It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Ever since Jesus uttered this cryptic statement, we have been busy trying to find a loophole; an escape hatch; a back door; some fine print; a way out. Ever since Jesus met the rich young ruler, we have been looking for a way to embrace this passage as Truth, without actually having to believe it…or live it.
We have rationalized it—
Jesus was just reminding us to keep our priorities straight!
wealthy people support the Church and pay the bills.
If there were no rich Christians,
the Church might as well shut its doors
and turn out the lights.
We have analyzed it—
Linguists have determined
that the ancient words for “camel” and “rope”
are really quite similar…
Maybe Jesus said it is easier for a ROPE
to pass through a needle’s eye...
And, if you had a small enough rope
and a large enough needle…
We have theologized it—
The Hebrew people,
like many ancient people,
thought wealth was a sign of God’s blessing;
a mark of righteousness and worth.
Jesus was teaching them
new ways of looking at the world.
We have decoded it—
that this passage refers to an ancient gate;
A gate so small—
that a camel could enter ONLY if its load was removed.
So, Jesus is telling us
to give some of our possessions away.
Enough, at least,
so we can fit through the gate…
We have ignored it.
And we have embraced it—
Of course Jesus really meant this,
and frankly, I quite agree—
those rich people SHOULD have a hard time
getting into heaven.
It’s tough to be poor.
I should know…
My stock portfolio took a dive this year,
and we barely have enough for a decent vacation!
You know, it’s funny. We expend a considerable amount of energy attempting to prove that much of the Bible is literal truth.
An eye for an eye. No one shall see the Father except through me. The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you. What God has joined together let no man put asunder. This is my body. This is my blood.
All in all, it’s a pretty astonishing list of Truths that we profess to believe. Like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, we Christians often find ourselves believing as many as six “impossible things” before breakfast. And yet, when we stumble across a passage indicating that the rich might have trouble entering heaven, we spend a lifetime trying to reason, and analyze, and explain it all away,
But what if it IS true? What if this saying is meant to be taken literally? That it is hard for the rich to enter heaven—very hard—in fact you might even say, impossible.
What if wealth really IS a barrier to eternal life? What if God is truly calling us to give up everything we own? What if Mother Teresa and St. Francis and Pope Gregory the Great and that weird kid in third grade who gave his GI Joes to the mission family--had it right all along?
Where does that leave the rest of us?
Maybe it leaves us clearing our throats and fingering the loose change in our pockets. Maybe it leaves us with the realization that scripture is truly sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow.
Maybe it forces us to look deep into our own culture and choices. Maybe it reminds us that God’s view of poverty and wealth is not our own—that the Gospel message looks quite different when it’s viewed from the bottom up rather than from the top down.
In our town, even the poorest among us are wealthy in the eyes of the world. In our town, most of us are 82 times better off than the poorest of the world’s poor. But we often don’t appreciate this, since we usually gauge our wealth by looking up at the few who have more.
But still, even if we agree in principle, is Jesus really asking us to give it all up? Everything? Money, home, children, security?
I don’t even pretend to know, and like most Christians, I struggle to reconcile my love of “things” with my love for God. But wrestling with this passage reminds me that the Bible talks more often about the evil of poverty than the sin of adultery. That God seems to take an inordinate interest in those who are fragile; who live in the margins; who struggle alone. That for Jesus, feeding the hungry trumps the Sabbath law. And that in the eyes of the Lord, the goods of the world are for all to enjoy.
Maybe in this passage, Jesus really WAS speaking in hyperbole, overstating the case to make his point. Maybe Jesus challenged the rich young man in this particular way because money was his Achilles heel, his weakness, his idol, his secret god.
Maybe Jesus doesn’t really want us to give it all away—to dump our money and our stock options and our snowblower and our GI Joes out onto the front lawn for any passerby to take. I just don’t know—but wrestling with these difficult stories reminds us of an important truth; that we spend a lot of time and energy trying to tame the call of God. To domesticate it. Dilute it. Turn it from something wild and raw, and unexpected into something bland and safe.
Annie Dillard in “Teaching a Stone to Talk” writes this about faith: Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews."
The story of the rich young ruler reminds us that if the Gospel no longer has the power to astonish us, frighten us anger us or challenge us—It may be that we are no longer really listening. Or maybe we have heard the message so often that its rough edges are worn smooth and the radical surprise has dulled.
HG Wells said, “there is either something mad about the Christian message, or else our hearts are still too small to comprehend it.” Jesus invited the rich young ruler into a world where the astonishing becomes ordinary and the ordinary becomes sacred.
Jesus invited him, and all of us, to enlarge our hearts. To create a space for him. To be surprised by grace. To take a risk. To be transformed. If we have the courage to accept, maybe then, the stories of camels and needles and rich young men, won’t cause us to search for a loophole an escape hatch, some fine print, or a way out, but rather, a way in.
© Susan Fleming McGurgan