When I was in kindergarten, I decided upon a cardinal rule for marriage. This was a rule I developed out of a deep sense of injustice and longing for better things. It was a rule I developed because I wanted more, so much more, than what was currently being offered to me in life. It is a rule whose power has never really waned in my life. It is a rule that I would like to believe has some degree of overlap with our gospel lesson this morning. The rule was simply this: Marry up in the alphabet.
Whenever my kindergarten class went anywhere--the library, the media center, the art room, the music room, gym--we lined up alphabetically by last name. This meant that I was always the last to get anywhere. And it stung. What amazing things was I missing out on because I was not at the front of the line?
When it came to art class, did someone else get a better paint set or lump of clay? Or music class, did the people whose last names ended in A get a music book that was in better condition? Or when going to the library, did those at the front of the line get a better choice of book? When it came time to go to gym class.... Well, that was the one time I can't remember really minding being last.
There was just this incredible sense of injustice at being last all the time. And I decided I was not going to relegate my potential future children to such a position. Thus the rule: Marry up in the alphabet.
Jesus, however, seems to have another idea. "The first shall be last and the last shall be first," he tells us. The place of need is the more exalted position. Those with nothing will have it all. Those who leave sister and brothers, mothers and fathers, families and homes for the sake of the gospel and to follow Jesus will receive these 100 times over again in this life and in the life to come.
The gospel lesson for this morning tells the story of a man seeking reassurance of his position; not only in this life, but in the time to come. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" he asks Jesus.
What is interesting about this interaction is Jesus's response, w is a curious one. He begins by telling the young man to follow six of the ten commandments.
The ten commandments are typically divided into two lists. The first four and the last six. These are sometimes called the vertically focused and the horizontally focused; the upward focused and the outward focused. The last six commandments, which Jesus tells this man he must observe are about loving other people: honoring your parent, being honest, faithful, acting with integrity in your relationships.
And the man responds by declaring that he has "kept all these since [his] youth." This is more than a little astounding to me at first blush. Since his youth he's managed to be completely honest? He's never told a lie? Not even the tiniest fib? He's never taken anything at any point that did not rightfully belong to him?
What is most surprising, however, is the fact that he claims to have honored his parents since his youth. Since his youth! I very clearly remember my youth and though, generally speaking, I'd like to believe I was primarily a compliant child, the fact is I know I didn't honor my parents at every moment of every day. I broke that commandment in my youth. A lot. And yet, here this man is claiming to followed not only this commandment, but all the commandments. Since his youth.
Looking at the scripture, though,and understanding the context in which this exchange took place, may shed some light on this man's confidence of his own righteousness. The commandment to honor one's parents comes with a promise: that you will live long in the land the God is giving you. In first century Palestine, those who were blessed with wealth, education, health were considered favored by God. One only earned God's favor by doing things right.
Those who were less privileged--the widow, the orphan, the poor, the infirm--were seen to have earned God's disfavor. Sickness and poverty were seen as God's righteous judgment for sin. We see a glimpse of this in John 9 when the disciples ask Jesus, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
Here we find a man who is first in his culture. He is wealthy, and with that comes education, privilege, power. This man comes to Jesus and seeks confirmation of his own righteousness, having been a good Jewish man all his life, having kept the commandments to love outwards. "I've kept all these since my youth."
Jesus responds by telling him that he is missing just one thing. Love up. Follow the first four commandments: Love me, worship nothing but me, honor me, rest in me, follow me. This, Jesus tells us, requires that you give up everything that you hold to to affirm your value, your worth, your righteousness. Whatever it is you are holding onto more tightly than you hold onto Jesus is an idol. To inherit eternal life, you have love God more than you love those things.
How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
"Then who can be saved," the disciples ask one another. If the rich, with all of their wealth, with all of their privilege, with all of their power, with all of the favor God has showered upon them, if they cannot buy their way into heaven, what hope do the rest of us have?
And Jesus reminds them that they cannot do it on their own. They have no hope of entering the kingdom of God based on their social and cultural worth. Do not, however, forget about God. With God, all things are possible. The rich cannot buy their way into heaven, because heaven is not a reward you gain for amassing cultural capital here on earth. Those the world privileges are no more important to God than those the world forgets, ignores, denies.
Still wanting to justify their fears, still seeking reassurance, Peter speaks the words we can be almost certain each disciple is thinking, "Look, we have left everything and followed you."
