After the teaching on divorce, the author of Mark records a story about a rich man seeking advice from Jesus about how to "inherit eternal life," or as Jesus rephrases the goal, "enter the kingdom of God." Incidentally, the author of Matthew uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven" synonymously with "kingdom of God" when he copies this story, but the author of Luke kept most of the terminology identical to what is found in Mark. It's a challenging story, although some commentators suggest clever loopholes around the blatant message that wealth presents a challenge to spiritual and ethical integrity.
There are those who think that this message was just about one person's inappropriate greed or attachment to his possessions. This ignores the bit of the tale in which Jesus tells his disciples that anyone with wealth -- any rich person -- will have a difficult time entering the kingdom of heaven. It's clear that this passage is about wealth, not just one man's particular weakness. We'll come back to that.
Some scholars also wish to point out that a specific gate into the city was called the "Eye of the Needle," and that this gate was a particular challenge to camels. It doesn't matter. The author is clearly suggesting that wealthy people will have a very difficult time entering the kingdom of heaven, ultimately using the word "impossible." Contextualizing the metaphors of the passage doesn't make its message any easier.
What exactly is the kingdom of God, though? In Mark, there are three statements about reward. First, Jesus claims that people who sacrifice everything for the sake of the "good news" will receive a hundredfold reward in this temporal life, and this is specified in terms of relationships, property, and the hardships that go along with them. Second, people who sacrifice everything for the sake of the "good news" will have eternal life in the "age to come." Third, there will be a hierarchical relationship in the kingdom of God which will turn the earthly order of power and respect on its head: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Not only does that not clear things up, but the bit about receiving a hundredfold houses, fields, siblings, mothers, and children simply does not ring true in real life experience of people who have made sacrifices for the "good news." Unless, one wants to specifically define what the "good news" actually is (which I will do in my own way), and follow that with the claim that no one has ever sacrificed enough for the "good news" in order to test this promise that they will receive a hundredfold reward, in which case there would have been no point in making the promise in the first place.
The gospel of Luke is more vague than Mark about the kingdom of God, simply saying that everyone who sacrifices for the kingdom of God will receive "much more" in this temporal life, and "in the age to come eternal life." The author of Matthew has a very specific idea of what that eternal life will be like, though. Jesus will be seated on a "throne of glory," and all the disciples will have thrones of their own, from which they will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. By this count, Judas would need to be included in that enthronement, but we won't worry about that. This is obviously also before Jesus considered extending his mission beyond just the Jews, but we won't worry about that either. The point is that different people have different ideas about what the "kingdom of God" actually means.
I am less inclined to concern myself with claims about living forever or afterlife. There is no way to prove any claims about such things, and there seem to be an awful lot of competing versions of the "age to come" floating around, none with more merit than any other. When I think about the "kingdom of heaven" or the "kingdom of God," the first hitch for me is that bit about kingdom. I don't think of spirituality in monarchical or feudal terms; the metaphor just opens the way for a lot of assumptions that don't make any sense. I get what the gospels writers were going for, but the word kingdom isn't as useful now as it was two thousand years ago. The second hitch for me is the bit about "heaven" or "God," for obvious reasons. From my perspective, why would I sacrifice anything for the sake of the monarchical establishment of an imaginary being? And yet, there's something deeper to that term that I can sink my teeth into.
Often, when the gospel writers have Jesus speak about the kingdom of heaven, what he says is that it is "at hand," it is a present reality and not something that only becomes knowable or enter-able upon physical death. If the kingdom of heaven is at hand, then what evidence do we have of that? Some would point to miracle stories, but this is a dead-end. Most of the miracle stories in the Bible were most likely confabulations to begin with, and even if they weren't, no one is performing any miracles today to demonstrate the remaining present-tense reality of the kingdom of heaven. So, I prefer to look at the example set by Jesus in the gospel narratives (and some other people, come to think of it), in the way that people are treated in those stories. The Jesus of the gospels treats people as if they have value, regardless of their station in life or their material possessions. He speaks with people who are interested in what he has to say, whether they are respected religious leaders or outcasts. He tells parables that clearly reflect the priority of caring for fellow human beings, particularly those who can't care for themselves very well. This points to a definition of the kingdom of heaven that I can get behind (although I still want to call it something else).
