This gospel is a tough one. It’s a put-up or shut-up challenge from Jesus to get our priorities straight. And it’s also a prime example of the hazards of basing our faith solely on a literal reading of scripture.
The imagery of the camel and the eye of the needle is one of the Bible’s most familiar. It is recounted in Matthew, Mark and Luke. For the wealthy seeking heaven, the message seems clear: You can’t get there from here. This was a total reversal of the prevailing view of worldly prosperity. Riches were seen as a sign of God’s favor. Now Jesus is telling the people that wealth is not a blessing. In fact, it is a tremendous obstacle to salvation.
And here’s where the fragility of literal interpretation comes in. While various translations agree on the concept of the eye of the needle, there is a likely alternative for the camel reference that might have been created by a 2nd Century typo. The Greek word kamilos for camel might really have been kamelos for rope. The concept of threading a needle with a rope seems to be more logical than threading it with a camel. And what is plainly impossible with a camel, is merely extremely unlikely, but still conceivable, with a rope. Another school of thought refers to the eye of the needle as the tiny secret entrance through the walls of an ancient city. Theoretically a camel could pass through such a hole in the wall, but it would require removing all its baggage and getting down on its knees to crawl or be dragged through. While this interpretation has been largely discredited, it colorfully illustrates the impediments of wealth and power.
But at the end of the day, these are all distinctions without a difference. Christ’s fundamental message is not subject to the minor vagaries of translation or literary allusion. Jesus states the case plainly: For people this is impossible, but for God all things are possible. We can’t buy our way into heaven. We can’t good-work our way into heaven. We can’t even pray our way into heaven. Our salvation is a gift from God. Rich or poor, we don’t earn it… but we must embrace it. We must accept Jesus as our risen Savior, not as a gauzy abstraction, but as a constant, palpable presence in our lives.
What a timely gospel this is. The income gap… between rich and poor people… between rich and poor countries… is growing to obscene proportions. But none of this is a new phenomenon. Think of the thousands who labored for years to build pyramids for one pampered person to stuff with the treasures he hoped to enjoy in the after life. It makes as little sense now as it did then.
In the face of massive economic inequities, while we seek just solutions… our eyes are on the real prize… on the treasures that can’t be stolen… on the investments that never lose their value. Greed and envy are opposite faces of the same ugly coin. Love is the currency of eternal life. And we can mint it all day long… in constant, reflexive courtesy… in acts of random kindness… in a life deliberately dedicated to giving and forgiving.
Both the have’s and the have not’s are beloved children of God… brothers and sisters… and commanded to act accordingly. Rich or poor, or somewhere in between, in Christ’s love you can take it with you… we can, and we will, get there from here.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.
Image: For He Had Great Possessions, George Frederic Watts, 1894 public domain