2015 10 11: The Eye of a Needle

Posted on 13 Oct 2015

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Possessions have a way a getting the best of us. There was once a wise and trusting Roman Catholic abbot who was taken aback by the spiritual progress of his young novice monk. The abbot let the monk live in his own hut by the river. Each night the monk would wash his one robe and put it out to dry. One morning the monk was dismayed to find that rats had chewed his robe to shreds. He begged for another robe from a nearby village, only to have the rats destroy that new one as well. The monk got a cat, but he found he had to beg for milk for the cat. To get around that, the monk got a cow; but of course that meant he had to have hay. The monk got the hay from the fields around his hut. The monk had to hire workers to help. Soon the monk was the wealthiest man in the region. Several years later, the abbot came back to find a mansion in the place of his novice’s former hut. He asked the monk what was the meaning of all this? “Oh Holy Father, there was no other way to keep my robes.”

Possessions have a way a getting the best of us. The more we become wrapped up in them, the further we move away from God and what God wants of us. Those things we believe we must have, those things that we believe we cannot live without–do we possess them, or do they possess us? How quickly yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities.

That was the case of the rich man in St. Mark’s gospel. The rich man wasn’t after all bad. He kept the Lord’s commandments which he had learned in his childhood. He did not kill, steal, defraud, or hurt anyone in any way. He was the kind of person that you would probably like as a next door neighbor or as a colleague. You’d be proud to call him your friend. Not only was he respectable and polite, but he was also religious. He knelt before Jesus and addressed him as the Good Teacher. When he asked the Rabbi a question, it was not to make himself look better than others, or to trap Jesus. His question rose from a deep and sincere curiosity. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Unfortunately, for the rich man, the conversation quickly went south. Possessions, after all, have a way of getting the best of us. We read in the gospel that Jesus loved this man. Indeed, he cared for him. He cared for the man’s present and for his future, and so he told him the truth. “You lack one thing,” Jesus said. The rich man looked up into Jesus’ face. “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, the rich man was shocked and went away grieving. The result of that promising, chance meeting was a sad farewell. Jesus then commented on this rich man whom he loved, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth 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.” And ever since, theologians and scholars have wrestled with the true meaning “the camel and the eye of the needle.”

We are probably no different. Surely, our kind and loving Jesus couldn’t have meant that all possessions are bad. Surely, there must have been a trick to the metaphor of the “eye of the needle.” For the past two hundred years, Sunday School children have been taught, that the “eye of the needle” was a gate in the protective wall of Jerusalem, which was only opened at night after the main gate was closed. A camel could pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. It doesn’t matter that no historical, architectural evidence exists of such a gate. We would like to believe that Jesus doesn’t really desire our complete commitment and giving up our possessions. And so we work at clever ways to avoid Jesus’ truth, “There’s nothing wrong in being rich, but it’s dangerous.”

Of course, I know that being rich is a risk that most of us would be willing to take. Yes, if I only I had a little more wealth, and few more possessions, I am sure that I would be a better person. I am sure I would be more generous, wouldn’t you? But Jesus warns us, if you want to follow him, beware of your possessions.

Possessions have a way of getting the best of us and preventing us from doing what God needs to be done. There may be a possession you need to abandon in order to commit your life to his. Or perhaps it is an attitude. For you it may be pride, for another it may be prejudice, for another it may be a misguided passion. What is that possession which you are clinging to that is preventing you from letting go and truly following as a disciple enjoying the work of his kingdom? What is it that is lacking in your life?

True discipleship is not something you do for God, but rather it is through this commitment that you are asking God to do something for you. Following Jesus, my friends, is not the last step. It is merely the beginning. The abundant life God offers cannot be experienced from the outside. You do not grow in faith by learning a lot about it, but you grow in faith by allowing the presence of God to pour into your life. My friends, your commitment is the invitation to God to begin his work anew in you. Unfortunately, possessions have a way of getting the best of us. So how can you grow in your commitment and confidence to God, and enjoy his wondrous and abundant life? Let me offer you three challenges for deepening your faith and commitment.

First of all, deepening your commitment to God demands time together. You may accept all the promises and slogans of God’s holy kingdom, “Come work for the Lord. The work is hard, the hours are long and the pay is low. But the retirement benefits are out of this world!” Or perhaps more colorfully, “Would you rather spend eternity in the Smoking or Non-Smoking section?” But if you do not devote time together with God, these promises will never move you to try or to dare or to do anything more. Few friendships can tolerate neglect. Marriages that do not have moments alone together will never endure the heaviness of compromise and suffering. The same is true of your relationship with God. An abundant and joyful life with God demands time together. You learn to trust God by devoting your time to prayer, time in Bible study, time in worship and time in work in the fellowship of believers. Possessions and their upkeep have a way of getting the best of us.

Second, deepening your commitment to God demands respect. It is a popular notion today to think, “God is such a friendly fellow, so if we are decent and responsible citizens, we shall all somehow muddle our way to heaven.” We patronize God by calling him “the man upstairs,” or some other trivial title, and honor him as a celestial Rotary Club president. Such practices and beliefs deny God his due respect. Our God is the awesome, majestic creator of the universe. He created us in his own image, so that we should be aware of our own high calling. My friends, when you begin to respect God as creator of all things, the God who chose to share all of his gifts with you, the God who loved you so much that he did not send a committee, a holy man or a mighty scroll, but who sent his only begotten Son, yes, when you begin to respect God, you cannot help but listen but accept his truth and put aside your possessions. When you begin to respect God, you cannot help but treat your neighbors differently. You cannot help but treat even your poorest neighbors as brothers and sisters worthy of your concern and charity- and the good news you have been called to share.

Finally, deepening your commitment to God demands an openness to change. It is often jested, “If our Savior leaves you as you are and where you are, from what has he saved you?” Or as another author noted, “On the road of life, God encourages U-turns.” A marriage that is on the rocks demands an openness to change. A life-style that is teetering on disaster demands an openness to change. A life that is dissatisfied and unfulfilled and is seeking the secret to an abundant and joyful life demands an openness to change that often begins by letter go of the things that are holding one down.

We don’t know what happened to the man that day who turned away from Jesus; we don’t even know his name. If he had accepted the challenge Jesus gave him, he might have been there at Pentecost to stand with Peter, and the other disciples, he might have written a Gospel like Mark or Luke, or he might have been an evangelist like Andrew or a missionary like Paul, but he faded away into history because he could not take that final step. Possessions got the best of him.

A pastor once tried to explain eternal life to the youngsters in his children’s sermon, how do you get into heaven? “If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?” “NO!” the children all answered. “If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into Heaven?” Again, the answer was, “NO!” “Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my wife, would that get me into Heaven?”” He asked them again. “NO!” they all answered. “Well,” he continued, “Then how can I get into Heaven?” and a five-year-old boy shouted out, “Pastor, you got’ta die first!”

You see, you cannot bargain, negotiate nor coerce God into giving you eternal life. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Yes, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” No, it is God’s free choice to offer his gift of eternal life to those who know him and trust him. Your choice now is simply to commit yourself anew, to live and enjoy and share the life and the gifts that he had entrusted to your care, so that your life can embody and reflect God’s gracious love, here and now. Heaven can wait. And since that is so, you can turn your gaze to earth instead and follow Jesus wherever he leads you. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.