“Amen I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:23).
Why is it hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven? This statement by Jesus after the rich young man went away sad astonished the disciples, who saw wealth as a sign of approval from God. Wealth brought all the good things of life, including the power to help others, do good works and perform acts of charity.
The adage about camels going through the eye of a needle emphasized the burden of great possessions, the precise reason the rich young man turned away when Jesus invited him to give away everything and come follow them on the road.
If we think about it, houses and cars, bank accounts, investment portfolios, keeping track of tax deferral through capital gains, sheltering money in foundations, off shore accounts, or making interest income, business connections and social status takes up most of your time, monetizes your priorities and values and pretty much defines who you are.
How many people have imagined that if they became rich they would still be generous and wonderful people, tithing their wealth and helping the poor. But along the way to gaining wealth, they became totally focused on leveraging their position upward, competing with other get-rich types who abandon their friends, marriages, children and principles to get to the place where they could be good, respected people again. But by then they have forgotten how to be ordinary folks. And besides, managing and protecting their money takes up all their time and energy.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of heaven was always here, in the moment, in the freedom to respond to others, to enjoy the beauty of the world and the pleasure found in friendship and community. It represented an alternative to the attitudes of constant acquisition and competition, quantifying reality and people rather than seeing the mystery of life, the hidden treasures of love and respect that flow freely to those whose hearts are caring rather than calculating. The sadness of the rich young man was the sadness of the whole system that could only see life as a market in which quid pro quo defined everything.
Jesus never blessed poverty or the indignities of want and struggle. He saw a society based on family values of sharing, from each according to his gifts, to each according to his needs. If we understand this, we will live in the Kingdom of heaven today and know the joy of the Gospel.