The Eye of the Needle
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Everybody loves a good story. This is Columbus Day weekend – a federal holiday in the United States, and occasion for Italian Pride. More than 100 groups and bands with thousands of marchers and red, white and green floats will sail down Fifth Avenue celebrating and reminding millions of TV viewers of the tremendous contribution Italian-Americans have made to the American culture. The story of Columbus’ voyage is a great story of faith.
Stories and parables are a good way to elevate our view to greater truth. Today’s Gospel, Mark Chapter 10, tells a great story. The parable of the rich man, or the rich, young ruler according to Luke. Have you ever heard someone rich, famous or successful announcing they will “give back?” Doesn’t the idea of “giving back” sound a little off-key? At first reading the parable of the rich man appears to be about the evils of money and a call for redistribution of wealth. But, there is much more to this familiar story. The Gospels often teach by using a progression of events, one series of events and parables illuminating the next. This story is not about money. It’s about faith; what real faith is – and what faith is not.
Most good stories start with “Once upon a time,” but this story begins in Chapter 9 of Mark with the words, “After six days…” Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to a high mountain and they see Jesus transfigured, wearing dazzling white clothes, speaking with Moses and Elijah. And the voice of God announces, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.”
Still in a daze, the three disciples follow Jesus down the mountain to join the other disciples, who we find arguing with some Pharisees. As Jesus asks what they are arguing about man in the crowd jumps in and tells Jesus his Son has an evil spirit. It throws him down and gives him terrible convulsions. He tells Jesus the disciples were not able to drive the evil spirit out. Jesus rebukes his disciples for their unbelief, then asks for the boy. The father looks to Jesus and pleads, “If you can, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus replies, “IF I can? Everything is possible for one who believes.” At this, the boy’s father answers in those famous words, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
Let’s look at this man’s faith. He had enough faith to ask for help. But he doubted his faith. In a sense, the man came to church and prayed, but he had doubts his prayers could or would be answered. This is sort of a “hopeful, but weak” faith. Jesus straightens him out with a truth about faith we need to remember today, “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Jesus commands the demon to come out. The demon shrieks, violently throws the boy down, then leaves. The son is healed. Later, the disciples ask why they couldn’t drive it out. Jesus tells them that only prayer can drive out one like that. They still didn’t understand what Jesus meant. Even after what they had been through with Jesus, the disciples still don’t understand that faith without dependence on prayer is just intellectual faith. So, on the way through Galilee to Capernaum, Jesus keeps a low profile. He wants to teach his disciples, not do more miracles for the crowds. Jesus explains about his coming death and resurrection. Again, they don’t understand; worse, they are afraid to ask.
Instead, on the road, the disciples talk heatedly among themselves. When they get to Capernaum Jesus asks what they were arguing about. Embarrassed, they keep their mouths shut. Why? They were arguing who was the greatest. They still hadn’t understood. So, Jesus teaches them two lessons; the greatest is the one who becomes the least, the servant of all. And, the example of the child; “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” We’ll come back to what Jesus might have meant by this.
Now, today’s reading from Chapter 10. A man runs up to Jesus and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Aha! Here is faith coming into our story. Not, “Is there eternal life?” Not “Can it be received?” But, “Good rabbi, WHAT must I do to inherit it?” The man’s belief appears strong, but, as we will see, his understanding falls short, like the disciples.
Jesus first response to the man is, “Why call me good? No one is good. Only God is good.” To teach him, Jesus first says, “You know the commandments. You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.”
The man tells Jesus he has observed all these since his youth. Then Jesus gazes at him, loving him, and says, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The rich man’s face fell. His eyes dropped from Jesus and he looked towards the earth. He left Jesus presence and went away in sorrow, because he had many possessions.
What is Jesus teaching here? Why did Jesus say, “No one is good?” The man says he has kept all the commandments Jesus mentioned since his youth. He has rightly been taught all his life that keeping the commandments is his obligation as a good Jew. Jesus looks at him, and loves him. But, Jesus wants to teach the man – and us - that not being bad is not good enough. Not breaking the Law doesn’t get you to Heaven. It’s important to restrain the impulse to forget our parents, our temptations to lie and defraud, to steal, to be adulterous, even to murder, this is necessary, but not enough. Simply keeping the commandments is not enough to inherit eternal life. It’s a good start. It points us in the right direction. But, faith is more than intellectual understanding and not breaking rules!
Jesus looks into this man, and tells him he is lacking one thing. Jesus does not tell him straight out what he lacks, but he gives the man - and us – a hint. “Sell what you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven.” The man casts his eyes down from looking at Jesus, and walks away sadly because, we are told, he had great possessions.
