – almost imperceptibly – you become arrogant and lazy because you can ‘buy’ your progress! Virtual reality is a reflection of real life.
When Jesus refers to those who have riches he might well be talking about you and me: whenever you look down upon others, feeling pompously or snobbishly better than them; whenever you’re smug about their underachievement; whenever you take the judgmental high moral ground – it’s you who have riches. You can consider yourself rich morally, or rich spiritually; you can possess extraordinary talents or skills, or you can wield power or influence; the list can be very long indeed. None of those riches is good or bad of itself, in its own right; each one is neutral. What you do with those riches, and how they affect your attitudes, makes them either a stumbling block or a springboard on the way towards the kingdom of God. As Suzanne Necker aptly noted: ‘Fortune does not change men; it unmasks them.’