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I read this week that one explanation for the explosive popularity of candidates Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump it that their rhetoric of plays well to young and older folks’ anxiety and offers a ray of hope. We are facing a warming planet, exploding student debt, stunted mobility, stagnant wages and the increasing corporatization of the country due in part to the increasing consolidation of wealth and the impact of that wealth on American institutions. The first seem to be first. The last are stuck in last place. New players don’t seem to even have a place. Older folks see a situation that seems unfair after years of hard work and paying into the system. Young folks are angry at those who came before them for doing too little, too late. Young and old, male and female, many of us want a dramatic correction to the problems of our society, and we want it now.
You may feel uncomfortable with my overt political talk. Pastors are supposed to do that! They’re to be in the world, but not of it. (as Paul says in Romans). Yet that’s Christ’s call for all of us. Today’s passage, while a nice story is quite a challenging teaching. Jesus says, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” WTF? That’s not fair!
The “nice story” of today is one in which someone who seems to be doing what is required to be good, to lead a “good” life, is told that he is utterly lacking. There is only one thing to do. It’s not a question of doing more, but of doing authentically. And it’s too much for him. It’s hard for a rich man to get into heaven, harder than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But it’s the convocation of this anonymous man (known only by his wealth) by Jesus, that is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
I’ve often heard said that this story is a condemnation of riches and wealthy people. Yet it seems to me that what Jesus is saying is not that it’s a crime to be rich, but rather it is to trust in one’s riches. 1 Timothy 6:17 says “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Biblical scholars inform us that the term “great possessions” in verse 22 can also be translated as “great estates.” The expression can mean both possessions in general, but often connotes landed property in particular. It would seem that Jesus is asking a wealthy landowner to stop exploiting his workers and instead to become their benefactor, not as a socialist or Marxist, but out of a recognition that everything belongs to God and we are called to love our neighbor as ourself.
Thinking of Senator Cruz, the Bern and Trump one has to ask today what does it mean in our context that Jesus says the first shall be last and the last shall be first?
Questions for Going Deeper: