October 10 2021
Jesus says it would be easier “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Have you ever heard the sermon about a gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle?” It was a gate in the city that was just large enough for a camel to fit through, so long as the camel was not carrying anything on its back. I heard that one a lot growing up. It would be an elegant way to interpret our passage from St. Mark by talking about wealth, but not really talking about wealth and instead talking about a gate, if it were at all true. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest such a gate ever existed, though I cannot blame preachers for wishing it was. If you have been to the city of Jerusalem you would know it is not a city who forgets its artifacts or history, if a gate called the “eye of the needle” ever existed, we would know about it, it never did.
In the 200’s, one of the great Church Fathers, Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt, argued that this difficult passage was the result of a misspelling by a Greek Scribe, what we would call “scribal error,” and that Jesus really said it is easier for a “rope” or “cable,” (kamilos in Greek) to go through the eye of the needle, not a camel (kamelos in Greek). This tradition is so influential in Middle Eastern Christianity, that a Syrian Christian Scholar Bible from the 1930’s translated this passage, “it easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle.” Again, there is just no reason to believe that scribal error is the reason we have this difficult passage apart from wishing it were true. It is just plainly a difficult teaching.
It is made all the more difficult for us because affluent Western society, and American society in particular, tells a very different story about wealth from the story told most often in the Bible.
For as many passages as there are in Scripture which connect wealth with God’s blessing, the usual way we use Scripture to justify our wealth in the West, there are ten times more that connect wealth with exploiting the poor. We just heard the Prophet Amos, “Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.” Clearly our lectionary does want us to forget the teachings of Scripture about wealth when we interpret this story from Mark’s Gospel. If we truly embrace the imagination of Scripture and apply that lens to the way we interpret the world around us, we have to at least acknowledge that the way the Bible treats wealth is very different from the stories about wealth we tell ourselves as Americans. All of this should color our reading of the story about the rich young ruler. At the same time, we also have to acknowledge that the story of the rich young ruler is not ultimately about wealth and poverty.
The story of the Rich Young Ruler is told in all three of the synoptic Gospels (the synoptics are Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the Greek word “synoptic” means “seen through the same eyes”). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell similar stories about Jesus in similar ways, where John’s Gospel does not. In all three of the synoptic versions of this story, Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler takes place between the same two events. It has a context that helps to understand what Jesus is doing as he encounters this young man.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the scene right before Jesus encounters the rich man is Jesus’ encounter with children. In our lectionary reading from St. Mark’s Gospel last Sunday, children come to Jesus, so that Jesus can “take them in his arms, bless them, and lay hands on them.” Jesus’ openness to these children earns the rebuke of his disciples, who he in turn rebukes. Why does Jesus rebuke them? “I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Rather than treating children as a dirty, noisy nuisance standing in the way of Jesus’ ministry like his own disciples, Jesus exalts children for their ability to do what, exactly? To receive the kingdom of God.
At the end of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus tells his disciples it will be incredibly difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and this is where he makes the comparison between a camel going through the eye of a needle and people of wealth entering God’s kingdom. Once again, the disciples are amazed at Jesus, much like they were in response to his openness with children. “Who can be saved?” “With man it is impossible, but not with God.” This answer is sometimes where we stop when we interpret this story, and the reasons for stopping here are very, very good. The answer to the question of how anyone is saved, rich or poor, is ultimately the power of God. But while this is correct theologically, it still misses what the Gospels are doing here with Jesus’ encounter with the rich man, because it still misses the context.
In a classic Peter moment, Peter responds to Jesus by saying “hey, we really did that!, see, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus responds, “truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” What similarities does Jesus’ response to Peter share with Jesus’ reflections on children? The ability to receive the kingdom of God. All who follow after Jesus by abandoning all of the binds that tie the world together, wealth, family, comforts of life, are able to receive the kingdom of God, just like children, and not at all like the rich young ruler.
In other words, Jesus is not condemning wealth for its own sake and exalting poverty for its own sake. The comparison is not between wealth and poverty. Jesus compares wealth with the ability to receive the kingdom of God and the gifts of God that come with it. Wealth is contrasted with child-likeness. Wealth is contrasted with discipleship. In the kingdom of heaven the first will be last, and the last first. It will be difficult for the wealthy to receive such a kingdom.
So while it is true that it is hard, but not impossible, for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, and only possible because of God’s power, there is still more to this story than that. In the story of the rich young ruler read in proper context, we see two fundamentally different ways of approaching God. We may approach God on the basis of our achievements, or we may approach him like children. We either approach Jesus Christ as achievers, or as receivers. Is the Christian life about achieving things, even with the pious addition, “for God,” or is it simply about receiving the gifts of God? Is God a divine taskmaster, a black hole of rules and regulations that we will never measure up to, or is He a loving, gift-giving Father, who only asks that we approach Him with open hands and hearts to receive his gifts?
