“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 heaven.”
That seems kind of harsh, doesn’t it? But a popular interpretation of this saying of Jesus takes the edge off. The image here is of a city gate that is closed for the evening. To allow people to still enter and exit the city, when the gate is closed, a doorway is cut into the city gate. That door is called “the eye of the needle.” And it is even possible to have a camel come through “the eye of the needle” but first everything the camel is bearing must be removed and the camel must pass through on its knees. So Jesus is really saying to enter the kingdom of God we must unburdened and humble and ourselves.
That certainly makes for a more comfortable interpretation of Jesus’ sayings but the central problem with that interpretation is that it did not appear until about 1000 years after Jesus said it. Perhaps centuries later the door of the city gate was named “the eye of the needle” but not so during Jesus’ time.
So what was Jesus saying when He said that it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? Here is what I think that He was saying. I think that He was saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
If that is what Jesus is truly saying then it is one of the few times that you can celebrate not being rich. We can alter Tevia’s song and sing, “Thank God I’m not a rich man, Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.”
But here are the facts. If you own a car then you are in the top 8% of the world’s richest people. If you make $35,000 per year you are in the top 1%. In a world where children by the hundreds of thousands do not own one single pair of shoes, we Americans will spend $7.4 BILLION on Halloween this month. $300 million of that will be for costumes for our pets! Guilty! So no matter how we may feel about our personal finances, compared to the rest of the world we are rich and because we are rich, Jesus is talking about us.
Is Jesus saying here that if we want to go to heaven then we have to give everything away? No that is not what He is saying. First He did not intend this to be a universal law. This young man is the only one whom Jesus challenged in this manner. The issue is that there must be nothing, and I mean nothing, more important to us than entering the kingdom of God. In this case it is money, you will recall that in other cases people were challenged to leave family. Why does Jesus do this? He does this because if there is something more important to us than God and His kingdom then in reality it is an idol. If we have idols that makes us idolaters and St. Paul tells us that idolaters cannot enter the kingdom. As God in the flesh Jesus knew what was in the heart of every man and He was able to discern that this man’s idol was money so He addressed it to make him free.
There are two indicators in this story about the condition of this man’s heart that would be remedied by such a radical call to sell it all and give to the poor.
The first is when the young man answers Jesus’ litany about keeping the commandments. Let me ask you a question. If Jesus were to rattle off that list to you, would you be able to say as he did, “No problem, I’ve kept all those?” I wouldn’t be able to say that especially knowing that if I have done it in my heart then I have broken the law. So it seems that this fellow has a problem with pride and becoming totally depended on God would be an excellent way to humble himself.
The second indication of the condition of this man’s heart is a clue dropped by Jesus when he lists the commandments. “You shall not murder.” Check. “You shall not commit adultery.” Check. You shall not steal.” Check. “You shall not bear false witness.” Check. “You shall not defraud.” What? Wait a minute! That’s not in the 10 Commandments! It is a law given in Leviticus but that is not in the Big Ten. Therefore I suggest to you that Jesus slipped that one in precisely because that was what the man had been doing. It may even be the reason he was so rich. And if he became rich by defrauding others how appropriate would his penance be but to sell all of his ill-gotten gains and give it to the poor. That would be the penance I would assign if I had heard this man’s confession.
Allow me to stop and make a clarification. We must not come away from the Scriptures thinking that God is opposed to the rich or the well off. After all, Jesus was buried in a rich man’s tomb who was one of Jesus’ followers. Jesus is not mad at the rich but He does challenge the rich first to consider how they became rich and second what priority they place upon their riches. And let me say it again, by the standards of the rest of the world most if not all of us are rich.
Jesus’ challenge to the man not to defraud is a challenge to consider how the rich become rich. It is difficult for us to imagine as Americans but in many parts of the world about the only way to become rich is by defrauding others, or by oppressing the poor or by doing something illegal. And it was this way in biblical days. For example tax collectors like Zacheaus become rich by essentially stealing from the poor and that is why he offered to give back twice what he had taken.
