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Through the Eye of a Needle

Against the Grain -- Words for a Politically Incorrect Church
Cycle B Gospel Sermons for Sundays after Pentecost (Last Third)
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

It is sayings like this that shatter any notions we have of Jesus being simply another Mr. Nice Guy. These are tough words. They have been a flashpoint for controversy in the church for centuries. They have ignited heated debates about the role of money in the Christian life.

These tough words of Jesus have usually provoked two kinds of reactions. One interprets Jesus' words to mean that you had better give up your money. Money is at least a source of great temptation if not a tool of the devil himself. Therefore, if you want to be in the kingdom, give your money away and go off and join a monastery. The other perspective maintains that Jesus' words apply only to the rich. And since you're not rich, they don't apply to you.

Neither interpretation is very satisfactory. The first seems like an invitation to economic chaos. The second seems to be just too cavalier in dismissing Jesus' words.

Once, when I was discussing these very words with another clergy colleague of mine, he made a very revealing observation. Discussions and debates about who is rich and who is not miss the point. He argued that the rich are those with enough money to be afraid of losing it.

That puts Jesus' comments about riches and wealth into an entirely new context. Jesus' words urge us to look not at the amount of money we have but rather on the role money plays in our lives. What is our attitude toward riches and wealth? If we have enough money so that we are afraid to lose it, then we are probably rich; then we are partners with this rich man; then it is probably easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for us to enter the kingdom of God.

This passage is not going to be on the average Christian's list of his top ten favorite Bible passages. We don't like to talk about money, especially in church. We are probably more willing to talk about our sex lives than about how much money we make. Why is this so? Because more than anything else in our world, our money and how we use it reflects our deepest values and commitments. Look at how people spend their money and you will see their gods, what is their practical and everyday religion. After all, if we take Martin Luther seriously in what he says about the first commandment in his Large Catechism, then everyone has a god. There is no such thing as an atheist. Whatever we most love having and most fear losing is our functional god. Insofar as our use of money reflects these values and commitments, our use of money is a very "religious" issue.

No wonder Jesus talks so much about money in his sayings, teachings, and parables. There is no more "religious" subject in life. There is no other subject that gets so close to our hearts.

In our modern capitalist societies money is very important. Money is the measure of most, if not all, things. A good job with a good paycheck is the means to get all those good things which promise us the good life. That sounds like religion to me. You don't need to talk about God and heaven in order to talk about salvation.

In today's Gospel we meet a pious and godly man who also seems to be rich (if we compare this to the parallels in Matthew and Luke). He seems to be a guy who has got it all together, an ideal poster boy for G.Q. or Christian Entrepreneur (if there were such a magazine). He's young and handsome, and he not only drives a BMW but goes to church every week and doesn't miss a Promise Keepers' rally. He's probably got a cute perky wife, two children, and a nice house in the suburbs.

But all is not right. Something still bothers him. He knows deep down that these "gods" are leaving him empty. His monetary success still leaves him wanting. His anxiety and doubt are betrayed in the question he asks Jesus: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

At first, he seems to be doing all the right things. He recognizes that his life is still empty, that money is not everything, and he seems to have come to the right place. He comes to Jesus to find an answer, to get his hungers filled, to become a disciple. It's hard to knock someone who's interested in Jesus.

That's why Jesus' reaction seems to be so strange. We thought Jesus was in the business of making disciples, but here he seems to brush the guy off. Why? This is not the way you become a disciple of Jesus. You don't volunteer to become a disciple of Jesus. You don't sign up for Christianity like signing up for the military or a membership at the local health club. No, Jesus takes the initiative. He's the one who does the recruiting.

Perhaps that is why Jesus is so put off by this man's attempt to butter him with his flattering "Good Teacher." Flattery will get you nowhere with Jesus. Likewise, the man's "What must I do?" question makes the wrong assumption. With such a question the man mistakenly assumes that he is capable of doing whatever it takes to impress Jesus and become one of his gang. His question betrays, on the one hand, his anxiety and, on the other hand, his arrogance. He thinks he can do it, if Jesus will only tell him how.

The man probably has good reason for his confidence. He has achieved all the symbols of success. According to Matthew and Luke he is rich, young, and a ruler. And most of all, he is pious. He takes his religion seriously. He is committed to God, or at least he thought so. He is good at keeping the commandments. He is a good person. He treats his neighbors well. The guy has an impeccable track record. Notice that Jesus doesn't challenge him. He doesn't accuse him of faking it a little here or there. He doesn't call him on the carpet for not being as good as he appears to be. This guy is good. Even Dr. Laura would be pleased with him.

But something is still not right. And Jesus knows it. This man has all the outward appearance of godliness. But his heart is still in the wrong place. And there is only one way Jesus can expose that heart. He tightens the screws. He goes after him with the First Commandment, that one commandment not even this rich, young, and pious ruler has been able to keep.

