“Knowing the Good” Colchester Federated Church, March 7, 2021, Third Sunday in Lent (Matthew 19:16-26), Reflections on the Heart Sermon Series

When I was little one of my favorite books was Greedy Zebra.  The story tells how African animals came to look so beautiful.  You see—long ago all the animals in the world were a dull and dusty color.  Then one day a cave appeared full of furs, skins, horns, tails, colorful fabrics, and needles and thread.  All the animals rushed to the cave to see these new items except for Greedy Zebra.  Greedy Zebra just hung back munching on some grass, he couldn’t be bothered to run to some silly old cave.

The animals picked their new coats, horns, and tails while Greedy Zebra just kept eating.  Finally, he trotted to the cave after seeing how lovely Antelope looked.  On the way he imagined how he’d like to look.  Greedy Zebra wanted to have spots like Leopard, horns like Kudu, a mane like Lion, and a tail like Cheetah.  But he was dismayed to find that the only fabrics remaining were a few strips of black cloth.  He stitched them together and squeezed into the fabric.  And then Greedy Zebra went down to the stream to drink and eat some more.  But his coat burst open, his tummy squeezed through the seams, and the monkeys roared with laughter.  The final line of the book is, “To this day his chubby stomach shines through his coat because he is so greedy.”[1]  We read this book all the time, so much so that it’s become a family saying— “don’t be a greedy zebra!”

The story of Greedy Zebra came to mind when reading about the rich man in the Gospel according to Matthew.  Because Jesus has some pretty harsh words for rich people.  Jesus said, “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”[2]  This is a Gospel story that serves as a cautionary tale just like the tale of Greedy Zebra.  The man asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life and Jesus answers by telling him to keep the commandments: “Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony.  Honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”[3]

The man isn’t flustered by what Jesus says.  His response is fascinating, “I’ve kept all these.  What am I still missing?”[4]  This is an honest and earnest response to Jesus.  He is truly asking about having eternal life, though one begins to sense that he is asking Jesus about having a meaningful life here and now.  The man is seeking and searching for something that he hasn’t found yet.  And there comes the kicker when Jesus tells him that if this young, earnest, rich man wants to be complete—sell what you own and give the money to the poor because you’ll have treasure in heaven.  “And come follow me.”[5] 

Matthew tells us that the man goes away saddened because he had so many possessions.  He doesn’t leave it all behind to follow Jesus.  In our Gospel story, the rich man simply can’t picture his life without wealth.  He wonders what he’s missing, but isn’t willing to take that next step on the journey.  His wealth creates a divide between himself and others that he can’t overcome.  It’s that very separation that Jesus desperately wants him to give up in order to find more meaning, to discover that there are riches he’d attain only after giving up his stuff.  Jesus knows this is hard, but he asks him to let go of his possessions in order to gain a different kind of wealth. 

Wealth is often a measure of social prestige.  Jesus spoke about wealth a lot.  Because holding onto one’s prestige conflicted with Jesus’ call to humility.  Jesus taught that it was important to care for those in need.  Jesus will go on to teach in Matthew’s Gospel that our faith requires just actions like feeding the hungry, quenching the thirst of the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, and visiting those in prison.  Jesus will say that just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it to me.  But the man can’t go there when asked to leave his possessions behind.  And I don’t know if many of us could so radically change our lives either.  So let’s always be cautious with our judgment of this man.

The truth is that wealth has a way of separating us from the rest of humanity.  Remember a classic definition of sin is separation.  Separation from God, from one another, and from our best selves.  It may not be the fact that this man is wealthy that Jesus is calling into question, it’s how he uses his wealth.  Is he hoarding it all for himself?  Or is he helping others to not live in abject poverty?  What we do with what we have matters.  With great power comes great responsibility. 

Harvard Economist Michael Sandel writes about wealth separating us from one another in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.  Sandel writes, “Great wealth creates a world so insulated, so protected, so luxurious that the rest of humanity is easily forgotten.”[6]  Think of gated communities and the physical barriers that are in place to keep “them” out.  Sandel’s major illustration deals with sports and elite seating for the wealthy.  He calls it the “skyboxification” of American life, and it’s one of my favorite examples of how wealth insulates and isolates the wealthy from the rest of humanity.  Sports used to be democratic—we were all on the same level.  You could have people from many walks of life gathered to watch and cheer on their team.  Sure, seats varied by price, but the cost difference wasn’t as stark as it is today.  Now club seats or skyboxes separate the wealthy to such an extent that there may be no interaction whatsoever with other fans.  There are often separate entrances and parking lots to have access to these exclusive seats.  Sandel uses this one example to speak to the larger concept of how wealth divides into an “us” vs. “them” situation where literally the ultra-wealthy don’t have to interact with the rest of humanity.  How can this not result in a lack of understanding, let alone empathy?

That’s what Jesus saw and understood when he was interacting with the rich young man who came to him with a question about eternal life and life’s deeper meaning.  Remember it’s the man who asks, “What am I still missing?”  Jesus sought for the man to be complete.  He seeks for all of us to be whole.  What are those things in our lives that separate us from one another, from God, and from being who God created us to be?  How do we let them go to find more purpose and meaning than we ever imagined possible?  Let us continue our Lenten journey with Jesus and let go of all that holds us back from following Jesus with our whole hearts.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.   

[1] Mwenye Hadithi and Adrienne Kennaway, Greedy Zebra.
[2] Matthew 19:24, Common English Bible.
[3] Matthew 19:18-19.
[4] Matthew 19:20.
[5] Matthew 19:21.
[6] Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, 164.

Photo by Dmitry Demidko on Unsplash.