We can apply Jesus’ challenge to our lives today by being certain that our financial gain is through ethical means. There are businesses that thrive by taking advantage of the poor and I don’t think that a follower of Jesus should have any part of them. For example The Center for Responsible Lending in North Carolina did a study and found that the average loan for low income families is $350 and 25% of these families ended up paying $781 in fees by the time that they paid back the loan. That is called predatory lending and although legal it is immoral.
Another example of ill gotten gains is the CEO of a drug company that recently jacked up the price of a 62 year old medicine that is used by AIDS patients by 5,000%. 5,000%! Again it may be legal for him to do this but if he were a follower of Christ he should be asking if it is ethical and that would be difficult to defend. So if we seek to enter the kingdom we need to not defraud, we need to be certain that our gains are through ethical means.
But secondly we need to be cautious about the priority of riches in our lives. Jesus said that we cannot serve two Masters. God and money both cannot be our priority. That is why the rich man had to chose.
In his book The Good and Beautiful Life, Dr. James Bryan Smith has a chapter entitles Learning to Live without Avarice. In this powerful chapter he points out that the false narrative of materialism is that it will make us “feel secure, powerful, successful and happy.” (p. 154). And he goes on to say that behind that false narrative is another false narrative that says, “You are all alone- so either save like a miser or spend like the prodigal. It is fueled by fear, either that we are not valuable without possessions or that we need to save all we can to protect our future.”
With these narratives avarice takes over and when it does we are not walking in the kingdom. And the problem with avarice is that it is insatiable. Dr. Smith tells of a reporter interviewing John D. Rockefeller when he was one of the wealthiest men in the world. He told the reporter that he was not yet happy or satisfied so the reporter asked how much money it would take to make him happy. Rockefeller said, “Just a little bit more.”
We defend ourselves from insatiable avarice by following Jesus’ command to make the kingdom our priority. We are to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. If we do this, God who knows our needs will meet them. It is not an accident that this story of the rich young ruler is immediately preceded by the story of Jesus taking a child into His arms and saying that we must enter the kingdom of God like a child. We can be like a child and put our trust in God, or we can be like this young man and trust in riches, but we can’t do both and expect to inherit the kingdom.
All that materialism promises us; security, power, happiness, is to be found in God. That is why Jesus calls us are to store up riches in heaven where neither moth nor rust can destroy nor thieves break in and steal. It is embarrassing for me to think back on how many times I have tried to store up riches on earth only to discover that today’s treasures are tomorrow’s trash.
While I don’t agree with everything Rick Warren teaches he gained my respect when his book on A Purpose Driven Life became a runaway best seller. He took the proceeds and paid back all of the salary that his church had given him. Additionally he figured out a way to live on what he called the reverse tithe, that is he began living on 10% of his income and gave away 90% to advance the kingdom. Evidently he figured out that while you can’t take it with you, you can send it on ahead.
So there are some lessons to be learned from this exchange between Jesus and the rich young ruler for all of us rich folks, but I want to pull the camera back so that we can see the larger and even more important lesson in this exchange.
Much like the Puritans in early America, the Jews believed that if you were wealthy through righteous means that it was a sure sign that you were the elect, that you were favored by God. When you look back at the heroes of the faith it is easy to see how they came to that conclusion. Look how God prospered Abraham and Jacob and David and Solomon and how God returned Job’s wealth. Thus if you are rich it is because God has blessed you and if you are poor it is because God has cursed you.
With that mindset, when they heard Jesus say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, His listeners would have concluded therefore no one has a snowball’s chance of making it. “If the rich guy isn’t going to enter the kingdom then none of us will.” And that conclusion is exactly right. None of us are going to make it, at least not by our own efforts. There is no hope of making it by our attempts at goodness or by seeking the righteousness of the Pharisees or by amassing great wealth. It is impossible for us to enter the kingdom by our efforts but it is possible for God, because all things are possible for God.
We enter the kingdom only through Jesus who has made the way for us. When on the cross He said, “It is finished” not only did it indicate that He was about to give up the Ghost but also that there was nothing else that needed to be done for Him to make atonement for the sins of the world. So we can spend our lives trying to get the camel through the eye of the needle or we can call out for God’s mercy and through Christ have the gates of heaven opened to us. The former is a lot of impossible work. The latter is nothing but grace. So choose grace my friends, chose grace. Amen.