Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Eye of a Needle

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, 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." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "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 God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“I went to find the pot of gold
That's waiting where the rainbow ends.
I searched and searched and searched and searched
And searched and searched and then -
There it was, deep in the grass,
Under an old and twisty bough.
It's mine, it's mine, it's mine at last...
What do I search for now?”

Shel Silverstein’s poem could have been written for the man who runs to Jesus and falls at his feet. This guy knew the rules. He followed the teaching of the Pharisees. He had all the stuff he could ever want, and in the culture of the day it was obvious to everyone that God was blessing him above others.

Yet it started deep down in his spirit, but grew every day – the realization that in spite of all his strict observance of the law, in spite of his comfort and wealth, something was missing. Something big.

I know I’ve talked before about Douglas Adam’s five-book trilogy, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In one of the stories, scientists build the universe’s largest computer in order to answer the ultimate question to life, the universe, and everything. It takes this computer seven and a half million years to come up with the answer, which is… 42. The scientists, or I guess their distant descendants, then have to build an even larger computer to figure out what exactly is ultimate question that answer applies to.

I say all of that as a very poor way to set up what is going on in this man’s life: he knows the ultimate question, not the one “42” answers, but the real one. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It would be easy to paint this guy as arrogant, wanting just to get his actions rubber-stamped by the Savior. But when he affirms that he’s done all the things Jesus listed, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother,” he doesn’t get up to leave, satisfied with his righteousness. He knows there’s more!

And Jesus gives him the ultimate answer to that ultimate question: “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.”

The man gets up and walks away sad… not angry, convinced that Jesus has asked too much, but knowing that the Lord is right. And watching him walk away, Jesus says, “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.”

There is, of course, a strong temptation to water these statements down, to make it easier, more palatable to our 21st-century consumerist minds. To make believe that Jesus is not making the hard demands on the believer that he seems to be making here, where this living word of God cuts us to the core. To lessen the impact of the statement that if anything at all is in the way of full and unfettered devotion to the Creator, it must be thrown away. By rights, I should get to this part of the sermon, let the tension hang a moment, and give a theological interpretation that makes us all feel better about our faith journey as it is. I should be able to give an explanation like this:

For years I was told that, in the “eye of a needle” statement, Jesus was referring to an actual location familiar to everyone in Judea. You might have heard this too: In Jesus’ day, when travelers reached the walls of Jerusalem after dark, and the main gates were closed, the only way into the city was through a narrow passage called the “Eye of the Needle.” They would have to take the packs off of the camels, and make the camels squat down on their knees and crawl through the gate to get into the city. Then they would follow, dragging the camels’ burdens behind them. It was a dreaded, difficult, time consuming process, almost impossible.

And it’s the “almost” that would make the statement OK, wouldn’t it? It would go from “impossible” to “possible, with the right tools.”

But even though that explanation for Jesus’ words has been around since at least the fifteenth century, and maybe as far back as the ninth century, it is painfully obvious that there is no historical or archeological evidence that the story of the hole in the wall is in any way true. There is no “Eye of the Needle” gate in Jerusalem or anywhere else. The hard statement, the perplexing problem of possessions (that alliteration was completely accidental, by the way) must stand as it is.

So… what do we do with it? How do we address the words of Jesus to the rich man: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me?”

Surely, we can claim that it doesn’t apply to us. After all, wealth is relative, and we can all point to Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Ted Turner as examples of wealth who could stand to spread some of their billions around.

It’s always easier to point to someone else and decide what they should do, though, isn’t it? Instead, let’s dare to look inward, at ourselves, shall we? I look at my own situation: I work two jobs and still don’t earn anywhere near $40,000 a year, it never seems to be enough for the bills and all the things I want to do and think I need to do, and yet I am in the top 4.33% of the richest people in the world according to the internet site, “Global Rich List.” Even when I was working that temp job last year for ten dollars an hour I was in the top 11.6%!

If I was that man on his knees, and Jesus made the same demand, would I give up my own riches? Could I sell my car, my guitars, give up my cell phone and cable TV? Could I give up lunches at Sonic or my health insurance?

I have to say… maybe.

But is that all there is to it? Just getting rid of stuff? What if Jesus looked down at me with the same love he showed that rich man and said, “One thing you lack, John: give up your political beliefs, your love of Reformed Theology, walk away from that list you’re secretly so proud of, the semi-famous people that follow you on Twitter, and walk away from the pulpit as well. Leave behind your family and friends and everything that defines you, everything you hold dear and rely upon. Follow me.”

I am afraid that I, too, very well might walk away mournfully, just like that rich man.

What Jesus calls us to is a relationship where nothing – nothing! – is more important than following Him. Jesus calls us to the place where the camel meets the eye of the needle, where we can go no further.

That day as the rich man walked away, Jesus’ words astonished his disciples. For people in first-century Palestine, wealth was seen as evidence of God’s favor. If a person so loved by God as to be wealthy could not attain eternal life, what hope is there for anyone?

Today’s reading calls us to serious reflection, challenges us to give up the things dearest to us in order to walk more closely with Jesus. This is something we must confront on a daily basis, through prayer and study. And when we reach the eye of the needle, and agree with Jesus that with mortals, this is impossible, there is a wonderful promise awaiting us. “For God, all things are possible.”

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