The Eye of the Needle

The story of the rich man and Jesus is pretty well known as far as Bible passages go. It’s in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew calls the man young, and Luke calls him a ruler; so sometimes he is referred to as the rich young ruler). As I say in the sermon below, it’s not a story we love to hear. But Jesus’ speaks an important word about the way our relationship with wealth can get in the way of our relationships with our neighbors. Let me know what you think. (And if you’ve ever moved, how much did it weigh?)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When Tim and I moved last year, I got an uncomfortable look at just how much stuff I own. It was just a cross-town move, so we paid for everything based on how long it took, not how much it weighed. But when the truck pulled up, I couldn’t believe how big it was! No way that we needed that big of truck for our stuff. It wouldn’t even be halfway full.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. The truck was way more than halfway full. I asked one of the movers what he thought it all weighed. “Not that much,” was his reply. “Probably a ton and half.” Not that much. Just 3,000 pounds of stuff. And that didn’t even include the bedroom and dining room sets we’d bought and had delivered straight to the parsonage. We were probably looking at owning over two tons of stuff.

“Sell all that you have,” says Jesus, “and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.” And the man went away shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions. I am sure, without a doubt in my mind, that I have more than he did. I am sure that you have more possessions than that man did, too.

We don’t like this parable much, do we? It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. That’s not exactly what we wanted to hear. We’re not the only ones. Over the years, people have tried to soften the blow of Jesus’ words.

What does it mean to be rich anyway? Unless you’re Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, there’s always someone richer than you. So maybe Jesus isn’t really talking about you and me. But, in the grand scheme of the world, everyone in this room is rich. Some more than others of course, but we cannot avoid the fact that when Jesus says “someone who is rich,” he’s not talking about other people, he’s talking about us. We are all this rich man.

Others have tried to say that Jesus’ command to “sell all your possessions” was just a command to this particular person, and he didn’t mean for everyone to do it. That might have some truth in it. After all, this man is clearly looking to go above and beyond normal understandings of righteousness. But that doesn’t change the second half of our story, where Jesus talks about rich people having such a difficult time getting into the kingdom of God.

And then there’s the most famous explanation of all: Jesus didn’t mean an actual needle! You see, there’s a very narrow gate in Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle, and a camel could fit through, but first you have to take everything off the camel. So we must unburden ourselves before God. That’s a neat little explanation, except for the fact that there isn’t any such gate. There never was. It was invented by someone who was uncomfortable with this story, to make it easier on us.

But when we get down to it, this story should make us uncomfortable. It made the disciples uncomfortable. It says they were perplexed and astounded. After all, everyone knows that being rich, that having a lot of stuff means you have many blessings, right? It’s a sign of what a good person you are. But Jesus seems to be saying something very different. That having many possessions is not necessarily a blessing, but instead something that can hinder our relationship with God.

It is not so much wealth or possessions themselves that are dangerous, but what these things do to us and just how much we value them and seek them out that is dangerous. We idolize wealth and there is always the temptation to value it above all else. We see it as the solution to all of our problems. It makes us feel secure, and safe, and protected. We turn wealth and possessions into an idol.

Martin Luther, writing in the sixteenth century saw this problem, too: “There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property; they trust in them and boast in them so stubbornly and securely that they care for no one else. They, too, have a god—that is money and property—on which they set their whole heart. This is the most common idol on earth.”

Something becomes an idol for us when we would rather depend upon it than upon God. When we put our trust in it, instead of trusting in God. The most common idol on earth in the sixteenth century remains the most common idol on earth today. We depend upon our wealth and our possessions instead of depending upon God and instead of depending on each other.

Oh, it might not be so obvious as it was with this rich man, but we do it all the same. It is so easy to think that things will make us happy. A new gadget or device, better clothes, a nicer car. And we certainly look to the number in the retirement fund to decide if we feel safe and secure.

It is as infectious as any disease. This man who runs up to Jesus kneels before him and beseeches him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He kneels before him. It’s a small detail, but an important one. Every other person in the story who has knelt before Jesus is seeking healing, healing for themselves or for a loved one, or seeking to be free of their demons. This man is in need of healing, too, whether he realizes it or not.

Jesus’ pronouncement that he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor is less a command than it is a cure. When we are able to freely give away the thing that is controlling us, we take away its power. When we give away our money, when we lead generous lives, we chip away at the hold that money has on us. In giving up the very thing that we have come to depend on, we place our trust in God and place our wealth in care of neighbor.

I said earlier that we all are this rich man who has many possessions. It is true that we like him often fall prey to this idolatry of wealth. But we are like him in another way, too. It says that Jesus, looking at him, loved him. He loved him. Before he has any chance to give away his things or not, before he has done much more than ask a question, Jesus loves him. In that, too, we are all this rich man. Because when Jesus looks upon us, in need of healing in our souls, in need of release from our own selfish desires, Jesus loves us, too.

This all started with a question. The man runs to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Perhaps he has the question wrong. After all, what does anyone do to inherit anything? Inheritances are things that are given. They come, not because of any action on our part, but because of our belonging to a family. They can only be received, not earned.

“Children,” says Jesus, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” Children. For that is what we are to God, named and claimed as such in our baptisms. Children. Heirs to God’s kingdom. Inheritors of eternal life. Not because we have done anything. But because God loves us. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. It is a blessing, not just a command. Because God loves you, and God doesn’t want you to be captive to money or things. But instead be captive to God in love. Find your hope and your security and your safety in God, who is our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

 

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