Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 19:16-30) transports me to the purely imagined set of the ABC mini-series, Rich Man, Poor Man, had it been based on Matthew’s gospel instead of Irwin Shaw’s novel. In our scene, the goody-goody industrious and successful young man (played by Peter Strauss), always looking to cultivate a relationship with someone who can help him climb the ladder in life, is even willing to approach an impoverished vagabond (played by Nick Nolte) with a reputation for breaking convention and shadow boxing the powers that be. The rough-around-the-edges trouble-maker has the capacity to draw a crowd with his stories and teachings. So the rich man intuitively pegs him for a guru and asks him a question about the meaning of life, about what he could do to inherit eternal life. The rich man has already got everything he needs in this life; he’s interested in how to carry it with him into eternity. The poor man gives him a brush-off answer – just obey the commandments. The rich man persists: Which ones? The poor man seems not to be paying him much attention, and rattles off a few of the ten commandments. I’ve done all that, the rich man answers, pointing to all the merit badges hanging from his sash. What am I missing? At which point the poor man directs full attention to the rich man, and perceives what’s in his heart. Ok, if you want to be perfect, just do one more simple thing. Sell all you have and give all the money to the poor. Then come and follow me. The rich man turns in sorrow, because many possessions possess him.
The successful young man must have been expecting something different from the poor guru. Maybe a doctrine to believe in, or a creed to recite that would gain him access to heaven’s gate. But even the prospects of eternal life are not enough to entice him to leave the lap of luxury and live the life of the poor man.The sorrows of splendor have been demonstrated time and again throughout history. And yet the siren call captures generation after generation. We seem to prefer the might’ nigh impossible route to the kingdom, to have our cake and eat it too as we struggle to squeeze through the needle’s eye. Sell all you have and re-distribute all your wealth for the welfare of the poor sounds suspiciously like socialism. Funny how Jesus didn’t instruct him to make sure the poor people were deserving, were willing to work for it, were not just lazy bums waiting for a handout so they could go down to the corner and get a bottle of hooch. No, Jesus was simply looking at this rich young man’s heart, and diagnosing a cancer that needed to be excised. If he wanted to follow Jesus, he needed to connect himself with the poor, with the least of these, by giving them access to his wealth, and by becoming poor himself.
At the risk of romanticizing poverty, which I don’t want to do, I have to say that my experiences of being in Cuba always teach me something about the dangers wealth poses to the human spirit. It is ironic that in a country where everyone is relatively poor compared to our middle class, they are constantly using the phrase, que rico! (how rich!) to describe their daily fare. And in a country with so many structural imperfections, you constantly hear the interjection perfecto! in response to something well done or well said. I don’t want to diminish at all the struggle and the harsh conditions that have gotten progressively worse in Cuba since the great global recession started putting the squeeze on them. Along with que rico and perfecto you now also hear the phrase no es facil over and over again. It’s not easy. But while their needs are great, many Cubans have still figured out how to experience true wealth, kingdom wealth. They know better than we how to discover the kind of perfecto Jesus was calling us to experience. They’re able to reach the que rico Kingdom Way because they are not traveling through the needle eye of concentrated wealth, which squeezes us so and leaves so little room for the Spirit. Threading the needle to get into the kingdom. No es facil indeed.
How about you? Where does this passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.