By Melody Kroeger
October 11, 2015
It is, for all intents and purposes, a compelling image: the camel going through the eye of a needle.
In my experience sitting in churches, both large and small, this verse from the Gospel of Mark always raises eyebrows. And, when it is proclaimed the text will almost invariably come with a generic defense of riches, to allow the financial comfortable to remain comfortable. This sort of defense usually takes one of several options.
The first is something to the effect that there was in the city wall of Jerusalem a narrow gate known as “The Eye of the Needle.” It was very difficult for a camel to pass through this narrow opening in the city wall. Occasionally other versions of this defense are offered up. According to one account, the camel would have to be unloaded before it could pass through, while according to another, the camel could pass through; but only on its knees. Christians in North America are very fond of these explanations, but there is one small problem with it: there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there was such a gate – or a camel that could crawl on its knees!
The second defense maintains that if we cannot enlarge the size of the opening, the only other logical way to rationalize the passage is to reduce the size of the object that must pass through it. Some biblical commentators note that the Greek word for camel is only one letter different from the Greek word for rope. So what Jesus is really saying is that it would be easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle that a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Difficult? Absolutely. Impossible? Probably. But through this interpretation the Scripture lesson is softened so that gap between what Jesus teaches and what we are willing to do is narrowed.
Third is what we might call “God running interference” interpretation. Recall that when they heard the saying, the disciples “were greatly astounded” saying, “Then who then can be saved?” Through their words, we know the disciples recognized it as a difficult saying. Jesus answers: “For mortals it is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” That is, passing a camel through the eye of a needle really is supposed to describe an impossible process, but only because the listener has not yet factored God into that process. Once the assistance of God is factored in, it becomes indeed possible for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven (but even then only with difficulty).
However we choose to understand the Gospel text – and yes, it does make us anxious and uneasy – it should not be cheapened by the easy rationalizations that have accrued around it over time. It is intentionally a hard saying, and to contemplate it requires hard thought, study and prayer.
It is worth noting that twice Jesus says how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. We shouldn’t simply “whistle past the graveyard” here – turning instead to preferred scriptural passages that confirm our comfortable place in the world. Rather we’re better served when we stay and struggle through the text, bringing new life to this ancient story.
The tale of the rich man and Jesus’ response, speaks powerfully to our yearning for acceptance, the desire for something beyond our temporal existence, our struggle to let go of our earthly possessions, and finally sorrow at our mortal weaknesses that hold us back. Even when Jesus promises that the list of things we forsake so that we may follow him – houses, family, fields are returned “a hundredfold” – persecutions are added back to the ledger.
Like the rich man, we beg “what shall we do to inherit eternal life?” But the question before us is not as narrow as “what shall I do to be saved?” Nor is it just about us.
Rather the kingdom is in how we live our daily lives. What we are measured out in the kingdom of God will be determined by how we measure out the earthly kingdom to others – by living justly, treating others with dignity, by forgiving and by sharing the riches we have stored up for ourselves. And that is the promise of our faith – with God, all things are possible!
Pope Francis has brought a new style, tone and clarity to this Gospel lesson by reminding the wealthy of their shared responsibility for the poor and vulnerable people of the world. In his visit to Congress last week he encouraged our representatives – and by extension us – to put as much effort and attention into lavishing riches on the poor, the suffering, the dying, the imprisoned, those without a home, family or nations, as we lavish upon ourselves.
It is important to note that this story is not the vocabulary of despair and anxiety but rather the Gospel of hope. It is a radical challenge for us to invite others, encouraging them to shake off their poverty and to live knowing that the “kingdom of God is at hand.”
The kingdom of God is not a destination – but a journey – a lifelong Camino – that requires selfless giving, sacrificing, forsaking privilege, and sharing in exchange for community and family re-imagined – where love and acceptance are not constrained by the rules of status, wealth, and power. It is a community where the first will be last and the last will be first – where, with God, all will have a place at the table.