Like a Camel Through the Eye of a Needle
If ever we needed evidence that God's ways are not ours, today's gospel story might do it. It's interesting to note that this story is the only time in the gospel of Mark where Jesus is explicitly described as loving someone. It's safe to trust that Jesus wasn't stingy with his love, but this is the only time that St. Mark felt he needed to mention it. And I don't know about you, but I find the way that Jesus expresses his love for this guy, more than a bit unnerving. Jesus looked at him and loved him and promptly told him to sell everything he had, give the proceeds to the poor, and join the travelling ministry team.
The truth is, in my heart of hearts, I want Jesus to have said, "Good job. Well done. Relax. You're good just as you are. You've been a good person, a stand-up citizen, a model to your peers. You don't need to change a thing." It seems like this guy is well within the bounds of reason if he thinks that Jesus will tell him that he is fine just as he is. He's followed the rules of his religion and culture. He's lived well. By any earthly standard, he's a cut above, and probably deserves some congratulations on his excellent life choices. It's certainly easy to imagine that everyone watching this scene thinks that what the man should get is a pat on the back for being such an example of goodness. And instead, Mark tells us, Jesus loves him.
He doesn't say, "You're fine just as you are." He loves him, instead. He loves him without conditions--almost indifferent to his religious accomplishments, oblivious to his fancy clothes. It matters that the fact of Jesus' love comes before he invites the man to turn his life upside down for the sake of the kingdom of God. Jesus' love will not be dependent upon the man's reception of it. But it does make me want to be a little more careful when we sing "Yes, Jesus loves me!" Somehow I doubt that this is what we're hoping for.
We don't really know what was at the heart of the man's question, or why it was so urgent for him. But it seems to me that he wanted more of something. It sounds to me like he has exhausted his own ability to make a life for himself. Having acquired many possessions, having led a blameless religious life, having surely risen in social standing, there was still something missing. And for whatever reason, he believed Jesus could put him on the track to get the more that his heart craved. There must be something else to do that will make a life that is really life, that will link here and now to eternity. What must I do to inherit eternal life?
I think a lot of people come to Jesus this way. I know I have. It's not so much that we want a different life, but our life accented--our life, just bit better: more peace, more joy, more of one thing or another, but more or less we've got things under control. Lots of people are prepared to try religion in order to satisfy some nagging spiritual hunger, but not for a life overhaul. It's fairly evident from the way that Mark tells the story that the man was not anticipating needing to change a whole lot. He just wanted more. There must be one more thing to do; one thing that's missing that will nicely round out what we already have.
But over and over again what we see, what we experience is that when we come into Jesus' presence, when we fall to our knees, when we ask for the more that our hearts crave, he is not satisfied to give us just a spiritual spruce up. He's not particularly interested in a religious makeover. Instead, he invites us into a whole new thing; instead, he gives us himself and invites us to follow in a whole new direction. Let's notice how Jesus shifts the man's attention away from his own life, his eternal concern for himself, and to something quite a bit more: to the kingdom of God. He invites the man not to add another thing to himself, but to give himself entirely to something beyond his wildest expectations. Jesus invites him to stop fretting about what's missing, and to dive in, with reckless abandon, to what God is doing--not somewhere, someday, but here and now.
It's beautiful. And I suspect that most of us, if we're honest, completely understand the man's reaction. Can we not understand why he's shocked and grieved by Jesus' absurd invitation? It's an entirely world shattering-proposition. It goes against everything he and we know; it's contrary to everything we've been taught to believe is true. The man's lot in life is supposed to be evidence of good and faithful living. His culture, as much as ours, affirms that somehow material wealth is a sign of spiritual health. Prosperity and virtue go hand in hand--at least, when we like a person.
We may not say it aloud, but it's a hard idea to kick, isn't it? Don't we prefer conversion stories that involve the poor and the wretched being lifted up? We like the stories of the drug addict who gets clean; the wayward teenager who finds the straight and narrow; the swindler and cheat who rights his ways. And so we should--we should celebrate when the lost are found. But here Jesus is implying that there's another kind of conversion. He's not affirming the upwardly mobile; he doesn't hold the rich and the religious elite up for applause. Instead he's inviting the one who's got it all to become downwardly mobile, to empty himself, to let go of his self-sufficiency. "The thing you lack is that you've got too much stuff, Jesus says. (And don't forget that I love you.)" And I do wish we could sort of generalize this and say it's not really about wealth, or that wealth is just this particular man's problem, but Jesus isn't much interested in my cowardice or my best intentions. He says it straight-up: "It's hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God." His words, not mine.
Frederick Beuchner says that the gospel is bad news before it's good news, and he might well have been thinking about this story when he wrote that. The way of Jesus turns the world we know upside down, and puts it back on its feet. And that can be awfully disorienting for those of us who have gotten quite used to the way things are. This is one of the few times where the disciples actually seem to understand what Jesus is saying, because they are appropriately stunned. If this guy, who is an ideal of good living--religiously committed, financially stable, socially desirable--isn't a shoo-in to the kingdom of God, what hope do the rest of us have? If the rich have a hard time getting in, then who can be saved?!
I think it's a question rooted in the way things are, not the way they will be. The disciples have a complete lack of imagination for anything other than the way they've been taught; they can't see any world but the one directly in front of their noses. But Jesus throws out this ridiculous image that kick starts their imaginations and ours. Getting a rich person into the kingdom of God is more or less like shoving a camel through the eye of a needle. The impossibility of it bends the mind. And perhaps if we'll allow for it, it opens us up to where Jesus is really aiming. For humans it's impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible. The God we're dealing with, the One to whom Jesus is ever pointing us towards and calling us to, is not overwhelmed by the logistics of this problem. Our God can walk a camel through the eye of a needle.
