Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Narrow Gate: A Sunday Rumination

     And he went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the narrow gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. [Luke 13:22-24]

     The above passage from the Gospel According to Luke is often held up as a sort of concurrence with the following famous passage from Mark:

     And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible. [Mark 10:23-27]

     Both passages appear to state that there’s a contradiction between worldly wealth and entrance into eternal bliss after death. They’ve been used by preachers down the centuries to threaten their better-off congregants into surrendering their money to the church. But what such preachers carefully omit to explore – before their congregants, at least – is the Judean context within which Jesus made the statements above.

     First-century Judea was a society rife with evils of several kinds. First, there was the practice of slavery, then as in all ages a method of garnering the profits available from other men’s labors without their consent. Many wealthy men of that time became so through the exploitation of slave labor. Needless to say, that sort of thing has never sat well with God...though the religious authorities of the time tended to look the other way.

     Second was the frequency of pillage. A man’s home was anything but secure against robbers. Neither was a lone traveler safe even on the most heavily traveled roads. That wasn’t merely an alternate way to enrich oneself; it was also an inducement to obsession with protecting one’s wealth and property that could reach unhallowed levels. Considering that among the soldiers of the Roman occupation were many who practiced pillage when they believed they could get away with it, the threat was severe indeed.

     Third was the habit, especially among the already wealthy, of traveling heavily laden with one’s possessions rather than leaving them at home. That partook both of the fear of pillage mentioned above, but also with the love of luxury that characterized many of the wealthy of that time. It might strike contemporary Christians as strange, especially considering that what qualified then as luxury would barely get the attention of a typical poor American today. Yet it was commonplace.

     Fourth, a tidbit seldom mentioned in sermons. Jerusalem was the center of wealth and power of Judea, and thus where many wealthy men lived, conducted their businesses, or both. But Jerusalem was also a walled city, fortified against large invading forces from the time of the Judean kings. A man traveling with his possessions had to enter or leave the city through one of its gates. One of those gates, an unusually low and narrow one, was therefore called “the eye of the needle.” Getting a laden camel through it was deemed well nigh impossible.

     The picture Jesus sketched with the above passages comes into much clearer focus in light of those facts.

     From Main Street to Wall Street to Washington
     From men to women to men
     It's a nation of noses pressed up against the glass
     They've seen it on the TV
     And they want it pretty fast

     You spend your whole life
     Just pilin' it up there
     You got stacks and stacks and stacks
     Then Gabriel comes and taps you on the shoulder
     But you don't see no hearses with luggage racks

     [Don Henley, “Gimme What You Got”]

     Americans are probably more focused on worldly gain than is good for us. We strategize, strive, and scratch for that next big strike: the next promotion, the big bonus, the bigger house in a better neighborhood, the fine foods and beverages, the nice clothes, the fine furniture, the luxury cars, the fancy toys...even, sometimes and most deplorably, the trophy spouse “worthy of the station I’ve achieved.”

     Yet none of that is inherently sinful. It’s the obsession with wealth, the mindset that excludes God and neighbor, that imperils one’s soul.

     The two Great Commandments never cease to apply:

     But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
     Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

     The love of wealth can crowd out other loves. This seems so perfectly obvious to me that I blush to state it this explicitly. But as I’ve said innumerable times here and elsewhere, obvious really means overlooked.

     The omission of the qualifying observations given here allowed priests of the late First Millennium to terrify many Europeans into giving all their worldly goods to the Church out of chiliastic panic: i.e., that the world would end with the millennium, and that only the voluntary surrender of all one’s wealth to the Church would grant one a chance of admission to heaven. Needless to say, the Church offered no refunds on January 1, 1001.

     All the same, there’s a red line to be observed: the line that divides the respect for the utility of wealth in this world from the Scrooge-like obsession with it that leaves no room for God or other men. If that line is respected, mere prosperity will not endanger the soul. If not...well, not only are hearses unequipped with luggage racks; Hell doesn’t provide its inmates with storage lockers.

     May God bless and keep you all.

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