October 10, 2021 / 20th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 / Second Reading Hebrews 4:12-16 / Gospel Mark 10:17-31
Eye of the Needle
Today’s gospel presents a challenging message – especially to those of us who enjoy a comfortable level of prosperity.
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”
“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”
It is tempting to want to manage this passage, to find some way to soften the message. Over the years interpreters have made efforts to do this. It’s been said that the man who approaches Jesus really could not have kept all the commandments as he claims. So Jesus gives the man an outrageous command to call his bluff and demonstrate his hypocrisy. Another angle is to suggest that the command to go and sell everything was specific only to that one individual – and is by no means a universal expectation for all the followers of Jesus. Another way around it is to observe that what Jesus says applies only to those who are really rich; there are many far wealthier than we are. A fanciful interpretation explained that the eye of the needle was the name for a very small gate in the wall of Jerusalem that would require a camel to be unloaded and the camel to pass through on its knees – not easy, but far easier than going through the eye of an actual needle.
However, none of these attempts to finesse the message stands up. There is nothing to indicate that the man is not sincere about his integrity and obedience – or that Jesus doubts him. Jesus makes plain that he is not limiting his message to one man when he says it will be hard for anyone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, you and I cannot pretend that we are not wealthy – when compared with the vast majority of the people in this world. There is no such camel’s gate in Jerusalem. He really means the eye of a needle. So the story stands like a parable – sharp and clear in its message. It is what it is. I can’t tell you that somehow Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. And so we must consider what it means for us.
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If this passage makes you uncomfortable, it should. I know it makes me uncomfortable. As I am about to retire, the thought of giving away all that I own is unnerving. Worrying about outliving your nest egg is one thing. Intentionally giving it all away sounds like madness. Who would do such a thing? How could Jesus encourage such reckless behavior?
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Yet Jesus is like that. His gospel comforts the afflicted – and afflicts the comfortable. The Good News can be hard news – even bad news – before it is good. This story is really not an outlier. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, once said: “I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I came to set sons against their father and daughters against their mothers . . .” and “none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up everything he has.” Jesus promises us rest for our souls. And Jesus also sets a demanding standard for discipleship: “deny yourself, take up a cross, and follow me.”
It is important to note in this story that Jesus loved the rich man and wanted to welcome him as a follower. This is the one time in Mark’s gospel where it explicitly says Jesus loved and individual: “looking at him, Jesus loved him and said: ‘You lack one thing, go, sell what you own. . .’” Jesus extends an invitation, he offers the man a choice. It’s a choice between living in the status quo and keeping all his possessions – or entering into the Kingdom with Jesus. It’s an either/or decision.
Jesus once said, “You cannot serve both God and money.” The either/or choice came as a shock to the man who approached Jesus. He was hoping for a way that was “both/and” instead of “either/or.” He wanted eternal life in the Kingdom of God and he wanted to keep all his stuff. Like that man, most of us also prefer the “both/and” approach. We want to follow Jesus and we want to be able to enjoy the life our possessions make possible. Am I right??
This is where it gets uncomfortable. When we get too at home in this world and with all our stuff, we are not ready for the Kingdom of God. Many things can come between us and God. Certainly wealth and possessions can do this. We can find our hope and our security in what we own, in our savings and investments. We aim to be self-sufficient, providing for all our needs and wants without any assistance – even from God. Yet our possessions have a way of coming to possess us: Do you own your house, or does your house own you? – requiring mortgage payments, property taxes, and ongoing maintenance and upkeep?
Likewise, more and more we see how sports can come between us and God. Consider the tremendous amount of time that families devote to sports activities: practices, games, camps. This investment consumes large amounts of the weekly schedule (and money). Too often little time is left for worship, prayer, study and service to others. Sunday morning used to be time set apart for church – but no more. Sports commitments take priority over worship and Sunday School. In and of themselves, sports can be healthy and rewarding – a good thing. I like sports. But how have sports become so important, so essential, that little time is left for God? What does this say about our priorities?
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A man approaches Jesus seeking the blessing of eternal life, life with God and God’s people. Jesus tells him that he lacks one thing, that there is one serious gap in his life: His wealth has become not a blessing but an impediment, a stumbling block. Jesus invites the man to give it all away and come with him. When the man declines this invitation, Jesus acknowledges the man’s dilemma, saying to his disciples: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.”
And so we feel a genuine tension that is not easy to resolve. Jesus is emphatic, and not about to compromise. We really are not inclined to give up all our stuff. It seems to me that we have to learn to live with that tension. It’s like acknowledging the awkward reality that we are all simultaneously saints and sinners – beloved by God and unworthy. We get a sense of this tension when Jesus says to the man: “No one is good but God alone.” At the same time Jesus looked at this man and loved him. The man is not all good – but he is loved.
It's like that for all of us as well. We can in no way earn our salvation – it’s a gift of grace – yet we still need to keep striving to seek first the Kingdom of God. We can rest in the assurance that God loves us as we are – yet we dare not become complacent. We must keep in mind that God truly wants us all to grow and become more than we are, growing in the likeness of Christ.
The gospel message to prosperous, successful people seems to be:
God loves you, be at peace – but don’t get too comfortable.
Be at peace – but don’t be complacent.
Be at peace – but don’t settle for the status quo.
As St. Paul said, “Keep working out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you.” (Philippians 2:12) Jesus didn’t come to bless the status quo. He is not looking for part-time followers. Like the disciples we may throw up our hands and say, “Then who can be saved?” It seems too much for us – impossible. Jesus says, “Yes, that’s right. For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible.”
Thanks be to God.