I think this is finally the answer to the rich man's question, and the thing that can truly satisfy the soul. The answer is that you can't do anything to inherit eternal life; you can't do anything to secure your place in the kingdom of God. You can only receive it. We can't claim the kingdom for ourselves, no matter how good our intentions and effort; we can only allow it to claim us, to take us where it will. Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.
I remember reading about a retired Presbyterian minister named John Buchanan. He wrote an article reflecting on his 50-year ministry, and he recalled a story about baptizing a two-year-old boy. After the child had been baptized with water, Rev. Buchanan, did what the Presbyterian prayer book instructed: he put his hand on the little boy's head and said, "You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever." To the old preacher's surprise, the little boy looked up and responded, "Uh-oh."
Uh-oh indeed. When Jesus looks at the man and loves him, when he looks at us and loves us, it's with a love that makes a claim on us. The love of God is not a passive, pat-us-on-the-head kind of love, but a passion that overwhelms, that consumes, that compels us out of an old life and into a new one. The reason that the gospel is often talked about as "good news for the poor" is that the poor tend to be pretty good and ready for a whole new world. The poor aren't thrown by the idea that in the topsy-turvy way of Jesus, many of the first will be last and the last first. It's those of us who are pretty happy with the current order of things who struggle with the idea. Because when we find ourselves face to face with Jesus, when we see the love with which he looks at us, the lengths to which Jesus is prepared to go for us, it demands a response; business as usual will not suffice, he will not be an accessory to our best laid plans. His love is not coercive, but it compels a response. I love the line from Isaac Watt's hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Were the whole realm of nature mine that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
I think that's why Jesus gets kind of testy with Peter at the end of the passage. Peter, bless his heart, wants to take a moment and remind Jesus of just how much he and the others have sacrificed to follow him--not like the mopey rich folks. And Jesus says, "Look, pay attention Peter, what you're going to give up, what you have given up for the sake of God's new world order is peanuts compared to what you're going to get." In effect, I think he's reminding Peter that the stunned fisherman is only doing what he ought to have done, having been caught by the love of God.
What's more, Peter accidentally reminds us that there are lots of ways that we try to earn our way into the kingdom, earn our way into God's grace--not just good behaviour and full bank accounts. There's a kind of spiritual arrogance seeping out of Peter's words, which is just as dividing and dangerous, just as protective against the stirring of the gospel as money can be. The way of Jesus challenges all the ways in which we let our confidence rest in ourselves to do what only God can do. Try as we might, we're never going to get that camel through. We need more. We need God. Both wealth and spiritual pride can make us self-absorbed, both can make our vision so narrow that we are unable to see what God is really about, what God is really up to, what God is calling us to join.
The kingdom of God that Jesus is talking about is not simply somewhere and someday else. Obviously its fullness is not here, and we have a hope for something not yet seen, but what Jesus is on about to the disciples, to the questioning man, is a present reality. In this life and in the age to come, Jesus says! Eternity is now! Heaven breaks in, here and now! The building blocks of the kingdom are lives caught up in God at work in the world.
In the presence of Jesus things are not business as usual. He looks at us and says "You are too important for business as usual." The way things are is not the way they will be and we have a chance to be a part of that future now. Jesus looks at us and loves us and calls us to follow him into a way of life that is so strange that it will be perfectly natural when God gets the world that God wants--when justice, love, and righteousness are on earth as in heaven. Jesus invites us, woos us, calls us to release our grasp on the things that limit us, things that define us by anything other than the grace of God, so that we are free to grab hold of him, free to let the kingdom grab hold of us. And when we do that, he promises, we don't find ourselves limited but we find our lives, our vision, our love expanded--even a hundredfold. We find our families enlarged, our welcome and gratitude magnified, our generosity stretched to lengths we couldn't imagine if we didn't know the generosity of God.
Of course, it's worth noticing that Jesus says that there will also be some persecutions tossed in amongst the blessings. "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life." He doesn't say that the way of faith is every step easy. In fact, when we choose to follow him he sets us on a collision course with ways that are not going to go down quietly. But the promise is that shock and grief will not be the end of the story. Elsewhere Jesus describes the life of faith as sometimes like being in labour--painful, but in the end incomparably worth it.
So there's a tension in the story, a question that's left hanging. Mark tells us that the man went away shocked and grieving, in a kind of spiritual pain, his world sent spinning by this Jesus whom he thought would straighten everything out. But we don't really know what happens next, do we? He has every reason to be overwhelmed by what Jesus asks of him so we should allow him some shock and some tears. But we don't know that he didn't do it.
I think Mark leaves the question hanging for us. It makes clear the challenge of truly following Jesus. This isn't a question about God's goodness and grace eventually, but about the will and way of Jesus taking shape here and now. I'm prepared to allow that he probably isn't asking all of us to sell everything and give it away. (Though, if you're feeling moved, I have some ideas.) But he is looking at us and loving us--heaven help us--and inviting us to let his kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love, his way of abundant life, claim us, grab hold of us, get us caught up in the wild ways and means of God. He's looking at us and loving us and offering the chance to let all we are and have be bound up with the extravagance and the grace of the One who can do in us and through us more than we would dare ask or imagine if we didn't know how much we are loved.
The question hangs before us. And behind it the wonderful promise of Psalm 126: Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.