Thursday, October 29, 2015

Of camels and needles

Mark 10:17-31, 20th Sunday after Pentecost B, October 11, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

If you don’t feel convicted after listening to this lesson, then you weren’t paying attention. Jesus is speaking some hard words directly to us. Because, let’s be honest, even if you are struggling financially, you are still richer than most of those in this world. Jesus is telling us to sell everything that makes us comfortable and give the money to the poor. 

It is impossible for a rich person to enter heaven just as it is impossible for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. This statement has made people so uncomfortable over the ages that scholars, pastors, and lay people alike have explained it away. Some have spiritualized it by saying that we don’t really need to sell our possessions. Instead, we need to purge our bad thoughts! When we make this about what goes on inside the individual, then we can easily ignore our homeless brothers and sisters.

Others turned away from spiritualizing the comment. Instead, they want to find a way to get a camel through the eye of a needle. Jesus is using a metaphor to make a statement, so why not make either the camel or the needle metaphorical? For example, some Christians built a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem and called it the eye of a needle. A camel could get through this gate if it was stripped of the loads of stuff it was carrying. Therefore, we don’t need to get rid of all our wealth, just that which is a burden.

More recently, I found a political cartoon on a Google image search which quotes this verse. It shows a camel stuck halfway through a very large needle. A rich man in a top hat watching this distressed camel says, “It’s simple. We’ll buy a bigger needle!” He is hoping to buy his way out of this metaphor and thus completely subverts the point!

Of course, there is the artist who created camels so small that not one but nine camels fit into the eye of a sewing needle. For centuries, rich people have tried to prove Jesus wrong. With each of these examples, it is like we are saying, “Look Jesus! A camel can fit through the eye of a needle. Can I enter heaven now?” I can only imagine Jesus facepalming. 

We don’t get it! Jesus is telling us that it is impossible for us to enter heaven by our own good will. We can’t buy our way into heaven, although the rich man certainly wanted to. Did you notice that in his question? He said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” First, he is asking what he can do, implying that he has any authority to earn his way in. Essentially, he thinks God has some massive spreadsheet where God keeps track of everyone’s good and bad deeds. Jesus shows us this isn’t true. 

The second part of the question is specifically about money. The rich man asks about inheriting eternal life. Here, he is referencing the fact that landowners often became wealthy by exploiting the nearby poor landowners. When the poor couldn’t pay back loans tot he wealthy, then the rich could take the poor’s property. It was a way to “inherit” without being a next of kin. This rich man doesn’t just want to earn his way into eternal life, but he wants to buy his way in. How is Jesus supposed to respond to a question that is so off key?

Knowing that this man isn’t ready to hear the truth right away, he eases him in by talking through the commandments. Notice, Jesus never directly states that following the commandments is a prerequisite into eternal life. But they are a way to get closer to God. By following God’s law, this rich man is closer to accepting the good news Jesus has to give.

There is one more step! Clearly, this rich man is relying on his wealth instead of God to get him through life. So, Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to those in need. That would enable this man to take his focus off himself and put it on another. This is not good news for the rich man, so he went away grieving. He couldn’t bear to stay any longer! He left before he heard the whole story.

I think it is important to note why Jesus said this. Last week, the Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, so Jesus responded truthfully but harshly. Here, the text says that Jesus loved the rich man. The rich man isn’t trying to trick Jesus; instead he is asking an honest question. Jesus is trying to carefully point this man in the right direction. When he puts his trust in God instead of wealth, then he will be ready to hear the good news. 

When we hear this passage, we often respond either like the people of old who explained away the tough message here, or we also walk away sad and unwilling to hand over our wealth. But not everyone. 

Shane Claiborne is the author of The Irresistible Revolution. In it, he tells of his journey to Calcutta to spend a summer with Mother Teresa. He spent that time helping the sick and homeless have a little dignity in their desperation. He wasn’t the only one serving there, though. He wrote of a man named Andy who worked with him. Shane learned that he used to be a wealthy German businessman until he became a Christian. He took Jesus’ words quite literally. He sold all of his possessions and gave much of it to the poor. Having offered his money to the poor, now he is offering his time and talents. This man made a commitment to the Lord when he agreed to live and work in Calcutta. 

Another example of this was shared at the Why Christian? Conference. Tiffany Thomas is a Baptist pastor in Charlotte, NC. Although she once was on staff at a wealthy congregation, she now serves two poor congregations. Her members live in systemic poverty and face crisis after crisis. Their lives are a mess, yet they always come on Sunday. They need to hear the good news. Offerings at one congregation are only about $200 a week. 

One fall, a local newspaper was interviewing Tiffany. She was talking about the homeless in her neighborhood when she blurted out that her church would be open every night the temperature got below 20. She hadn’t passed that by anybody in her church. She had no plan for how to staff her church to care for these homeless.

Then her janitor stepped up. That entire winter, he slept at the church and let in any homeless who needed a warm place to sleep. That janitor sacrificed so much for the poor.

These are extreme examples, yet I hope you might be inspired to do something extraordinary to follow Jesus’ teaching. Yet even selling everything and giving your money to the poor won’t earn you a place in heaven. Following the commandments won’t earn you eternal life. Even baptism isn’t a free ticket.

So what is Jesus’ good news? He says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”(v. 27) There is nothing that we can do to earn our way into heaven. Nothing. Eternal life is beyond our reach on our own. The good news is that God gifts us with eternal life. God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brings us into eternal life. No amount of money, brownie points, or prerequisites can get us there. Only God.

This is the good news. There is nothing that we can do to earn eternal. That is a gift, a gift that we do not deserve, yet a gift that we willingly receive. All that we do is a way to return thanks to God for all that Jesus has done for us. We serve the Lord cheerfully for the grace that Jesus gives to us. Amen.

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