The Eye of a Needle
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Well, Jesus has been in a cranky mood recently. Last week he denounced divorce, and today he reviles the rich. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. One wonders whether this gospel was appointed for this time of year to influence our voting, or our pledging.
Every one in this room is a part of the richest 10% of the world’s population. But before we start writhing in guilt and wondering how we might ever squeeze through that eye of the needle, let’s consider the story more closely.
A wealthy man ran up to Jesus and knelt on the ground before him. This suggests desperation, or at least motivation. He really needs to talk to Jesus, and wants to know how to inherit eternal life. At first, Jesus gives him a stock answer. He says, You know the commandments. Spiritual leaders often respond this way at first, just to find out if the seeker is serious.
But this seeker stays, and seems to be serious. Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth. What more must I do? He knows there is more than external religious obedience. There is more to this business of the kingdom of God that Jesus keeps talking about. Perhaps earlier, the rich man had heard Jesus teaching to a crowd. He went away, but Jesus’ words just wouldn’t leave him. So he came back.
Well then, Jesus thought. Maybe this guy means it. So Jesus tells him what he must do. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. The crowd suddenly got very quiet. After a very awkward pause, the man hung his head and shuffled off.
Now why on earth did Jesus make it so hard? That’s what the disciples wanted to know. They rightly wondered Who then can be saved?
I’m afraid that we have misunderstood this story, and other passages like it, for centuries. We hear phrases like “eternal life” and “kingdom of God” and we translate that to “heaven.” We have been brainwashed by centuries of obsession with salvation in the afterlife, and so we see these passages through that lens. The man wanted to go to heaven, we think, and Jesus offered him a very high-priced ticket. No ticket? Sorry, no entry. To hell with you!
But Jesus was always more concerned with this life than the next. The “eternal life” that this man wanted to enter is called, in the original Greek, zoe. Zoe is not heaven in the afterlife, but the vibrant experience of God in this life. It is everything that Jesus came to offer - waking up to God’s nearness, being pure in heart, trusting in God’s goodness, and opening joyfully and generously to others as fellow children of God - whether or not they deserve it, and no matter what their station in life.
This is eternal life, which starts in this life and extends into the next. This is the kingdom of God, which Jesus spoke about more than anything. So we pray Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. But the fact is, there are few who seek it, and fewer still who are willing to do what it takes to find it. That was true in Jesus’ day, is true today, and always will be. Why is that?
Well, for whatever reason, many are satisfied with the material world. And by material, I do not just mean materialism. I mean the concrete, the mundane. What do I want to wear, to eat, to do? Are things going the way I want? Am I comfortable and untroubled, and if not, how can I fix my circumstances so that I will be? Many are satisfied with life at this level. That’s all there is for them.
Others know that religion has more something to offer, although according to a new Pew survey that just came out, fewer and fewer in our increasingly secular society. And most of those who are religious are satisfied with a simple faith: go to church, try to be good, pray now and then.
That’s okay, as far as it goes. Let’s be clear: Jesus did not condemn the wealthy man for walking away. When given the opportunity to go deeper, he chose not to. That’s fine. Continue to keep the commandments as you always have. Nothing wrong with that.
The rich man thought he wanted to go deeper, and that’s what a lot of religious or spiritual people say they want. What more must I do to live into eternal life, zoe, that vibrant, transformative experience of God that you talk about all the time?
He was told that if that’s really what he wanted, he would have to let go of the very thing that he was attached to, the very thing that was keeping him at a distance from God. Apparently, that was money.
Instead of learning to trust in God, he had come to believe that money would guarantee him security. Instead of looking for the free presence of God in the ordinary world around him, he purchased pleasure. Instead of being open to other children of God, no matter what their station in life, he surrounded himself with like-minded privileged people and cut himself off from all others.
And here’s the important thing: he was not willing to change. He was not willing to give up that security, that pleasure, that privileged company, even though all of it kept him at a distance from the living God. So he chose to keep things the way they were. His choice wasn’t between heaven and hell. It was between a vaguely religious life and zoe, the kingdom of God. As some like to put it, “Jesus came, offering us the kingdom of God, and we settled for the Church.”
Perhaps you’re religious, and have no burning desire to go deeper. That’s fine. Continue to keep the commandments, pray, and do good. But maybe you want to enter the kingdom of God, here in this lifetime. If so, there will be times when you are asked to change. You will be put in front of a very specific gate. It will look as impossible to go through as the eye of a needle.
At this gate, you may be asked to let go of your angry demand that your past or present life be different than it is. You may be asked to let your defenses crumble. You may be asked to stop drinking, to give up control, or to turn from self-absorption to generosity. You may be asked to learn to pray more full-heartedly, and to carry this consciousness throughout your day.
I don’t know what the eye of the needle is for you. But it always involves change. It always involves surrendering the baggage that keeps you from getting through. The rich young man was asked to surrender his precious but limiting identity as a wealthy person. If you want to go deeper, you will be asked now and then, at different times of your life, to surrender those things that stand between you and God, and live differently.
Along the way, we let go of this, then that, peeling back the layers of the onion. Ultimately, at the heart of it, we must let go of our very sense of self. After all, more than once, Jesus said something that was even more radical than Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. He said Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me to Calvary.
There, our limiting self-definition will die. As we peel back the onion of our attachments and keep going, we find, at the very center, there is no solid, unchanging “thing” that we can hold on to. There is only God, manifesting through our life, through everyone and everything, all the time.
Deny your “self,” Jesus said. Deny what you think that self must have or do to be satisfied. Deny that self’s hopes and disappointments, its likes and dislikes. Deny even who you think that self is, or should be. Instead, give yourself fully to whatever God brings you, moment by moment. Be pure of heart, and leave no trace of self as you pass through your day. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote, It is no longer “I” who live, but Christ in me.
The key to this story may be in the eye of the needle. How does a camel get through it? By becoming very small. The smaller our self, the more easily we slip through, into the kingdom of God.
In today’s gospel, Jesus isn’t condemning wealth. And he isn’t threatening anyone with exclusion from heaven. He merely names, for this man, the gate to a deeper walk with God.
What might be that gate for you, at this time in your life?