Mark 10:17-27; Philippians 4:10-13
Martin Luther observed that human beings require not one, but three conversions: the conversion of the heart, the conversion of the mind and the conversion of the purse. The last may be the most difficult. Especially when we consider that money is one of the most difficult topics to discuss – not money in general, but the money in our own bank accounts. We can talk about other people’s money, how the government uses money, the rapidly inflating cost of housing in Portland. All that is generic, someone else is to blame.
This past summer, I was in a seminar – a city-sponsored seminar on landlord training. And it was here that I heard some Jesus-style preaching! The trainer said to the landlords, be careful how much you charge in rent. Don’t let your greed get the best of you. Your greed will come back to bite you. If you let your desire for higher rents run wild, you will find yourself under the yoke of state enforced rent-control. If we don’t do it on our own, we will be compelled by force.
One of the hardest things for us to do is to talk about “our” money. Yet it is one of the most life-giving conversations we can undertake.
Jesus spoke about money more than anything else except the kingdom of God. It would seem that the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God was characterized by the conversion of the purse, as Martin Luther would have said. The church has mostly abdicated its responsibility to speak to our culture about money. Instead, we have tended to adopt our culture’s view of money – that it is neutral, that it can be used as we see fit, and that it is in short supply.
One morning this week while my car went through the car wash, I was listening to Think Out Loud airing an interview with Naomi Klein, who just released her latest book and documentary, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Forget everything you think you know about global warming, she says. The truth is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism. Our planet is in crisis because our system supports whatever it takes to make a profit. She posits that our economic model is waging war against life on earth. We have been told that the market will save us. But, in fact the addiction to profit and growth is depleting our planet every day. We have been told that it’s impossible to get off fossil fuels when in fact we know exactly how to do it—it just requires breaking every rule in the “free-market” playbook: reining in corporate power, rebuilding local economies, and reclaiming our democracies. And there is good news. We have been told by every one from politicians to preachers that humanity is just too selfish and greedy to rise to this challenge. But she cites story after story where, all over the world, the fight for the next economy and against reckless pursuit of profit is already succeeding in ways both surprising and inspiring.
Her message isn’t new, though. In Jesus’ day the unquestioned pursuit of prosperity was already well-established. Jesus’ hearers believed that wealth and prosperity were a sign of God’s blessing. That is why the disciples were so surprised at Jesus teaching here about money. This particular little metaphor got their attention: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. They thought, if the rich, who are blessed by God, can’t be in the kingdom, then who can be?!
Let’s put to rest the myth that this teaching referred to a small gate in Jerusalem. There is no evidence that there was such a gate. Besides that, the Babylonian Jewish Talmud has a similar saying about an elephant going through the eye of a needle. In that region, the elephant was the largest animal people might see; in Jesus’ region, the camel was the largest animal. Jesus was fitting an old metaphor for impossibility to his own community.
The disciples knew what he meant. That wealth is not a sign of God’s good pleasure. That’s why they were so dumb-founded. This same distortion of money is common today. Many churches abound with promises that if you follow God you will be blessed with wealth. Because God is generous, it is concluded that the generosity of God will overflow in blessings for God’s people. This is a truth which runs through Scripture, certainly. But “blessing” does not mean “wealth.” And when we associate these two, we tend to emulate the lives of the wealthy and leave their lives unexamined. Something Jesus clearly does not support. God’s blessing is for all creation. And when the abundance of one blinds him or her to the calling to bless others, it closes the door to the Kingdom of God – where joy, peace and blessing are available to all.
But since our topic here is Jesus’ teaching on power, let us go a step deeper. Money is power. We know that those with wealth have buying power, power to control, to give life or to take it. We see this everywhere around us. But Jesus suggests that there is more. Money has power. Most Christian teaching views money as completely neutral. It is simply a medium of exchange, which we put into use to serve life. So we attempt teach the proper use of money. But if this is as far as we go, we may be drawn into some quicksand. Money, like all forms of power, has a life of its own. Jesus says we cannot serve God and Mammon, referring to wealth. Mammon is personified, almost like a rival to God.
