[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church,
October 14, 2018]
Today’s Gospel made me think of that great moment in The Four Musketeers when Charlton Heston—as the villainous Cradinal Richelieu—tells his henchman Rochefort, “I love you, my son—even when you fail.”
Ok—you may not see how that applies, but we’ll get there. Or I’ll just slip out the back door.
The first thing I have to remind you is this:
Don’t let familiarity breed content. Not contempt, content. Just because you’ve heard it over and over again, shouldn’t make it easy.
Today’s Gospel is as tough as it gets, as counter-cultural as you can imagine, not just in Jesus’s time but in our own.
“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."
Think about it, hear it fresh—and understand that he means it. He’s not kidding. How do we know this? The shock of the disciples. They “were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’" And, even though Jesus’s answer brings some reassurance, it isn’t by diminishing the seriousness of what he has just said. Rather, he says to them that “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
This encounter of Jesus with the young man—traditionally, he was called the “Rich Young Ruler,” suggesting that he enjoyed a position not just of wealth but of power—is one that Christians have long tried to water down, to soften.
A rather charming story was invented, dating to at least the 15th Century, possibly as early as the 9th, which explains that the “Needle’s Eye” was the name of a gate in Jerusalem, and that a camel loaded down with its owner’s many possessions could not get through the gate. No, the owner would have to remove a bag or two, and leave them –for the poor, in some tellings, or just remove them all, and then reload the poor beast after guiding it through the gate in others.
This fable, which you can find used in biblical commentaries, in sermons across denominational lines (I won’t cite any, because there are far too many to single out just one or two of those who have fallen into the trap), was known to be false as long ago as the 19th Century.
Sources from The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, [Brown, Fitzmeyer & Murphy, 1990) at 618] to Vincent Taylor’s Gospel According to Mark, agree with the Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley, that there was no such gate.
Oh, there’s one now, if you go to Jerusalem. Of course the City was razed by the Romans in 70 AD, so the City was rebuilt by the Cusaders when they took Jerusalem. They added a Needle’s Eye Gate then, which means they went to a lot of trouble to convince themselves that it wasn’t that hard for the rich to get to heaven.
The medieval roots of the fable disprove Nibley’s almost too perfect suggestion this gate idea was “invented by an obliging nineteenth-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation.”
Which could have been describing the St. Barts of his time. It may even apply to our own time.
In fact, the 19th Century clergy debated the topic vigorously, with the Rev. Edmund Tew rather neatly dismissing the notion of such an ancient gate as it “falls short in one important desideratum, the support of any authority which recommends itself to the acceptance of those most competent to form a true and impartial estimate of its worth.”
Which is a very oblique, proper Victorian way of saying “They made it up.”
In the same exchange, he rejects the notion that the camel isn’t an error for the ancient Greek term for “cable”, which at least you could try to find a bigger eye to pass it through, say, tethering a boat to an eyehook. But I trust Reverend Tew; he’s pretty thorough.
So, no. We are stuck with an actual camel and an ordinary sewing needle. What can we do with them?
Well, there’s one last way to try to escape—maybe we can treat the story as being one of the stories attributed to Jesus for which the evidence is thin.
Trying to know when the Gospel of the day is closest to the Jesus of history is not an easy thing to do. John P. Meier, a Catholic priest who has written five volumes—so far—trying to do just that--and is pretty much the gold standard on the subject-- gives us several criteria that suggest a story or saying in the Gospel is more likely to be authentic.
By all of Meier’s criteria, we are looking at what is very likely an authentic story of Jesus—it appears in all of the synoptic gospels, today in chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, in Chapter 19 of Matthew, and in Chapter 18 of Luke, so it passes the multiple source test.
Jesus’s indictment of the wealthy would certainly help get him into trouble with the authorities, especially in an imperial domination system, in which the religious and Temple authorities were profiting from their collaboration. So that’s another test passed—it helps explain why the authorities wanted to kill Jesus.
It’s consistent with a plethora of other scriptural passages about money. The Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament have 15 separate conemnations of usiry—lending money out at any amount of interest, nit just an unreasonable rate, which is the biblical definition. In the Beatitudes as described in Luke’s Gospel, after the blessings on the poor are pronounced, Jesus warns the rich, the well-fed, and those who laugh, that they have received their comfort now, and will not receive the Kingdom.
And it certainly fits what Meier calls the criteria of embarrassment and of discontinuity—far from claiming the titles attributed in the Gospels, titles like Lord, Son of Man, Son of God, or Christ, Jesus will not even let the rich young man call him good.