Is it the possessions that are keeping this man from the kingdom? Is it just because he is rich? Isn’t thrift and honest industry and effort something to be rewarded? Isn’t being a good steward of wealth a great virtue? In other places, Jesus’ parables teach that good stewardship in the matters of this life will be rewarded in the life to come. So, let’s look more carefully for the higher lesson.
The Gospel gives us another hint when we notice that Jesus reminds him of five of the six commandments relating to human interactions. The first four of the ten commandments are about man and God –Thou shalt have no other gods before me, no idols or graven images, honor the name of the Lord, keep the Sabbath. The next five are about how to behave – or not behave – towards other human beings. Honor your father and mother, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t give false testimony or defraud. But one commandment is missing from this list. What Jesus doesn’t remind the man of is the one commandment about human relationships that is a matter of the mind and heart, a matter of attitude, not behavior. You shall not covet.
Covetousness is a matter of thought, not action. Covetousness is an interior sin that destroys a person from the inside. As the Epistle of James warns, “You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel…You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
We don’t know if Jesus discerned that covetousness was holding back this man’s faith. Nor do we know how this story finally turns out. Does the rich man “wake up” to what Jesus was teaching? Does he search his heart and see that he lacked empathy for the poor. That even though his faith was intellectually strong and his behavior was moral and correct, perhaps he was lacking in compassion, in feeling for the suffering of his fellow man. It is possible that Jesus discerned the rich man had let his wealth insulate him from the anxieties and pressures and vulnerability most of us feel every day.
Does it dawn on him this is not about his wealth – it’s about his un-empathetic, even cold attitude towards others. This story asks us; Rich or poor, are we tender-hearted, or are we hard-hearted? Remember Archie Bunker? Archie proved lack of wealth doesn’t necessarily bring compassion. Archie was not poor in spirit.
Or was it something more? Jesus taught two lessons: Do we connect this with Jesus putting his arms around the child and blessing him, teaching his disciples that they must receive Jesus – and the Father – as a child? A child knows his need for his parents. Maybe Jesus was hinting that it wasn’t wealth that was the rich man’s problem, but his feeling of reliance on his wealth. Had his wealth become an idol? Does the rich man come to understand Jesus was pointing out he had become dependent on his wealth rather than dependent on God, as the little child is dependent on his parents. Maybe it was both. We don’t know.
Jesus then says, “How hard it is for the rich… It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to inherit the kingdom.” The disciples ask a reasonable question, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus repeats what he said to the father of the epileptic boy, “With men this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Peter, still not understanding, says, “We left everything to follow you!”
Jesus answer to Peter is also an answer for us to the rich man’s question about how to inherit eternal life, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” We cannot accept this with the intellect. It requires struggling not for independence from God, but to relax into dependence on God, and empathetic love for all people and creation.
It was also hard for the disciples to understand this with their reason. Jesus turns the world upside down, but we like it right side up. Jesus teaches us to have a heart for the poor. Charity, Caritas, is not a matter of not breaking the commandments. It is not a matter of wealth redistribution. This is not a lesson in economics or power politics. The lesson Jesus teaches us in the parable of the rich man is the same lesson he teaches in his sermon on the mount. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who know their need of God. It may be more difficult for a rich person to have compassion for others and to know his need for God than one who experiences poverty.
Whether the gate barring the rich man’s entrance to eternal life was belief that keeping the commandments is good enough, or reliance on his wealth rather than God, or covetousness - or lack of empathy, we don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us, but I like to think the rich man finally figures it out and becomes a follower of Jesus. I hope his encounter with Jesus transformed his intellectual faith, and Jesus’ example of empathy and love for him was a life-transforming experience.
The greatest faith is shown at Jericho, the next stop on Jesus’ journey. There, the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, yells out to Jesus for mercy. Bartimaeus so strongly felt his need and dependence on the mercy of God, and so firmly believed God could do the impossible, that his faith gives him sight. All things are possible with God. The blind man sees.
Finally, even though it may be hard for a camel to negotiate that narrow, twisting barrier gate into Jerusalem called, “The Eye of the Needle,” even a camel, with sufficient faith and trust in the guidance of a compassionate, empathetic hand, even a camel CAN pass through The Eye of the Needle. The Holy Spirit can also guide us through the difficult gates in front of us - if we rely on the Spirit and let ourselves be led. Faith is a process, and belief requires struggle. As the boy’s father asked, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”
We don’t know how the story of the rich man finally ends, but we do know how Columbus voyage turned out. Despite almost drowning at sea as a teen-ager, Columbus sailed, believing in faith that across the mysterious great ocean was land. His faith led him to do what is impossible for men, but, like all things, is possible for God.
May God add his blessing to these words.