“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
It’s just so hard to visualize, this metaphor of a camel going through the eye of a needle. While it’s easily the most memorable of Jesus’ illustrations, it’s also one that we shy away from because, well, we’re not sure what to do with it.
Scholars have at various times tried to reign it in a bit, commenting the translation of “Camel” as being similar to the word for “rope,” or searching for metaphors of city gates with names like “eye of needle” or other literary references to make sense of this odd pairing.
None of those are credible.
No, it is in fact the absurdity of the image that is compelling, and the impossibility and improbability of it that is its very the point.
But then, there are more improbabilities in this story than the one with the camel and the needle.
How about we start with the first improbability, that a rich man would come to Jesus and kneel?
Even Jesus seems to note there is something amiss here, “Why do you call me good?”
There is something about the very beginning of this story that doesn’t quite pass the “smell test” — unless you see it from the point of view of “further acquisition.”
“As he (Jesus) was setting out on a journey, a rich man ran up to him and asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”
There is the request.
How do I get my hands on that? It’s a “drive by request” to begin with, while Jesus is passing by, heading out on a journey somewhere else, the rich man makes a quick stop. It’s also a request that is made from a privileged position, — he speaks of it as a “right”, an “inheritance.” It is as if the rich man is saying “surely I’ve got enough frequent flyer miles and a high enough credit score to put me in the position to get this perk before you move along?”
Jesus is not having any of that.
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” – Which is a sneaky way of asking the rich man if he believes that Jesus is indeed God, and if he truly believes that he kneels before God, why would he ask such a question? If you knew you were in the presence of God, would you not rather ask that entrance to the Kingdom be granted to you, rather than how you might “get it?”
Is it probable that this rich man is looking at Jesus as God, or is it more probable that he’s looking at Jesus as a conduit to get what he wants?
The second improbability shows up next, which is revealed in the answer the rich man gives to Jesus’ question, “You know the commandments….”
“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth…” Just how probable is that? Possible even?
While the Pharisees emphasized adherence to the 617 laws that helped you keep the commandments, even they would be reticent to say that they had “kept them all since their youth.”
Who can imagine (for instance) any teenager not breathing a curse under his breath from time to time about their parents and what they would or would not let them do?
Great wealth is almost always acquired at someone else’s expense. So then, are we to believe that this rich man never engaged in any cut-throat business tactics? That he never took advantage of competitor’s weaknesses, or leveraged information to gain the upper hand in a business deal?
Can we imagine that he never spoke ill of any others in authority, never exerted his own will to grasp and get hold of someone else’s goods?
That he never stretched the truth in turning a business deal, always used fair weights and scales, never took advantage of others. And yet, amassed great wealth??
How probable is that?
Yes, we all know that the ranks of robber barons, business venture capitalists, and real estate moguls are just packed with good, hard working, honest folks who have always kept all of the commandments, even from their youth.
Or at least, always kept them to their own advantage.
You catch my drift here.
See, I think one of the difficulties in understanding this story is that we are all too ready to give this rich young man a break and feel sorry for him, because in so many ways we identify with him.
We see him come to Jesus with his question, and our hearts sort of melt. “Isn’t he noble for coming to the good teacher…” We can imagine ourselves doing the same.
We listen to his pious words and think, “my what a good person this is, really. Always kept the commandments, earnest in his desires for eternal life.”
We even think maybe Jesus is just a little too hard on him with that sharp tone of voice, “Why do you call me good?”
C’mon Jesus, give the poor guy a break, he’s trying here…as are we all… trying to live up to the call, and to figure out how best to follow.
And it really breaks apart when he gets his answer, and that “look of love” from Jesus, who then tells the rich man straight up what this is going to take.
We all want that “look of love” from Jesus, that acknowledgement that we’re close, just on the cusp of figuring it out, getting our hearts desire from God.
“You lack one thing….” Jesus says.
