A camel through the eye of a needle.
When I was young, our local newspaper once produced a cartoon which consisted simply of a long straight line, rather like this______________. What is it? Well anyone who has studied Greek with me can tell you; it is a camel, that has gone through the eye of a needle! That is the level to which our Greek classes sometimes descend. The original saying, of course, is quite bizarre and intended to be so. It is rather fun seeing what preachers try to do with this image to make sense of it. The idea, for instance, that there was a small pedestrian gate in the wall of Jerusalem called The Needle through which a camel could pass if it divested itself of all its burdens is trotted out over and over again and is quite untrue. The point that Jesus is making is quite simple. It is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle and it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is important to see the structure of this alarming story.
It starts with the young man, who is clearly a good young man. He is not trying to test Jesus, to catch him out. He has lived a good life, kept all the commandments, genuinely wants to enter the Kingdom of God. He is just the sort of person the Church of England would welcome as an ordinand and just the kind of person the College here would like to accept. The fact he has a lot of money with which he can be generous seems only to be a plus. Jesus recognises all these things. He sees this is a truly good young man and loves him but he asks him to give up everything and so turns him away. The situation is complicated by the fact that Jesus hasn't asked this of others. Peter still has his house in Capernaum. Other disciples have their boats. Matthew followed after Jesus but he was not, as far as we know, compelled to give up his wealth. Why does Jesus pick on this man? Was it simply because he loved him? It is dangerous to put yourself in a place where you can know the love of Jesus. He will usually ask us for more than we really want to give.
So then Jesus says, "How hard it is for a rich man to be saved!" The disciples are shocked. We wonder ourselves, what about Joseph of Arimathea? What about Nicodemus? Jesus, however, goes further. With his example of the camel he says it is impossible for a rich man to be saved. The disciples are more shocked and say, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus then goes to the extreme and says, "For men and women, it is impossible". That is where we must stop. It is true that the text goes on to say that for God all things are possible but that can be too easy a let out clause. We have to stop with the sheer impossibility of being saved and think what Jesus means.
There are, I think, at least two things that Jesus means. The first I am sure of; the second I think is probable. The first is to take seriously the teaching that nothing we do or have can guarantee our salvation. It is and must be a free gift from God. We all know that. We've heard it and read it often enough. Yet, being human, it is impossible for us not to think otherwise. Being good must get us somewhere on the path to salvation. Being loving must bring us salvation. Having the right theology, being in the right church, being a success as we move through the stages of ordination and up the ladder of priestly advancement; surely these things must be a kind of guarantee that we will be saved. Well, I won't say these things are irrelevant; it is more complex than that but in the last resort it is a free gift of God. It is the fact that it is totally unmerited, undeserved that makes it so wonderful, so generous a gift, so surely a sign of the infinite and absolutely overwhelming love of God. It is a gift that each of us will get, please God. But it is a gift that is given to anyone who asks, to a prodigal son stumbling home covered in dirt and full of sin, to a prostitute from the streets who wept over Jesus' feet, or to a thief on a cross moments before he died. The danger of wealth is that it makes us forget this. Material wealth, intellectual wealth, secure social position can give us a confidence which makes it impossible to receive a freely given gift of love. One reason why good Christians have long drawn out deaths is, I believe, just that; to have to give it all up and come to Jesus empty handed and so, finally, ready to receive.
The second thing I believe Jesus had in mind was the matter of wealth in relation to the poor. Jesus was a Jew who knew his Scriptures. He would have known the great prophets who protested at the wicked oppression of the poor by the rich. He could probably have quoted to us that passage we heard at mattins today, "You trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain." Have we done that. Yes, we have. We do not think we are rich. Most of us are only too aware of how much money we could do with. Yet we are in the top few per cent of the richest people on earth. Just by belonging to the society of Europe we share in an exploitation of the poorer majority in this world which becomes clearer and clearer and, sadly, becomes worse and worse. The rich young man no doubt tithed his wealth strictly and gave it to the poor but did he ask where the other nine-tenths came from? He would probably have owned large numbers of slaves. Were they well cared for? Once again, we enter a complex field which cannot be dealt with in a sermon like this. Is it best to give away wealth, or to use it well? Jesus probably wouldn't have answered that question. Perhaps he did recognise that Joseph of Arimathea could be trusted with his wealth and left to use it but, he saw that the rich young man should give his away. Was it because he needed simply to be free? Or was it because wealth always comes at someone else's expense? Wealth always makes someone else poor. Wealth, even the limited wealth that we have, always creates victims. Amos tells us "Seek good and not evil, that you may live...Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate". Those are words Jesus speaks to us today.
I won't stop there. I don't want to leave you in gloom and guilt. The Christian life is in the end a life of joy and the more so when it is lived among the poor. So I would take you in my memory to a Sunday a few weeks ago when Tommy and I were driving early in the morning to mass in a township outside Harare. Tommy had had two days without electricity and running water; can you believe it? He had survived. It was a poor township, tiny houses crammed with people, waste rotting on the roadside, pot holes, much smoke from cooking fires. We found our Anglican congregation waiting for us – 800 of them, meeting under a corrugated iron shelter as they had been driven out of their church by police with dogs and tear gas. They were on fire with joy. Young and old, teenagers, businessmen, women and children. They sang, they swayed, they danced and they laughed. Those are the poor. Or I would take you to meet John Bradburne some years before that. He had divested himself of everything and lived in a tin hut surrounded by lepers. He had joy bubbling out of him, the kind of joy no one can take from you. He was shot by guerrillas a short while later. I think it was his laughter in the face of their threats which really annoyed them!
I don't know where God will lead you, I don't know what Jesus is calling you to but I pray that you will discover that joy which only the poor can give us. They have the kind of empty hands with which they can receive it from Christ.
Nicolas Stebbing CR