Let’s think about that for a second. When the rich young man approaches him, he addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Jesus brings him up short: “Why do you call me good? There is no one who is good but God.”
So what are we to do with this teaching, in such close proximity to Jesus’s refusal to be called “good”?
Is there no way to come to terms with this difficult gospel?
Maybe. Maybe if we start by asking the question the other way around. Instead of trying to domesticate this gospel, and make it easier, let’s try admitting that it’s uncomfortable. In fact, it’s impossible.
This is a pretty familiar scene in the Gospels, actually. Every time some well-meaning type goes to Jesus for affirmation, it goes down this way: Jesus praises what they’re doing right, and then ups the ante. Hey, Jesus, someone will say to him, I’m following the law, and then he’ll tell them that if they have felt lust, it’s just as if they’ve committed adultery, and broken the law.
The rich young man seems on pretty solid footing at first—he knows and has kept all of the commandments.
And then Jesus puts his finger on the weak spot: Jesus “loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’"
And when the rich young man hears this, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
And from there, Jesus castigates the rich—who were considered the favorites of God in traditional Judaism—look at Job both before and after Satan’s bet with God. Today we also tend to venerate the rich and the famous, to equate wealth and good fortune with virtue.
But Jesus says not once but twice how hard it will be for them to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, as hard as it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
The heresy of the Prosperity Gospel brushes aside Jesus’s words to valorize wealth as a sign of God’s favor, a linkage that Max Weber traced Max Weber traced back to Calvinism and the insecurity it instilled in believers who were left of wondering if they were among those lost forever or among the elect—the saved. Success in their calling became a way of validating their faith. We look to money for reassurance, for security, even though Jesus reminds us in the parable of the foolish rich man who is plotting how to enjoy his wealth, while his life will be required of him that very day, that we can try to protect ourselves from life’s hardships with our money and possessions—but they will not save us from grief, or death.
So what is it about wealth that makes it especially dangerous? Maybe that very sense of security, that temptation that we stand right with God—or worse, do not even need God, because we are cushioned by wealth and the comforts it can bring us.
It’s one form of idolatry, isn’t it? Finding something other than God to worship—that is, to honor at the fire of our hearts. Politics, sex, the quest for increased physical fitness—anything can become an idol, even things that are good in themselves, if they become ways to wall us off from our own need for God.
And we tend to want to worship idols, like the Israelites and the Golden Calf, and the Baals, and all their “whoring after idols” as the Hebrew Scriptures remind us again, and again. Why?
Maybe because idols don’t ask anything from us but our worship. But God asks more. God wants us to be in loving relationship with each other, as well as with God.
When the rich young man leaves sorrowing at the thought of losing his possessions, the disciples, stunned at the notion that the Kingdom may be inaccessible to the wealthy, the privileged, exclaim: Then who can be saved? Jesus answers, “With men, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
In other words, we can’t solve this; only God can.
Like Jesus, maybe we should not worry about being called good, and focus instead on doing the good works we are called to. And not presume to think that those works make us good, since only God is good.
In my training as a deacon, I served for an academic year—only one day a week—on the chaplaincy staff at New York Presbyterian Hospital. A large part of my days there was going from room to room on my assigned floor or floors, introducing myself as part of the pastoral care team. We were strictly told that when people declined our company, we had to accept it with good grace.
And lots of people did just that—most kindly, some gruffly, a very few with annoyance or even anger. Lots with comments about why they didn't have any interest. But they all perked up just a little bit in asking me to leave.
After a few days, I realized that patients had almost no control over who came into their rooms and what they did there, and I realized that giving them that control was one gift I had to offer. So I took to introducing myself as “the one person you can throw out.” And once I did that, even those who took me up on it, usually did so with a smile.
And that offer to be of service, or to be a companion with no strings attached, was the opposite of idolatry—it wasn’t about me at all. I just took “no” for an answer, and learned not to mind if the barrage of refusals made me look a bit ridiculous. The smiles more than made up for it.
And maybe that is our answer. To just show up and do our part. Answer the call. Try not to be afraid of rejection. Open our hearts to being hurt. Don’t mind looking a little ridiculous.
Because we’re not good. Only God is good, and that’s just fine.
There’s a reason that the Lord’s Prayer has us ask God to forgive us our sins, while reminding us to forgive those who have sinned against us. So that we can remember to act as lovingly as we can, and trust God—who’s a much better employer than Cardinal Richelieu—to love us—even when we fail.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.