Riches, camels and what we really value

I’ve always wondered about the camel and the eye of the needle. If you go to a church in the Old City of Jerusalem, there’s a bit of ancient wall inside which does indeed have a very narrow vertical gap in it. And everyone is assured that this gap is really the thing called ‘the eye of the needle’. It’s only big enough for a quite thin person, or a very baby camel, to even think of getting through it.  Is the saying a mistranslation? Are we meant to take it literally? Maybe this saying in the Gospel is meant to be a sort of exaggeration, something Jesus says to demonstrate that being rich could be a problem.  Or does it mean something else?

At the beginning of the Gospel, there’s a question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’. In words we might use, ‘what do I have to do to get into heaven?’ And Jesus gives one of the expected responses, ‘obey the commandments’; as we’re still expected to do – even though they were given to Moses perhaps 3000 years ago, they’re still the basis of much of our moral code. ‘Oh well,’ says the man, ‘I’ve been strictly following these all of my life.’ We might hear him add, ‘Is there anything else?’ What comes next is something totally unexpected. Sell everything you have, give away the money you’ll get and then come follow me, says Jesus. 

Yes….well…the man was shocked, as we would also probably be . And sad – grieving – because he was obviously attached to all of his ‘things’ and didn’t want to give up everything. What’s interesting is that the disciples, who might have been expected to understand what Jesus was getting at a bit better than someone who wasn’t one of his followers, are first perplexed and then greatly astounded at the idea of a poor person having an easier time than a rich one getting into the Kingdom of God. But then, the disciples are usually portrayed as not getting the point of most of the difficult things Jesus raises.

It seems that some rabbis and religious leaders portrayed having possessions, prosperity and wealth as a sign of God’s favour and blessing. If you were poor, it was obvious that you’d done something wrong. Poverty was seen as a sign that someone hadn’t followed the rules, they’d sinned in some way and therefore weren’t loved by God. In usual Jesus fashion, he totally contradicts this idea, no doubt greatly annoying religious leaders – again! – by saying that possessions, wealth or significant income is not a mark of heavenly favour, and their absence is not evidence of heavenly disfavour.  No wonder the disciples were confused – they’d always been taught that worldly success and having lots of ‘things’ meant that you were OK with God. If you were poor then you had to find out where you’d displeased God and fix it.  And the idea of deliberately making yourself poor was just unthinkable. Why would anyone want others to think that they were sinners because they were poor?

Worshipping wealth is in fact idolatry because it makes something more important than God. God doesn’t want us to worship wealth and material things; and success certainly shouldn’t be used to judge how worthy or important someone is. One of the most misquoted bible verses is about money: ‘Money is the root of all evil’ is what most people think the verse says. Actually, it’s the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Money and possessions are really morally neutral – it’s how we get both and also how we use both which gives them moral or ethical acceptability. Or not. Acquiring stuff just to show off, or make us look important could be considered the sin of pride, especially if whoever made the stuff has been exploited in their manufacture. Hoarding wealth just to benefit yourself isn’t ‘love your neighbour’. What’s ‘need’ and what’s ‘greed’ …and is it possible to love both your neighbour, and God, and money at the same time? Possessions are temporary, they can deteriorate, or rust, or get stolen or lost.

The point of the Gospel this morning isn’t really anything about camels, or holes in walls.  It’s more to do with how we live our lives, and what we might think is important. Or what we’re attached to and find it hard to give up.  What might be our eye of the needle?

We, in our current society, are persuaded that having treasure in a future heaven is a Good Thing, but it won’t exactly pay the bills now, will it. But Jesus isn’t really giving instructions about having to make yourself destitute in order to gain eternal life. Or to get into heaven. He’s promoting the importance of spiritual, not material, wealth and health when he talks about having treasure in heaven.  What Jesus wants the man who asked him about inheriting eternal life to do, and what I think he wants us to do, may be more about examining our attitudes towards material things. How we find it impossible to detach ourselves from the wealth or possessions we have, not that either of those are bad in themselves. To let all of them go if necessary.

Jesus wants to challenge us about what would we be prepared to let go of, what do we cling to as either security blankets or attempts to insulate ourselves from fear of the unknown and unpredictable future. What do we think is ‘enough’. What do we really love? Do we actually need a bigger car, or yet another ornament, or indeed a bank balance big enough to last for months – the ‘just in case’ syndrome. Should we care that we don’t have the very latest iPhone or gadget that advertising tells us that we absolutely must own?  We could ask ourselves what we would save if our house was on fire and we only had 5 minutes to get out, to judge what we consider to be really important to us, as far as possessions go.

So – back to eye of the needle. When we can’t let go of the quite natural desire to have bigger and better or more and more, does that make us too spiritually obese to get through it?  Could we make ourselves thin enough to step through this narrow gap into a world where we’re contented with having only what we need; and are ready to see following Jesus as coming before everything else? Jesus doesn’t say it’s impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God – just that it’s difficult. Worshipping wealth and having lots of ‘things’ takes our attention away from God. Anything which does that can open us up to unhealthy temptations. ‘Then who can be saved?’ asked the confused and astonished disciples. Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

We need to be saved from those bits of ourselves which get in the way, practices like always wanting more, and working harder and longer to get money and possessions because then we never have time to step back and just thank God for everything we already have. That salvation can only be done by God because it’s impossible for us to save ourselves. We’re only human after all.

And what would you save from your burning house?

Leslie Spatt 2021