The Rich Young Man and the Eye of the Needle
The story of the rich young man asking what more he needed to do to achieve eternal life, is one of the best known in the New Testament. That is not to say it is well understood. Tradition would have it that we should use the story to illustrate that the wealthy have just as much need as everyone else to put genuine effort into their commitment to what we might now call being a genuine follower of Christ. That the disciples were astonished at Jesus’ words when the young man gave up on the next step of his quest suggests there is a bit more going on here than might at first meet the eye.
Unsurprisingly, the rich young man’s question and Jesus’ answer seems at first sight curiously disconnected from our reality, particularly when it comes to our individual personal situations. Just as Mark records the young man being unaware of his faults when he comes to Jesus, we too run the risk of noticing the rich young man’s faults without seeing the potential similarity with our own. If it comes to that I can’t honestly say I know of many who have taken this story seriously – certainly at least not enough to follow Jesus advice in the form of literal action. Jesus seemingly puts the bar too high for the average churchgoer, let alone for the sceptical adherent. I guess since not many are excessively wealthy there may even be some consolation for most of us in the hearing about the young man’s discomfort at Jesus’ reply. “Give away everything you own and follow me” is Jesus’ reply. And of course the rich man, realising just how hard it would be to take that step of commitment, admits to himself he would have too much to lose and goes away sorrowful.
Jesus’ superb metaphor is in his response. “It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”
I am taking it that that part is not a new story for many here today. Since Sunday school days many of us may well have heard the often repeated claim that the eye of the needle was actually a small gate in the Jerusalem wall through which a camel would have difficulty passing – and it is usually stressed in the telling, that for the camel this would be difficult but by no means impossible. Remove the camel’s saddle and other paraphernalia and you could do it with a bit of encouragement especially if the squeeze came after the camel had used up some of the fat in its hump turning it to water after many days in the desert.
No doubt some Bible scholars would point out that the meaning of the metaphor is by no means done and dusted. Perhaps Jesus was actually saying it is actually impossible rather than difficult – for if he meant a real camel and a real needle there is absolutely no way you could get the camel through the eye of the needle. Some scholars say in effect : “Nah – it is simply a mistranslation”. Presumably Jesus was talking Aramaic and in Aramaic the word for camel (gamla) is virtually the same as the Aramaic for rope (which is sometimes even spelt the same way) and only changes its meaning according to context. A Greek speaker like Mark, recording the conversation in Greek years later might easily have missed this point. It would certainly make for a more consistent metaphor if Jesus had said it was the rope that was hard to get through the eye of the needle. And for “hard” understand “impossible”.
But really this is all just academic. Whichever way you look at it, we have a colourful metaphor to stress that attachment to riches somehow gets in the way of following Christ. This then brings us to what it might mean for us today.
The clue here is the Greek word Mark translates for money – “chremata”. Chremata, Aristotle defines for us as being all those things for which the value is measured in money. This should rightly concern those who preach a prosperity gospel – ie one in which God is supposed to materially prosper those who find his favour. I suspect that Jews following the popular teachings from the scripture in Jesus day would take this prosperity for the faithful as a matter of course. The Jews and that includes the disciples would have taken the young man’s prosperity as a sign that he was favoured by God. For example in Psalm 37 verse 25 it even states “ I have not seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging for bread”. That Jesus should have apparently ignored this standard view ( and what is more, ignored a view with scriptural warrant) would indeed have caused the disciples to do a double take. Jesus appears to be saying – and quite directly – that to the extent we focus on such matters and come to expect fortune as being the natural and even essential God-given deserved reward, we are drawn away from the focus on his mission.
To rely on single teachings supporting personal advancement while missing the main themes like expressing love for ones fellows or seeking justice would indeed be a gross misuse of the Bible. I assume Jesus himself believed that scripture represented the word of God, yet we do not have to reflect too deeply to notice that through the centuries sincere believers have done unfortunate and even hideous things to their fellows in the mistaken belief that this is what scriptures told them to do. I remember reading once somewhere that the Bible is not so much to be taken as the word of God as offering the potential to be the word of God for the thoughtful seeker.
For those who like to find new ways of looking at a familiar issue, you might be interested to know that the Dalai Lama makes a similar point with a slightly different twist. Basically his point was that the religion is found in our attitudes to others – not in the trappings which can so easily distract us. Listen now to his words …… His Holiness the Dalai Lama puts it this way:
“A religious act is performed out of good motivation with sincere thought for the benefit of others. Religion is here and now in our daily lives. If we lead that life for the benefit of the world, this is the hallmark of a religious life. This is my simple religion. No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart is the temple; your philosophy is simple kindness.”
And as with those who would follow Jesus – it is actually giving up the focus on the trappings and being freed to look around to those we meet with eyes of sympathy and concern – and if that doesn’t work – perhaps even giving up the trappings in a literal sense, which is Jesus suggested path back to that key centrality.
It is a paradox of the 21st century that even as a nation, the richer we get, the more ethical problems come our way. Many of us are born into comparative wealth, while others are born into unremitting poverty which rather cuts across the notion that each will be rewarded in proportion to our individual faith and effort. For example living in a nation where the soil is reasonably productive, good mineral resources, where the weather is temperate, and where the population is relatively sparse, it is much more expected that profitable mining or primary food production might give the nation a base for development. Contrast this with a region where there are severe weather conditions, perhaps an arid desert or frozen tundra, few natural resources and where there is sparse plant life and over-population. The relative figures for GNP in such contrasting settings tell their own story and the relative wealth of one nation compared with another challenge us to look again at how we are living out our responsibility to those less fortunate. Yet when we listen to our politicians offering promises for each election, it is “chremata” that rules. For those of us born in favourable settings, it is surprising how little attention we ask our leaders to give to the need for distributive justice.
Please note that Jesus never says don’t earn money. It is rather our attitude to earning, our attitude to others while we are earning, and how we organise our giving that demonstrates where our heart lies.
John Wesley’s dictum of “Earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can” is much more outwardly focussed than what Aristotle would no doubt call the “chremata” attention of some of this nation’s moneyed classes.
Jesus needed to put his teaching into metaphor to lift his listeners to a point where they might encounter meaning in his message.
In the same way every now and again we need our poets and hymn writers to edge us towards an understanding which is hard to define in a clinical sense.
Dr. Haldor Lillenas, a well known hymn-writer, has taken this topic and set it as a poem entitled, “Poverty.”
If in my heart there is no love for those by sin defiled
And if I lack compassion for a wayward, wand’ring child;
If I possess no strong desire to help him in his need,
To lead him back to paths of peace, Then I am poor indeed.
If I have lost the tenderness, the grace I once possessed,
If I cannot appreciate another soul’s distress;
If I have not within my breast a willingness to feed
The hungry multitude of earth, Then I am poor indeed.
If I have not the strength to feel another’s burden sore,
If I am blind to all the needs that clamour at my door;
If I am deaf to all the cry of hearts that break and bleed
Without the sympathy of love, Then I am poor indeed.
If I cannot appreciate the good in those I meet,
If in my blindness I abhor the outcast on the street;
And if my hard, cold heart desires to crush the bruised reed–
Then know that I have lost my wealth, Then I am poor indeed.
And if I thrill not at the touch of dimpled baby hands,
Nor feel the wealth my humble home and all its love commands
And if the finer things of life are lost in grasp and greed
Then in my heart a beggar dwells, And he is poor indeed!
If I have love for those who hate and tears for those who fall,
If I have mercy for the one who loves me not at all;
If I have patience with the one who holds another creed,
A heart for all, the wide, wide world, Then I am rich indeed!
And to this poem, the thoughtful Christian might say AMEN