by Maria Evans
Today’s Gospel reading picks up where yesterday’s leaves off, so if you haven’t read it, back up a paragraph or two in your Bible and refresh your memory. Yesterday we were introduced to a young man with an earnest question–”What do I have to do to earn this eternal life thingy? Just tell me.” Like a lot of young folks, he starts with his resumé, ticking off just how well he believes he’s been following the commandments. (Can’t you just imagine Jesus and the disciples trying to suppress their giggles, thinking, “Yeah, right…”?) Everyone and their pet cat knew that no one could keep all the commandments all the time, we’re human and it’s impossible…so Jesus answers his impossibility with another impossibility. Sell your stuff. Give up everything you have. Strip yourself of everything you think is “you.” Dismayed, the young man sadly trudges off.
Today, we pick up in Jesus’ teaching moment with the disciples, and he uses an aphorism that tends to get lost inside our 21st century ears: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” We tend not to harbor many thoughts about camels and needles–about all we pick up from it is that it sounds pretty impossible. To those that heard this at the time it was written, though, it was an old saw that spoke to how we try to wrap our heads around that which is beyond human reasoning (and fail miserably). The Babylonian Talmud used a similar phrase, but with an elephant instead of a camel and in the setting to illustrate that dreams reveal the truths of the heart where reason falls short. Jesus only polished it to use an animal more familiar to his audience. Think of it as a 2000 year old permutation of Step One in the Twelve Steps–we are powerless to earn the Kingdom of God. There’s nothing we can do, nothing we can say that makes us worthy. It’s just not possible. Period. We are never clever enough, never smart enough, never savvy enough to obtain perfection on our own account. That’s a pretty big statement to people who are rapidly becoming Hellenized and exposed to the Greek notion of “perfection”–and a pretty big statement to us in our times, where every ad, every magazine photo, every TV show whispers in our ears, “Sure, you can be perfect! Just do this/buy this/be this way.”
“Well dang,” you might be thinking. “Where’s the good news in THAT? Maybe I should just pack it up and shuffle off with my tail between my legs like the young man, if it’s that bad.”
Oh, but as the infomercials say, “But wait–there’s more.”
Jesus is hinting at the beautiful paradox that comes from the same place as “saving your life by losing it.” You see, we are already perfect in the eyes of God–tiny sparks of perfection in a sea of our own brokenness–and it is only when we accept that this is a gift from God, not a merit badge, that we can begin to see how the otherness of the Kingdom of God works in both our individual and corporate lives. We were born the way we are–quirks, warts, and all, and God has a use for each of us in opening the cracks, windows, and portholes of our broken world to let the light of God shine through.
Unfortunately, too many times we squabble among our own brothers and sisters of different faiths and denominations about what that means. We get on our high horses about whether or not someone has to get on their knees and confess their faith publicly, or get dunked instead of sprinkled in the waters of baptism, or just who is the “one true faith”. Sadly, the results of that line of reasoning are war, terrorism, and death. We become no different than our young man who thought there was a checklist for how to earn the merit badge of the Kingdom of God. We miss the point. We ignore what Biblical scholar Ulrich Luz calls “the quantitative element in perfection.” Beginning to live within the framework of the Kingdom of God is less about what we do or say, it’s more about “How do we acknowledge our powerlessness before God, and how does that connect us to God’s otherness and the radical life of a Jesus Follower?” None of us can do it alone, but it can be done when we open ourselves up individually and corporately that God calls each of us to live beyond the usual and customary boundaries of the world. For each of us, that might be something slightly different, but it almost always involves letting go instead of acquiring.
What bit of “self” or “stuff” might God be asking you today to release yourself from, that lets Gospel perfection in?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. You can also share her journey on her blog, Chapologist.