Eye of a Needle
October 14, 2012
(Amos 5,6,7,10-15; Hebrews 4, 12-16; Mark 10,17-31) (Proper 23 Yr B)
An ordained colleague was telling me recently about the conversations he had been having with the two churches he was responsible for, about where their Harvest gifts would go. The plan was for them to support the local Food Bank. One church is situated in a prosperous area. The congregation there gives little in proportion to their income, normally, and they didn’t think food banks were necessary: ‘No-one is in that much need in this country,’ they said.
The other church serves an area of social housing. They have little money but are generous with what they have. They support the food bank because they know it is necessary – some of them have had to use it.
Jesus said: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God’. The prophet Amos spoke words of judgement against those who trample on the poor and push aside the needy. And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews warns us that the Word of God is not just theory, but is living and active, and reveals all to the One before whom we are all being judged.
The contemporary church seems to outsiders to spend an awful lot of its time talking about sex, marriage, divorce and sexuality; it doesn’t appear to spend as much time talking about the use of money. Yet, while there are comparatively few verses in the Bible which talk about sexual morals and marital relationships, it has been estimated that there are anything between 2000 and 2500 that talk about wealth and money. It would seem from that statistic alone, that how we deal with money is more relevant to our life in the Kingdom of God than our sexual morality, important though that is.
Some of these Bible verses state the commonly held belief that earthly riches were a sign of God’s favour. That’s a thread that runs through the Old Testament, especially the Deuteronomic history, and is still current today in those churches that preach a ‘Prosperity Gospel’, which says if you give your money to the church (or more often, to a particular evangelist) you will find favour with God, and he will give back to you one hundred fold. You can even find justification for that view in part of today’s Gospel reading.
But alongside that is another thread, also found in Deuteronomy, which warns that earthly riches bring responsibilities for those living within God’s covenant – responsibilities to those who have little and to those who are unprotected and economically vulnerable, like widows and orphans, and the landless poor. If you claim to be part of God’s holy favoured people, if you live under the covenant, you are obliged to share its benefits fairly.
The prophet Amos pronounced judgement on the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century. They were living in a time of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed some of them to expand their landholdings at the expense of poorer people, and to build themselves houses of stone. It was an unequal society, in which the rich held all the cards and used their wealth to enrich themselves further, cheating the weak by perverting the justice system, taking bribes, and overtaxing the landless poor. Their wealth had blinded them to the needs of their fellow Israelites and hardened their hearts. This was causing the breakdown of society, as it became divided into the haves and the have-nots. The punishment Amos decreed in God’s name, was that the nation would be defeated by a foreign army, its leading citizens deported, so that they would no longer enjoy their prosperity, and their land would be taken over by strangers; and that is precisely what happened when the Assyrians invaded and occupied Israel and deported its aristocracy in 722BC.
The Mark passages is made up of four separate sections: the story of the rich young man, sayings about wealth, promises of future good fortune to faithful disciples, and the saying about the first shall be last, which is found several times in different contexts in the Gospels.
The story about the rich young man is likely to be more challenging to us than it was to the disciples, or to the people of Mark’s community. Not many of them, we understand from Acts and the epistles, were well off or influential. But we live in one of the wealthy nations of the world, and, however limited our income, however little property we own, we are still far wealthier than the vast majority of the world’s population. I read this morning that around a billion people woke up hungry this morning, not knowing where their next meal would come from. That’s more than the population of the US, Canada and the EU combined.
We are the rich young man. How does his story challenge us?
His question was asked as Jesus and the disciples travelled on the way to Jerusalem. Perhaps that is just an insignificant detail; but perhaps it indicates that this is actually a story about how we follow the Way of Jesus. The same word (odos) is used for both, and it was as “the way” that the first disciples described their faith.
The young man begins by flattering Jesus, by calling him ‘good teacher’. Wealth is always useful for gaining access to people of influence, for buying attention. But as James pointed out in the reading we heard from his letter a few weeks ago, it is how wealthy Christians speak and act towards the poorest members of their fellowship that is the real test of their commitment to Kingdom values. How do we rate ourselves against that standard?
Jesus’s reply turns the focus away from himself, and points the young man towards God and the divine.
