A missionary in one of the poorest villages in Africa asks the village headman the biggest problem facing his people.
The headman considers briefly, then points to a boy scampering on a pile of refuse. The boy is grandly holding aloft the dead battery from a transistor radio.
"Materialism," he says grimly. "That is our greatest problem."
The missionary cannot hide his surprised look, and the headman continues:
"If a man has a straw hut, he wants one of mud. If he has a thatched roof, he wants one of tin. It never ends."
In rural West Virginia, an 86-year-old woman is chosen by the Appalachia Service Project to help provide running water to her dilapidated trailer for the first time, eliminating her daily half-mile walks to get gallon jugs of water from a spring.
After the pipes are laid and water trickles into a makeshift trough, volunteers find they have $112 left from the repair funds.
Gleefully, they offer the cash to the woman.
"Aw honey," she smiles. "You give that to somebody who really needs it."
The Bible tells us it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23). While this is commonly seen as a rebuke to material wealth, it may also be seen as an indictment of our preoccupation with ANYTHING that pulls our attention from God.
Seen in that light, Jesus is asking the rich man to lay down that which is of value TO HIM. If the parable concerned a poor musician, Jesus would have him lay down his songs. If he were speaking to a Pharisee, he would ask him to literally "lay down the law."
While many passages in the Bible seem to elevate the poor, it seems more likely the term "poor" is a reference to being SPIRITUALLY poor. By that I mean the condition of realizing we need Christ -- the way someone who is economically poor feels the need for food and shelter.
We are at the greatest risk, spiritually, when we are most comfortable with this world.
"But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction." (1 Timothy 6:8-10)
When we are able to cast off our personal idols -- whether they be expensive cars, or sexual immorality, or even prideful proclamations of our own righteousness -- Jesus is free to take possession of our souls and lead us to freedom.
Look at James 2:5:
"Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?"
So there is good and bad news here for everyone. The rich need not give away all their wealth; only give up their love for it. And the poor don't get a free ride. They must give up their own idols -- addictions, anger, whatever it is they cling to.
On the resulting level playing field, the rich and the poor are left staring rather uneasily at each other -- and looking with new understanding at their own, personal needle's eye.