There is a growing movement among some Christian churches, called the missional church movement, that strives to embody this kind of definition of the kingdom of heaven. The focus for these believers is less on church growth and membership numbers and more on being a meaningful presence in the neighborhood, caring for the people around them without regard for what those people believe about God or Jesus. I respect this. Some of these churches still want to get people saved and usher them into a personal relationship with Christ, which I respect a bit less, but I respect that they start by caring for people. Many people in the missional church movement see their work as partnership or participation with God in building his kingdom. Their actions have value and meaning in a larger faith context.
In this way, the kingdom of heaven becomes something of a replacement for the metaphor of Promised Land that the ancient Jews held. Promised Land or kingdom of heaven is that better world that is characterized by greater justice, greater equity, and greater compassion than what we experience and express today. The Promised Land/kingdom of heaven isn't something that we encounter upon death, and it isn't something that is going to happen to us -- it's something we create. While I don't believe that there is any sort of supernatural aid in that creative action, I do believe that we must be connected to our deep, most noble selves in order to consistently engage in that sort of intentional living. I don't have a better metaphor than Promised Land or kingdom of heaven, but I think of that action as building a better world.
And building a better world does require sacrifice, and we don't have any guarantees that we're going to get anything we sacrifice back, in this life or in some future life. What we often wind up sacrificing to build a better world, though, are things that don't really do us a lot of good to begin with. We don't need to sacrifice deep, meaningful relationships, but we often need to give up our sense of obligation and entitlement in those relationships. We could stand to give up our fear of scarcity, or our over-protectiveness. We could stand to sacrifice the lies we hold about ourselves: that we are not enough, that we are failures, that we are worthless. We can't easily build a better world of justice, equity, and compassion if we are battling those kinds of fears and lies on a regular basis.
We can't really know what the author of Mark (and those who cribbed his writing) thought wealthy people had stacked against them. It does seem in our current reality that people who have more often live as though they have more to lose. It isn't just a matter of bank account totals; there are issues of prestige, influence, lifestyle, relationships... There aren't a whole lot of people who willingly choose to give up that identity. It's easier to just do a little bit toward creating a better world -- just enough to feel proud of the contribution -- and trust other people to do their little bit, too.
We sometimes forget a couple of things, though. We sometimes forget how creative we can be when in comes to inventing justifications and excuses. If we aren't careful, we might actually start believing something that isn't true, just because it seems like something we would like to be true. We also forget that not everyone is equally positioned to build a better world. The reason we would even think about building a better world in the first place is that there are people who are suffering from the injustices and inequities we have come to accept as normal. Some of those people simply can't do as much to affect their circumstances as we would like to think. Even some of those people who want to do something to make the world a better place are hard-pressed to contribute much and still exercise personal responsibility for their own lives. Money is not the only thing that goes into building a better world, but money and all its trappings can sometimes separate people from others. It can separate people from awareness of the reasons why anyone would want to build a better world.
Which is where the "good news" comes in. For many Christians, good news has a very specific definition which has to do with Jesus' (mythologized) death and resurrection and the supernatural results in terms of individual sins. I think that there is even better news than that. You have inherent worth and dignity. All people do. Whatever lies you have come to believe about how unworthy you are or how unlovable you are, or how insignificant you are -- those lies are not you. You are a creative, capable, worthy being. No matter what happens to you or around you, nothing can change your inherent worth and dignity. That is good news if ever I have heard good news.
Recognizing our own inherent value, and recognizing the inherent value of all people, allows us to live out opportunities to build a better world, doing what we able to do, as we are able to do it. We don't have to sacrifice everything we have -- but we might want to give up some things we don't need. We might want to give up some ideas that aren't useful to us anymore. We might want to give up irrational fear and false beliefs about ourselves and other people. When we make those kinds of sacrifices, we lighten our own lives, and we create space for participating in building a better world in a way that is authentic to us. It doesn't have to become all-consuming. It's more of a way of being, a way of relating to other people, that is more possible when we aren't wrapped up in ourselves. Plus, it never hurts to be really honest with ourselves about what we have, what we actually need, and how much we can realistically offer of our personal resources toward creating a better world for everyone.