Sermon given at St. John the Evangelist, Wick, 14th October 2018
“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.”
I wonder if you’ve heard that the ‘eye of the needle’ refers to a gate in Jerusalem? Or that camels could not pass through it when loaded?
There’s no evidence that this gate ever existed, so where does this saying originate? Like other sayings, such as taking the tree out of one’s own eye before removing the speck in someone else’s, it’s a figure of speech that implies the impossible.
So the eye of the needle and a camel are simply to create an outrageous contrast in juxtaposition to the passage, or the process we think of, in entering the kingdom of God. Of course, we have a God for whom the impossible, as rationally thought of in human terms, is possible.
Wealth and prosperity in the eyes of the Jews at the time of Jesus was a sign of great blessing by God on the rich. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Both the rich man left grieving when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, and the disciples themselves did not understand why Jesus would say this. In their eyes, Jesus was in effect turning this belief upside down.
But like many stories from the Hebrew and Aramaic, which are then translated into Greek, some of the nuances are lost in translation. We’ve already had presented to us one idiom – that of the eye of the needle and the camel. We are then left to wonder about whether we’re to sell everything we own and give it to the poor. That would be a very literal interpretation, granted, but I don’t think that’s where we’re being led.
Like any person who has many possessions, there is always a temptation to pride oneself on what one has. A way of amassing friends, followers, self-righteousness, and self-justification. In many of the Bible stories we know, this wealth might be illustrated through grain stored in many barns, or great flocks of sheep, goats and cattle.
If it’s impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle and it’s impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, then who goes to heaven? Perhaps it is those for whom pride is not their stumbling block? Or maybe it is those who are comfortable enough with what they have that they feel able and free to give away the rest? Or those who realise that the commandments are not a rigid set of laws but are a set of guidelines given by a wise and discerning God?
What then did the rich man lack? Humility? Compassion? Even if he had sold his belongings and given the money to the poor, would he have been able to enter the kingdom of heaven? Decades of Christian teaching have turned this story into what might be thought of as a nugget of gold. A piece of wisdom to take away and cherish. But unfortunately, I think it’s a piece of fool’s gold. It’s not real gold.
“If you sell everything, and give it to the poor, you will enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s very formulaic, isn’t it? Black and white. If you do this, you will inherit eternal life. But if that rich man sells all he has, while gritting his teeth and grieving that all his possessions are being sold, then he’s no better off than when he had all his possessions, to begin with. He might find joy and compassion on the way, thus able to follow Jesus, or he might end up bitter and sad.
I think that the real gold in this story is to understand that it’s the attitude to one’s belongings that will make the difference between how a rich person might conceive that they might enter the kingdom of God. By being humble, and being generous enough to regularly give away to those less well off, there is less temptation to be self-righteous or to withhold alms for the poor.
This is what the prophet Amos refers to in our first reading. “Seek the Lord and live. Seek good, that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.” The passage from Hebrews describes the word of God as being sharper than any two-edged sword. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
By seeking God, our focus is not on our wealth, our possessions or money. By approaching him with humility we open our hearts just a crack to the possibility of who God is. And that is all that God requires. A crack the size of the eye of a needle, and all of who God is, and all of what God represents will pour into our lives. Through that miniscule opening, we should enter into the holiness of God’s presence. We receive salvation not through our own means, or by selling anything we own, but through faith and humility, and allowing God to enter our lives.
Therefore, the impossibility illustrated in this story becomes possible, when we realise that there is nothing that we can physically do to save ourselves. If we turn our understanding upside down, by allowing God that moment of acquiescence or submission, that recognition that our very being depends on Him, we open ourselves to his grace. Here we have the contrast of ourselves as being so ludicrously small in comparison to God being infinitesimally big.
It is by the grace of God that we enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, as we think of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and as we move into the next part of our worship, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.