28th Sunday OT B ~ "Camels and Needles and Loopholes" ~ Susan McGurgan

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,

than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Ever since Jesus uttered this cryptic statement,

we have been busy trying to find a loophole;

an escape hatch;

a back door;

some fine print;

a way out.

Ever since Jesus met the rich young ruler,

we have been looking for a way

to embrace this passage as Truth,

without actually having to believe it

or live it.

We have rationalized it—

Jesus was just reminding us

to keep our priorities straight!

After all,

wealthy people support the Church and pay the bills.

If there were no rich Christians,

the Church might as well shut its doors

and turn out the lights.

We have analyzed it—

Linguists have determined

that the ancient words for “camel” and “rope”

are actually quite similar…

Maybe Jesus said it is easier for a ROPE

to pass through a needle’s eye...

So....if you had a small enough rope

and a large enough needle…

We have theologized it—

The Hebrew people,

like many ancient people,

thought wealth was a sign of God’s blessing;

a mark of righteousness and worth.

Jesus was teaching them

new ways of looking at the world.

We have decoded it—

Scholars speculate

that this passage refers to an ancient gate;

A gate so small—

so narrow—

that a camel could enter ONLY if its load was removed.

So, Jesus is telling us

to give some of our possessions away.

Enough, at least,

so we can fit through the gate…

We have ignored it.

And we have embraced it—

Of course Jesus really meant this,

and frankly, I quite agree—

those rich people SHOULD have a hard time

getting into heaven.

It’s tough to be poor.

I should know…

My stock portfolio took a dive this year,

and we barely have enough for a decent vacation!

You know, it’s funny.

We expend a considerable amount of energy

attempting to prove

that much of the Bible is literal truth.

The Holy Spirit shall come upon you,

and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you.

Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.

I am the resurrection, and the life.

This is my Body. This is my Blood.

On the third day, he arose from the dead.

All in all,

it’s a pretty astonishing list of Truths

that we profess to believe.

Like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland,

we Christians often find ourselves

believing

as many as six “impossible things” before breakfast.

And yet,

when we stumble across a passage

indicating that the rich might have trouble

entering heaven,

We spend a lifetime trying to reason,

and analyze,

and explain it all away,

But what if it’s true?

What if this saying is meant to be taken literally?

That it is hard for the rich to enter heaven—

very hard—

in fact you might even say,

impossible.

What if wealth is a barrier to eternal life?

What if God is truly calling us to give up

everything we own?

What if Mother Teresa

and St. Francis

and Pope Gregory the Great

and that weird kid in third grade

who gave all of his GI Joes to the mission family--

had it right all along?

Where does that leave the rest of us,

who clutch our tchotchkes and our pretties like grim death?

Maybe it leaves us clearing our throats

and fingering the loose change in our pockets.

Maybe it leaves us with the realization

that scripture is truly sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit,

joints and marrow.

Maybe it forces us

to look deep into our own culture and choices.

Maybe it turns our perspective

sideways

and upside down.

Maybe it reminds us that God’s view

of poverty and wealth

is not our own—

That the Gospel message looks quite different

when it’s viewed from the

bottom up

rather than from the

top down.

In our town,

even the poorest among us

are wealthy

in the eyes of the world.

In Cincinnati,

most of us are 82 times better off

than the poorest of the world’s poor.

But we often don’t appreciate this,

since we usually gauge our wealth

by looking up

at the few who have more.

But still,

even if we agree in principle,

is Jesus really asking us to give it all up?

Everything?

Money,

home,

security?

I don’t even pretend to know,

and like most Christians,

I struggle to reconcile my love of “things”

with my love for God.

But wrestling with this passage reminds me

that the Bible talks more often

about the evil of poverty

than the sin of adultery.

It speaks more about mercy and welcome for the stranger

than it does about personal piety.

For Jesus,

feeding the hungry trumps the Sabbath law.

And in the eyes of God,

the goods of the world are for all to enjoy.

Maybe in this passage,

Jesus really WAS speaking in hyperbole,

overstating the case

to make his point.

Maybe Jesus challenged the rich young man

in this particular way

because money was his personal weakness,

his idol,

his secret god.

Maybe Jesus doesn’t really want us

to give it all away—

to dump our money

and our bracelets

and our snowblower

and our collection of GI Joes

right out onto the front lawn

for any passerby to take.

I just don’t know—

But wrestling with these difficult stories

reminds us of an important truth—

That we spend a lot of time and energy

trying to tame the call of God.

To domesticate it.

Dilute it.

Explain it.

Neutralize it.

Turn it from something wild and raw,

into something bland and safe.

The writer, Annie Dillard, says this about faith:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea

of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?

Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?

The churches are children

playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,

mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.

It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats

and velvet hats to church;

we should all be wearing crash helmets.

Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;

they should lash us to our pews."

The story of the rich young ruler reminds us

that if the Gospel no longer has the power to

astonish us,

frighten us

anger us

surprise us

challenge us—

It may be that we are no longer really listening.

Or maybe we have heard the message so often

that its rough edges are worn smooth

and the radical surprise has dulled.

HG Wells said,

there is either something mad about the Christian message,

or else our hearts

are still too small to comprehend it.

Jesus invited the rich young ruler

into a world where the astonishing

becomes ordinary

And the ordinary

becomes sacred.

Jesus invited him,

and all of us,

to enlarge our hearts—

to be surprised by grace—

to take a risk—

to be transformed.

If we have the courage to accept,

maybe then,

the stories of camels and needles and rich young men,

won’t cause us to search for a loophole

an escape hatch,

some fine print,

or a way out,

but rather,

a way in.

© Susan Fleming McGurgan

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