A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, October 10th 2021
According to Jesus, ‘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.’ (10:25)
That a most inconvenient thing to hear. After all, in world terms, we are materially rich. I’m not suggesting we are all “loaded”, but in comparison to people in Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, or Nicaragua we’re pretty well off. Compared to the Palestinian occupied territories , where water supply and electricity supply is variable, we’re doing very well. Whilst none of us here today is a billionaire (as far as I know) few, or none of us, are at the bottom of the economic pile in the UK.
And Jesus says, ‘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.’
There are different ways people respond to that statement. Some to try to change what Jesus said, so that it becomes more palatable. They argue that when Jesus said ‘the eye of a needle ‘ he didn’t really mean a needle you use for sewing. He must have meant a narrow gateway into the city that got nicknamed ‘the needle’; one that it would be a struggle to get a camel through; but with a bit of pushing, with a bit of effort, you can get there in the end.
In fact, I’ve heard of this interpretation has been used in sermons for church fund raising campaigns. You can get the camel through the narrow, needle-like gate, but it must lose some of the items it was carrying in order to do so. Likewise, if you drop off with the church treasurer some of your excess money, which might prevent you entering the kingdom of God, then everyone will be a winner! Must try that one at St Columba’s some year … or maybe not.
In any case, there is no historical basis for saying that there was a narrow entrance into a city that was nicknamed ‘the needle’. That’s a fantasy, created in order to tone down the demand of Jesus, making it more palatable for ourselves. If we must invent some image about getting through an entrance, try this one from Frederick Buechner: ‘‘It is easier for someone to drive a Mercedes Benz through a revolving door than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
All of which leads to a second sort of response to Jesus’s saying: perplexity and despair. We’re told that when Jesus told the rich man to sell his possessions and give away his money to the poor, the man ‘was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’ (10:21) He kept to God’s rules, God’s commandments, against killing, adultery, stealing, and coveting. He even remembered to honour his father and his mother, but even that wasn’t enough to qualify to enter the kingdom of God. So what hope is there for the rest of us?
That’s the reaction of Jesus’s disciples when they then spend some time alone with him: ‘they were greatly astounded and said to one another, Then who can be saved?’ (10:26) You can see their point of view. Even if we keep all of the commandments, even if we come to church every Sunday, even if we support the good work of Christian Aid, including through the projects in the Commitment for Life initiative, it won’t add up to enough to qualify us for entry to the kingdom of God, according to Jesus. Well, this is impossible.
And, yes, says Jesus, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’ (10:27) This Gospel story, about a disappointed rich man, and perplexed disciples, is a stark reminder that we rely upon God to bring us into the kingdom of God, not upon our own abilities and efforts.
That’s not to suggest that God does not care about how we lead our lives, including our use of possessions and treatment of others. The passage we heard from the OT prophet Amos is a strong reminder of God’s concern, declaring divine judgement on those who ‘trample on the poor’ (5:11) and ‘afflict the righteous’ (5:12); calling on everyone to ‘hate evil and love good, and establish justice … [and so] it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to [you]’. (5:15)
So, our response to Jesus saying, ‘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,’ should be a mixture of humility and celebration. Yes, be humble, for no matter what we do, it will never be enough to qualify us for entry to God’s kingdom, but, thank God, God is gracious, and ready to invite us in. So, we’ll do our best, including in how we use our possessions in relations to others – that’s part of what Commitment for Life is about. Some of us might even give up our material possessions – today’s rich man could not, but another one, Zacchaeus by name, did do just that in responding to Jesus.
And as for gaining entry to God’s kingdom, we will all just have to depend on God, but that’s ok, for as Jesus said about being rich and entering the kingdom, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.