He goes on to remind his questioner about the commandments; not all of them, but the six concerned with relationships between humans. And in an echo of the Amos passage, he changes the final commandment from ‘don’t covet’ to ‘don’t defraud’, recognising that the desire for wealth so often leads to criminal activity against the vulnerable.
The young man proudly boasts that he hasn’t broken any of these. We would probably say exactly the same – but Jesus makes clear, that is not enough to meet Kingdom standards and issues the young man a devastating challenge: “O.K. If you really want to be part of the Kingdom life, give it all away and live as I do”.
The story tells us that the man went away shocked, because he was very rich; and we don’t know how the story ends. Mark tells us that Jesus issued his challenge in love, to help the young man to find his true path in life, to recall him to true covenant and Kingdom values. The story leaves open the possibility that, after the initial shock, the man in question did change his values and his way of life. We don’t know, and it is not up to us to judge. Jesus said that with God, even the most unlikely change of heart is possible.
But we do have to ask ourselves, how would we measure up in that scale of things?
Jesus is probably not meaning anyone to take his answer literally, just as he didn’t really expect us to cut off our hands or tear out our eyes if they lead us in to doing wrong. He is using exaggeration to shock us into considering what our basic values are, and whether they measure up to life under the sovereignty of God. Because this is not talking about what happens to us after we die; we are not supposed to live this life with our eye on the next.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a present reality!
It’s about how we live now, how we put into practice the petition in the Lord’s Prayer which asks “Your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven”. In particular it asks us how we view our wealth. Is it something we regard as a gift to be shared with others, and to be used for the enhancement of other people’s lives as well as our own? Or is wealth our true security, to be clutched to ourselves, to be increased no matter who we trample on as we do so, to be preserved for us and for our heirs?
Our world is full of poor people. Poor in monetary terms, without food or clean water or secure homes or proper sanitation; poor in terms of security, subject to warring factions, or climate change, or natural disasters or corrupt legal systems; poor in educational terms, without access to education or opportunities to use the education they have; or poor in emotional terms, lonely, frightened, confused or in the grip of addiction.
In relation to them, we are wealthy in all those aspects; and our wealth can so easily blind us to their needs, and to the truth that they are our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom, and through Jesus, God asks us to share our wealth with them. Wealth is not a bad thing in itself; it is bad when it functions in a way that insulates us from the realities others live with and blocks our empathy for those who lack what we have been given.
We don’t have to give away everything. We don’t even have to give away all our financial resources. We do have to use it not just for ourselves and our own comfort and security, but to advance the comfort and security of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We can give time and sympathy and friendship as well as money. We can stand alongside those who are voiceless, and use our position and our access to communications to be advocates for change. We can be for those who are poor what Jesus was for us according to Hebrews “one who sympathises with our weakness”.
The thing that prevents some of the rich from living in the Kingdom is not their wealth, but the way they use it. The encounter between Jesus and the rich young man challenges us to decide how we will use the wealth we have – for the common good, or to trample on the poor.
A final image to take away with you. Jesus illustrates the problem by using what was probably a well known saying of the time, about the impossibility of pushing a camel through the eye of a needle. Its a lovely image and a striking one. One interpretation of it says the eye was not a literal one, but a narrow gate in a city wall. I understand that such a gate is pointed out to tourists in Jerusalem. But I feel that spoils the humour, and diminishes the impact of the saying.
But I also read in Morna Hooker’s commentary on Mark, that it is possible that the word ‘camel’ (camēlon) was a mistranscription of the word camĭlon, which means rope.
At first I thought that too would spoil the joke, but then I thought it could provide a good illustration of the point the story was trying to make. If you try to push a rope through the eye of a needle, it won’t go. It’s like a rich person whose wealth ties him or her up in their own interests. But if you unravel it, and push the individual strands through one by one, it will go. It’s like a rich person who is not bound by their wealth but is prepared to unravel it and share it.
So which are we? A camel or a tightly bound rope, which will never get us through the eye of a needle into KIngdom life?
Or the individual threads of a rope unravelled, shared between many, so that all can go into the Kingdom through the eye of the needle of God’s sharp word?