Nearly irresistible is the urge to soften this passage's demands.
That urge has been around a long time. For example:
Jesus' explanation is rather clear: just as large animals simply do not fit through tiny openings, so the wealthy do not fit in the kingdom of God. Even a rich man who has successfully kept all the Decalogue's laws governing social responsibilities, as this devout man has, cannot fit.1
Instead of trying to measure Jesus' place among socioeconomic theorists or questioning his commitment to Protestant theology, we should note additional aspects of this passage, which beckon us to consider its nuances without denying its shocking message:
Maybe, then, this passage is not so unique in its demands, for it is not that dissimilar from others in which Jesus describes a life of discipleship, such as 8:34-37. The rich man's story and Jesus' hyperbole remind us that all aspects of what it means to follow Jesus rankle our deeply ingrained instincts toward self-preservation and security. Jesus does not try to deprive the rich man of his money and power. He asks for more. He tries to claim the man's very own self.
Jesus does this, of course, out of love. Perhaps he believes that wealth, like a competing deity, treacherously constrains people from serving God (as in Luke 16:13). Getting rid of wealth might then move the rich man to a point where he might truly be receptive to God...
...But, of course, there is a danger in following an interpretive route like that one, by trying to get too far inside the man's head or speculating about Jesus' evangelization strategy. Preachers do well to stick to the biblical text and avoid conjectures that make the rich man appear too different from most of us in church. Lack of receptivity is not his problem. His approach and words to Jesus are not arrogant or self-righteous.
Here is a deeply religious person so well-attuned to his practices that he can sense that there is more out there than what he has experienced so far. He asks Jesus about the "more," but his question focuses on what needs to be added. He seeks the limit, or the next step, but discovers instead that eternal life entails the surrender of one's whole self.
In the end, this story is untamable. That is, like a parable, it resists simple explanations and denies loopholes, making us so uncomfortable that we are liable to talk circles around it in hope of stumbling upon a basis for softening its message. This story, again like a parable, intends to be experienced rather than explained--experienced not in a simplistic manner or with a belligerence that violates the spirit of the narrative, but in a way that keeps a congregation focused on the real-life demands of discipleship, on the seriousness of the new community envisioned by the kingdom of God, and on the foundational promise that God makes salvation possible.
Congregations will hear this story in diverse ways, depending upon the social class and economic situation of individual members. Still, given our current cultural context, in which so much of our collectively ingrained assumptions about financial security have been uprooted and have further exposed our runaway consumption, people will have new ears to consider the gospel's perspective on discipleship, possessions, and abundance. The preacher's challenge is to show that the kingdom of God confronts us with a vision of life and identity quite incompatible with so many of our core presuppositions about wealth, prerogatives, and selfhood.
1Nothing about the narration or Jesus' response suggests that the man is anything but sincere in 10:20. Why Jesus replaces the prohibition against coveting with one about defrauding is a conundrum no interpreter has successfully solved.