Let me pause here, and do a little speculation with you. I wonder how that response must have struck the ears of the rich man in that moment?
Was it as a relief? “What, I only have to get one more thing?” One more thing after a
life of speculating and grasping and fretting and accumulating?
Did it strike him as another worthy challenge? “What do I have to do to get my hands on that one, last perfect piece?”
Was it perhaps an insult? “What, there’s something I don’t already have?”
How did the rich man hear just that part of Jesus’ response, before he went on, I wonder?
How do you hear it?
We will never know of course, because Jesus was quick to lay out the final
“Sell all your possessions, give alms to the poor, and come follow me.”
We know how that comment hits our ears. It hits them the same way it apparently hit his. We squirm and chafe at it and try to find ways around it.
It’s like … well the whole “Camel through the eye of a needle” thing… Jesus can’t be serious, can he?
“Surely Jesus didn’t really mean all.
Maybe he’s just talking about “metaphorically” giving up everything, a spiritualizing of it. Like Peter says later, “Lord, we’ve given up everything…”
Maybe Jesus had in mind just recent possessions, or excess possessions, or re-evaluating personal wealth and riches, with never an expectation to really sell.. or give.
And so, we go off on our own little expedition to find a way around the clear command of Jesus. We are off looking for gates called “eye of the needle” or different translations of “camel” to make the call of Jesus seem more plausible, more probable.
“Oh, that must be what he meant…”
But see, here’s the thing. Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God again, and the Kingdom of God always works differently from the way our earthly minds work. It’s values are different, what it calls important is different. It is always something that stands in stark contrast to the kingdom of this world that we strive to set up and live in.
In the Kingdom of God the meek are blessed and the rich are sent away empty.
In the Kingdom of God those who mourn find joy, and the comfortable are afflicted.
In the Kingdom of God the Lazarus’s found on our doorstep receive comfort in the bosom and Abraham, and the rich man who walked over them him daily, ignoring their suffering, end up in the fires of eternal torment.
This is the moment when we no longer want to identify with the rich man, and it is always at the “too late” moment that we come to the realization, or come to our senses.
It’s hard, because we sincerely cannot visualize that the Kingdom of God could be in our midst, as a free gift and not a future inheritance, if we would but do what Jesus commands.
There is more than enough for all, but for all to have enough, I must relinquish my excess.
We have 12 years to address global climate change, but to do so we would have to relinquish our dependence on fossil fuels, and our lifestyles, and our investments… and to do so would be unimaginable, improbable beyond belief. Like putting a camel through the eye of a needle.
Surely there must be another way….
There is a way to address health care for all, but to do so would require dismantling the current for-profit system of health care, and all of the layers of profit and delivery, and yes, it would be “socialized” and those who can walk in and receive care any time now at their leisure would have to join a que and wait their turn, and it would be expensive to the nation. We look at that and it appears to us as likely as a camel going through the eye of a needle.
“Impossible!” We scream.
And then the caveat comes.
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
But that of course, means relinquishing what we have built for ourselves, and faced with that, we are once again right there with the rich man. Shocked, grieving, and all to ready to walk away because what we have in our hands, is really great.
How hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! Jesus is right in his saying here, because entering God’s kingdom always entails the dismantling of our own little empires.
That is hard for us to do.
That is unimaginable. Camel through the eye of a needle kind of stuff.
So, thanks be to God, who looks at us in love and is not content with us just walking away.
Thanks be to God who in Jesus comes to walk with us. He walks with us as we are grieving and shocked at his command, looking at us in love.
Jesus leads us both to the way of a cross, (where we do eventually learn to let go of our many things, maybe everything) and in the way of the servant, where it is that we glimpse at last the promised Kingdom of God.
Is this possible, that Jesus would be willing to walk with us, work with us both when we so deeply disappoint and also as we have occasionally have little sparks of obedience and trust?
Well with God, all things are possible. Even the impossible stuff, like being loved as we are.