This young, rich man sees life with God in the first way, he wants to achieve it. He approaches Jesus like many of us do, with passion, with sincerity, with seriousness, and with respectability. He likely thought that after listing off his religious credentials enthusiastically, Jesus would say, “Gosh, you are doing an outstanding job. What are you doing right now, my lousy leadership team could use a guy like you.” He runs up to Jesus, kneels at his feet, and asks “good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” This great religious passion and energy to prove devotion and sincerity is really just summer camp faith. This is the faith of Mrs. May in a Flannery O’Connor story that I referenced last week, Greenleaf, when she looks at her lazy sons and farmhands and takes pride in the fact that “before any kind of judgment seat she would be able to say: I’ve worked, I have not wallowed.” This is the kind of faith best expressed in that old Southern Baptist phrase, “I do not dance, drink, smoke, or chew, or run around with girls who do.”
That is not Christian life. God has no interest in religion like that. Jesus is always hardest on anyone who comes to him with performative, outward displays of their seriousness as a religious person, so he provokes this young man.
“Why are you calling me good?,” only God is good. If you are serious enough about your religion to come to me like this, you clearly already know the answer to your question. Follow the commandments. And the young man says, “I always have.” I always find it shocking that Jesus does not say, “actually, I know you have not,” but continues engaging with the man on his own terms. We are either to believe that the young man is telling the truth, meaning even keeping the summary of the law is not enough to earn our way to eternal life; that Jesus is simply continuing to provoke the man though he knows that he is not telling the truth; or some combination of both.
What is most remarkable about this scene is that Jesus’ provocations and piercing questions are rooted in love for this annoying young man. Jesus can look at this overzealous religious kid with all of the answers; who actually thinks he is perfect, and on top of that is rich, with everything that means in the imagination of Scripture, and Jesus can love him. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” In all of his immature, goofy, over-the-top displays of serious religion, Jesus still loves him.
Jesus sees a human being in desperate need of grace. He is in bondage to his wealth, but beyond that he is in bondage to a way of seeing life with God as a life of achievement. So Jesus makes a penetrating demand. As if to say, “okay, I believe you about keeping the commandments, but if you are really serious about achieving your way into the kingdom of heaven, you still have to do more. Go; sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” “You can never do enough,” Jesus says. “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
I desperately wish the authors of Matthew, Mark, and Luke told us what happened to this rich young ruler. We all encounter God like this at some point in our lives, and God is never, ever through with us, even when we walk away from him perplexed and disheartened like this young man. If you grew up as this kind of a serious kid in the church, you are not all that different from an addict, you are always in recovery from an addiction to achievement, you are never free from thinking about God like this young man. So I would love to know if he ever could receive the kingdom of heaven, like a child, like someone who is not tied to their wealth and their possessions, and their achievement. I pray that he was, because I see how much I can be just like him.
If we approach Jesus Christ like the rich young ruler, we will always walk away from him like the rich young ruler. We will be discouraged, disheartened, confused, and lost. And God means for us to feel this way, he wants us to feel this way if we try to relate to Him like this, because it is the only way we can be cured of the notion that this is what life with Him looks like. We say to God, “look at all that I am doing for you, what else do I need to do to be in your presence” and it is his voice of mercy that says, “you can never do enough,” not because God wants to belittle us, but because he wants to free us from the bondage of this kind of life. God has come to us in Jesus Christ to bring us life, and he knows that a cycle of achievement will bring us death, it is God’s intention to free us from this way of living.
The lovely change in the seasons reminds us that the holidays are almost here, and I am particularly excited for the great feast of Thanksgiving. Consumerism has not completely ruined Thanksgiving yet, although the creeping tentacles of Black Friday seem to come closer to doing so each year. Thanksgiving is a great holiday, I think a great holiday for Christians in particular, because the main event is still a meal, a feast around a table with real, flesh and blood, people, just like most of what matters about the Christian life, it happens around a table.
What must we do to get to the Thanksgiving table? How do you, your little children, your aging parents, your beloved friends, earn their way around the Thanksgiving table? What must you do to get there? Hopefully, that strikes you as an odd question, and certainly not a healthy question. The answer should be, well nothing really. The bond around a holiday table is love. But this question is not all that different from the rich young man’s question offered to Jesus on bended knee with great religious sincerity, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.”
Now think about the Great Thanksgiving that we will all soon share, the Eucharist. What must I do to receive the Eucharist? We could think about communion like this, far too many Christians do, but we do not approach this feast on the basis of our achievements. To receive the Eucharist we confess that we are sinners, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor, we acknowledge that “we do not come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies.” And most importantly, we are able to receive. We are able to receive God himself given to us in Jesus Christ, “in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving,” as Thomas Cranmer beautifully describes what takes place in this holy meal.
Life with God in Jesus Christ is simply a life of receiving, not achieving. When viewed this way, we will not walk away from our encounters with Jesus discouraged, but with gratitude. The end result of such a life is simply gratitude, thanksgiving. What must we do to inherit eternal life? What must we do to get to this table? What does the liturgy say to do? Lift up your hearts. That is the only thing we have to lift up to God. Grateful hearts, and empty hands, like little children in the presence of a loving Father. Amen.