"This," Jesus says, "is exactly what is necessary. For anyone who leaves it all for me and for my gospel, will reap a return 100 fold of what they've sacrificed for me. Not only will they reap this return now, but also, in the age to come, they'll receive eternal life. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first."
This is what it means to be a part of the kingdom of God: to give up everything for the sake of Jesus and for the sake of the gospel, to follow him and to trust that God will meet your needs.
The kingdom of God does not exalt the wealthy and the privileged as the kingdoms of our world do. The poor, the widow, the orphan, the infirm; the lost, the least, the last. These are the ones whom God favors. These are the ones who will be first in the kingdom of God. These are the ones who will be favored and exalted by God, both in God's kingdom now and with an inheritance of eternal life.
Why, do you suppose that those who are last in this world's kingdoms are first in God's? Because the rich man was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Perhaps the last and least become the first to enter God's kingdom because they have so little to give up. They have so little to provide them any sense of comfort or security. They have nothing, and nothing to lose by giving it all to follow Jesus. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Jesus never says that the rich cannot get into heaven. He merely states how difficult it is for the rich to get into heaven. Those who have everything that the kingdoms of this world privilege have to give up so much that is considered "good" and must trust that they are giving it up for something better, something the kingdoms of this world tell us they are entitled to, that they deserve, because they have "done all the right things." For surely if they hadn't God would not have blessed them so richly in this age.
What a shock it is when Jesus tells us that this is not the case. What a shock it is to learn that being blessed with position and power in this life is not a guarantee of our position in the next.
Though the last will be first in God's kingdom, Jesus tells us the rich have the harder task. They much choose to love God more than they love their possessions. This isn't easy. If it were, the rich man would not have gone away grieving.
Many who read and interpret this story come to the conclusion that the rich young man did not follow through.
The text, however, does not tell us this. The text tells that Jesus instructed the man to "go," and he went; to "sell what [he] own[ed], give the money to the poor...then come follow me." The text does not tell us what the man did or did not do after he went.
Jesus was followed by crowds numbering in the thousands everywhere he went. Most of them are never named. Do you suppose it's possible that this man was later among them? Quiet, humble, and confident in Jesus's righteousness, rather than his own?
I certainly like to think so. And I'll tell you why. It gives me hope.
Though I am among the less privileged in American society, in the world, I am among the elite. I may not have much in the way of physical capital, but I am rich beyond measure in cultural capital. I am literate, and I live in country with a 98% literacy rate. 20% of the world's adult population can neither read nor write.
I am among the 86% of Americans with a high school education, among the 38% with a college degree, among the 7.6% with a master's degree.
I live in a country in which women are permitted to be educated.
I have access to clean water, medical care, housing, and adequate nutrition.
I may be among the last in the United States, but by virtue of having grown up in the United States, I am among the first in the world. And like the rich young man, there are times when I find my worth, my righteousness, my security, and my hope for a future in my position and my accomplishments.
Jesus calls us to give up all of this, and to find our worth, righteousness, security and hope in him. We are called to give up everything, and we have so much.
While much has changed in the last 2000 years, this has not: the kingdoms of this world still privilege the wealthy, still privilege the elite, still privilege the successful. And Jesus still tells us that this not only does not grant us access to the kingdom of God, but it actually may keep us out of the kingdom of God. We are still called to give up everything and follow Jesus.
I know that when I am called to give up something important to me in order to more faithfully follow Jesus, I grieve. I like my stuff, and I have a lot of it. But God calls us to give up our stuff, to stop loving stuff and start loving people.
Today's text does not tell us what happened after the man went away grieving, but I like to believe at some point this man, who was among the first in so many ways, chose to be among the last who began to follow Jesus before his crucifixion, and who continued to follow Jesus after. I like to believe this, because in those moments when I grieve the idea of given up even more, even everything to follow Jesus, I know I'm not alone in that grief. And I know that eventually, I will come to believe again that following Jesus in the kingdom of God is worth more than all the kingdoms of this world have to offer.
We are each called to give up everything to follow Jesus. Some of these things are easier to give up than others. Some of these things we will grieve deeply. But the promises Jesus makes are promises he keeps. What is Jesus calling you to give up today, in order to more faithfully follow him? And do you believe that Jesus will keep his promise, returning to you 100 fold what you've given? I hope you do. And when we grieve the things we must give up, it is my hope that we will not grieve for long.