The first time I flew first-class was fifteen years ago. I was the director of admissions for a small university, taking one of innumerable flights my job required. I can’t remember if I was bumped up on points or if it was simply a mistake, but after she acted surly toward the person in front of me in line, the gate attendant looked at my name on her monitor and beamed, “Ah, Mr. Thompson, you’re in first class today.”
I knew that didn’t sound right, but I was afraid of breaking the spell, so I said, “Yes, of course,” and sheepishly took a seat to await boarding. Back in those days I sometimes flew Southwest Airlines, a carrier we don’t have in this part of the world. Southwest’s boarding system was then starkly democratic. Actually, Darwinian is a better term. It certainly involved survival of the fittest. When the boarding call came, everyone charged the gate at once, and the quickest and strongest got the choice seats.
But on this trip I was flying American or United, I suppose, and for the first time in my life, when the attendant called for “first class,” I rose from my seat. I still felt like a pretender about to be found out, but I also glanced just a little smugly at the hoi polloi who’d paid for coach as I sauntered to the jetway.
Upon entering the plane, a solicitous flight attendant showed me to a seat that resembled a Bark-O-Lounger. She took my carry-on from me and stowed it in the overhead bin herself. Then she asked if I’d like something to drink. Dumbly and parochially, I asked, “How much will it cost?” She must’ve thought I’d made a joke, because she just smiled and said, “You! What can I get you?”
“Gin and tonic?” I probed tentatively, and she whisked back to her mini-bar to fix my drink. That’s when it happened. No sooner had I turned my attention to the massive leg room at my feet than the cattle gate opened, and a herd of coach passengers filled the aisle. They came, and they kept coming. My elbow was bumped. A baby cried. And then I saw the nice flight attendant across the way with my drink in her hand. She couldn’t get to me! The masses were blocking her way. And I was thirsty. The situation was unacceptable. I was parched because the passengers in coach weren’t efficient or considerate or deferential enough. I was a first class passenger.
My indignation reached a fevered pitch, until an admissions counselor I knew from another college entered the plane. He spotted me immediately, and over the heads of the people in front of him called out audibly to me, “Thompson! What are you doing up here? You don’t belong in first class!”
It was all I needed to bring me back to earth. I realized that in the span of half an hour, given a privilege I had not earned, I’d already begun to believe that I was, after all, somehow different from the people in coach. In thirty minutes. And we bristle at Jesus’ saying, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God…”
For twenty-first century Americans (perhaps especially Episcopalians) this is a bothersome passage of scripture. It makes us defensive. It causes us to grumble. It startles us every time we read it. It seems to lay a guilt trip on us, when we’ve worked so hard for the things we have. Like us, the specific rich man to whom Jesus is referring is not a bad guy. He follows the commandments of God; he does not defraud his neighbor; he tends to his aging parents. This man is someone we would admire, and so we are as surprised as he is when Jesus says to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”
That passage is found in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). What’s going on in it? Looking at Mark’s version (Mark 10:17-31), the key to the passage comes later, when the disciples are quizzing Jesus about his exchange with the rich man and his saying about camels and needles. “Who then can be saved?” they ask in despair. Jesus’ response is, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”
For mortals it is impossible. The rich man’s failure is clear in the very way he frames his question to Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, the living Word of God who the Letter to the Hebrews says “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” recognizes that the rich man believes eternal life is something to be earned or achieved. Jesus has the further piercing insight that the rich man’s error comes not from his attempts to be a good person (which Jesus applauds), but rather from his material life, from the fact that he always travels first class and believes he rightly deserves to. Jesus and the rich man exist in an era in which, even more than in our own, affluence was subconsciously accepted as perhaps a sign of hard work and certainly a sign of God’s favor.
The wealthy, including the very man in our story, were exalted as being somehow different than the masses. The wealthy believed it, and on some level the poor believed it, too. That’s why even the disciples are incredulous that it could be so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The affluent, the disciples uncritically assume (and consider the way we, too use this term) are privileged. It’s a worldview the rich man can’t help but transfer to his own salvation.
In very many ways, the rich man is a good man, but his fatal error—his illness, we might say—is that he holds too tightly to his things and the status that comes with them. He holds them so tightly and close that they cloud his vision. His things and his striving for them lead to the subconscious belief that they somehow do make him different, maybe even subtly better, than others. In a word, for the rich man, his privilege becomes the lens through which he interprets his whole life, including eternal life. And so long as he, or we for that matter, subconsciously understand eternal life in those terms, we will never enter it.
It does not follow that Jesus is denigrating achievement. Nor does it mean that Jesus believes we shouldn’t enjoy our material lives. But then, how? C.S. Lewis says it best: God “wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could [for instance] design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in that fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad [that he had done it] than he would be if it had been done by another. [God] wants him…to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents…[God] wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures as glorious and excellent things.”[i]
The prescription for the rich man is, of course, grace: grace to admit that he isn’t privileged, not by God; grace to accept that he doesn’t deserve eternal life any more than anyone else does; he doesn’t earn it; he can’t achieve it. God has the power and will to offer this grace. All things are possible for God. But the subconscious is a stubborn thing. The only way for the rich man to open himself to grace, the only way to break his fever and shed his worldview, is to loose hold of all those things he believes he has already earned, deserved, and achieved and open himself to God.
To put it bluntly, it’s not God’s grace that is narrow; it is the rich man who is thick, in mind, in soul and in things. He must let go in order for God’s grace to save him. If he will, Jesus promises, he’ll receive back his life one hundredfold! He’ll understand what boundless riches and boundless love really are. But he doesn’t want to. He relies too much on his things and the notion that he is privileged and set apart. He doesn’t believe Jesus. So he walks away.
It turns out this is not such a bothersome passage after all. It’s not about guilt and condemnation; it’s about healing. It’s not about narrow gates; it’s about the wideness of God’s grace. Whether we’re rich or, as middle class Americans, convinced that we’re just one brilliant decision away from wealth and yes, privilege, we’re invited to believe Jesus when he says that healing, salvation, eternal life will begin when we loose hold of our material lives and our striving and open ourselves to God’s grace.
I’ll never forget one rare snowfall in Arkansas when I was a child. When I awoke in the morning the ground was a white blanket and snow was still falling in great flakes, and my older brother and I ran into the yard in wonder. I scooped up a handful of snow and watched the sunlight glisten through it like rays through a prism. I so wanted my mother to see it. I grabbed hold of that snow tightly and ran back to the house. “Look, look!” I cried to my mom, and opened my clenched hand. There was no sunlight left. There were no magical flakes. There was only a small, hard, dead ball of ice.
The snow was, to a child, a gift from God, and it was everywhere. The world was blanketed in it. The only thing that could deny me of it—the only thing—was my clinging, as if it were a thing I owned, a thing I deserved, a thing I could possess.
The world is blanketed by grace. It is wide. It is everywhere. It is free to all: rich, middle class, and poor. But first we must let go.
[i] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, chapter 14.