A study was published in Leadership Quarterly which showed that money has power to change a good person’s behavior away from the social good toward pure self-interest. Money’s accumulation triggers chemicals in the brain which blunt a person’s moral convictions, allowing them to act in ways contrary to their own nature. 
Money has the ability to inspire devotion. A devotion to rival God’s call on our life to bless creation. This is the point of Jesus’ words to this rich young man. He seemed to have a good heart. His question was sincere. Jesus felt compassion for him. But he couldn’t make his way easier. This young man had to make a choice. Would he give his devotion to God or to money. It was not possible for him to serve both, so he must sell all he had in order to follow Jesus. He had to give up his addiction “cold turkey” in order to break its power over him, a power he didn’t even know was there. Back to the old saying: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Money has power. If we can re-orient ourselves to this view of money, we have a chance to make conscious choices about how we live our lives with regard to money.
This passage, though, ends on a note of great and surprising hope! It is impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Yet, with God all things are possible.
There is another Jewish midrash which provides a similar hope as Jesus holds out: “The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and camels?” In other words God only needs us to open up just a crack and God will come pouring in and set up room for an oasis. God only needs a ‘foot in the door’, so to speak.
So what can we do to open up that crack for God to get a foot in the door?
It is time for us to develop a spiritual practice around money. The monastic communities from the first centuries of Christianity developed the vow of poverty as their spiritual approach to money. The Puritans, developed the commitment to “industry” as their path. Each of these paths has something to teach us. In the vow of poverty, the monks vowed to own nothing. All things which came through their hands were for whoever had need of them. But the wiles of money are so powerful, that over time, even this vow was distorted. Monks may have owned nothing individually, but as a community, it was possible to accumulate significant wealth. The Puritan commitment to industry, while intended to keep people connected to a simple day’s work, was also distorted into workaholism and the drive to expand one’s work and its productivity to excess. It is one of the attitudes which gave birth to no-holds-barred capitalism, which is today laying waste our planet.
So what might be a spiritual practice to shape our relationship to money in our day and age? Richard Foster suggests a commitment to simplicity, practiced with a good dose of generosity.
One of the ways I see this practice being taught today is in a new social planning movement called ABCD – Asset-Based Community Development. Basically, the theory is that one of the powers of money is to blind us to the assets we do have. We live in a political structure based on needs and scarcity, rather than assets and abundance. Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana has undergone a death and resurrection by changing its perspective from scarcity to abundance. They quit looking at their neighbors as needy and began to see them as resourceful and abundantly able. They hired a “listener” to go out into their community to listen for what people’s gifts were. Then they began to connect the people with similar or complementary gifts. Pretty soon they were in the middle of a whole new economy, built on people helping people, committed to each other and reviving their whole community, not just their church.
Perhaps a first step toward simplicity is to trust that God is enough, can be and give enough to take care of more than we could ask or imagine. In other words, we are blessed with assets beyond what may appear. Remember when Jesus told the disciples to feed those five thousand hungry people? You feed them!, he said. They had to check out their assets. And it turned out to be more than enough. They were blessed with abundance beyond their wildest imaginations. Okay, it was only one day’s lunch. It didn’t solve the world’s problems. But imagine what it felt like to sit in your group of 50 or 100 that day and have a miraculous lunch with people you never knew in the presence of a Rabbi worth starving for.
It opened a little crack, just big enough for God to get a foot in the door, and to give people a taste of the abundance of the Kingdom of God. This simple shift in perspective might just open up a crack in our souls as well.
 The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 26, Issue 2, April 2015, Pages 101–122; www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984314000800 Or a video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoLLPNZLBAo .
 Hebrew New Testament Studies, http://www.biblicalhebrew.com/nt/camelneedle.htm.
 “Death and resurrection of an urban church,” by Robert King, https://www.faithandleadership.com/death-and-resurrection-urban-church