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me." But this man did have other gods at the center of his life: himself and his money. And there was only one way to show the man this truth he was avoiding. He would have to let go of his money and his desire to be in control.

"You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

Despite his riches, his power, his youth, and his religious piety, he still lacked one thing. He did not trust God. And his inability to trust God, to keep the first commandment, and to let go of his idol was revealed when he unhappily walked away. He couldn't do it.

And Jesus sums it all up by saying, "It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

The issue is not how much money is too much. The issue is not who is rich and who is not. Rather, the issue is this: Who do you trust? Do you trust yourself, your money, your good works, your popularity? Or do you trust the God who comes to you in Jesus and asks you to forsake all and follow him?

The disciples, who probably were impressed with this rich and powerful young man and would have liked to have one of such social and religious prestige in their group, were amazed. Shocked would be a better way to put it. If this man couldn't qualify to be a disciple, then who could? This demand that Jesus made of this man was ridiculous. It is impossible to keep.

Just think of it: what would happen if everyone would give away their money to the poor? It would be economic chaos. No economy could ever survive. No bank could stay open. No one could borrow money. No one could count on a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. Society would disintegrate. It would lead to death and destruction.

Jesus' demand is impossible to keep. If this is what it takes to be a disciple, if this is what it takes to be saved, then no one is saved. Then no one is worthy of being a disciple.

And that is precisely the point Jesus is trying to make -- to the rich young ruler, to his disciples, and to us! As long as we ask, "What do I have to do?" as long as we think that our deeds or our money or our church attendance will count for something, as long as we think we can do something to win God's approval, then we are stuck. Then we will never make it. Then we are like that camel stuck in the eye of the needle. Then we are like that rich young ruler who walked away from Jesus because it was impossible for him to give away his gods and trust Jesus.

When we come to this realization, Jesus has got us just where he wants us. When the disciples wondered if it would ever be possible for anyone to do what Jesus demanded, then Jesus had them just where he wanted them. What is impossible for us, for the rich young ruler, for the astonished disciples is possible for God! In fact, that is precisely the claim that Jesus was making for himself. That is what he came into this world to do: to accomplish the impossible, to do what only God can do, to pull us along with all the camels in the world through the eye of a needle.

No human being that has walked the face of the earth since Genesis 3 has been able to keep the first commandment. No human being since the fall into sin has been able to trust God and only God, above and before anything else. As impossible as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, so it is impossible for any of us to do what we are supposed to do to inherit eternal life. But what is impossible for us is possible with God! And that is exactly what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus Christ.

It may be impossible for us to trust God, but that doesn't stop God from trusting us. God sends Jesus into this world to forgive and embrace chronic idolaters like you and me and the rich young ruler and the astonished disciples. In Jesus Christ we at last meet a God we can totally trust. When we come to his table to eat and to drink, there are no limits on the portions. There is no food rationing here. There is no limited supply of God's love. There is no sin too great. There is no doubt too deep. There is no crime so great that God cannot forgive. Dare we say it: there is no needle too small with an eye too tiny through which the grace of God cannot pull us.

When water is poured and God's promise is spoken at the baptismal font, there is no statute of limitations. This is a promise that lasts forever. It will never wear out. It will never need to be repeated, as if somehow it didn't work the first time.

And when we let God love us like this, life changes. It can no longer be business as usual. And we begin to find ourselves doing wonderful and marvelous things, even miracles. Suddenly camels pass though the eyes of needles. And people who live in a world where money means everything are suddenly able to do things with money that seem strange to the rest of the world.

We are shortly in our worship service going to engage in one of the most radical and countercultural actions of the liturgy. We are going to be giving an offering to the church and God. To the outsider it looks very ordinary. It looks like just another fund-raising activity in a money-dominated culture. Clubs ask you to pay your dues. Churches ask you to make your contributions. Just like the coffee shop down the street, churches expect you to pay for services rendered.

It may look that way to the outside, but that is not what it is at all. That is why we insist on calling it an offering and not dues or obligations or a collection. In Jesus Christ God has brought us into a new world called the kingdom of God. In this world there are no limits. We live trusting that, when it comes to God's love and his promises, there is no scarcity. There is only abundance. And so we do what seems absurd to the rest of our world. We give our money away -- freely, generously, joyfully. And no one is twisting our arms. No one is forcing us. We have no expectation of getting anything in return. We give ourselves away in the form of our money, not because we have to but because we want to.

In a world where there never seems to be enough money to go around, in a world where we are always haunted by the specter of scarcity, in a world where time is money and money is power, in a world where a solid return on your investment is the most sacred value of all, in a world where no camel is ever going to pass through the eye of a needle and where no one in their right mind is ever going to give money away freely and willingly to others expecting nothing in return, in a world filled with such impossibilities, all things are possible with God in Jesus Christ. And those impossibilities are not only possible, they happen. They are reality here in this place today as Jesus blesses us with his grace.
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