28th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   What a hard and challenging statement.  It is also one with a long history of interpretation as to what Jesus meant.  Some say it refers to a gate to the city of Jerusalem called the eye of the needle.  In order to get through, a camel would have to stoop to pass narrowly.  Tough, but possible.  Others say if you had a camel, why not choose a bigger gate?  Others claim that it is an Aramaic expression that when transposed into Greek becomes it is easier for a rope or cable to pass through the eye of a needle. Still impossible.  Finally, others point to the fact that other near Eastern societies expressed the impossible by saying it is like an elephant passing through the eye of a needle and the Israelites replaced it with a camel because it was their largest local animal.  My favorite interpretation comes from Brownie in the beloved series of novels by Fredrick Beuchner compiled as the Book of Bebb.  Brownie had a way of putting the most positive spin on what Peter Maurin called the hard sayings of the Gospel.  Brownie said Jesus meant that it is easy for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven, it was as easy as needle passing the eye of a camel.

One thing I do know it that when there are many alternative understandings of a verse, it is because enough people want it to mean something else.  The apostles certainly do.  They are stunned by what Jesus has to say. In the Old Testament, wealth was seen as a sign of God’s favor.  Abraham was tremendously wealthy.  King David was wealthier and wealthier the more obedient he was to God.  Like the rich young man who comes to Jesus seeking eternal life, the wealthy had the ability, the means and the time to obey all the commandments to the Torah, the Law of God.  And being wealthy even helps with the Ten Commandments.  There is less need to steal if you already have money.  So when Jesus suggests that wealth is a hindrance to entering the kingdom of God, there is true astonishment at the statement.

But Jesus knew the dangers of wealth.  First off, he knew it could become an idol.  The more you have the more you have to protect.  The more energy and time you spend protecting it, the more you are consumed with what you have.  Your eyes come off the prize of following the Lord.  Your possessions begin to possess you.  Also, the poor are more aware of their dependence on God.  We are all equally dependent on God, but we are all not as equally cognizant of that fact.  I have met people who have told me about praying for food to feed their family.  Their prayer shimmered.  Our abundance on the other hand distracts from the reality that God upholds our life.

So if we are called to shed a few things in order to squeeze through the eye of the needle.   I have a few humble suggestions.  First, if there is something you possess; either a material thing or a desire that stops you from pursuing your relationship with God, can you surrender it?  Or will you succumb to your possessions as the rich young man did and be possessed by what you have?  Here is my most prized procession in my life right now.  This is a ticket to Game 3 of the National League Division Series at Citifield on Monday night.  If there is an emergency phone call however at 1pm, that will be a real “Will you follow me moment?”  Dear God, please don’t let that happen.

Secondly, we all have stuff and we could put that stuff in a few categories.  Things we need, things we use, and things we might use.  You know it has been years since I have worn this sweater because it has not gone anything, but that could change.  I have settings for twenty people but I have not had dinner for twenty in about fifteen years.  And my favorite of all, if I lost forty pounds, these pants might work again.  But does the stuff we might use really belong to us, or does it belong to the one who would definitely use it?  Can we afford to have it sitting it around or could it not be given where it would make a difference in someone’s life?  That is why God might have given the might use stuff to begin with.

Finally, I want you to pray in a way that we, or at least I, rarely pray.  I am good about asking for things for myself and especially for others such as health or peace when going through a difficult time.  But I wonder what would happen if I asked God what am I supposed to give up; what can I surrender to be come closer to the Lord?  It is not a prayer I make that often, but I think it is one God is waiting to hear.  God will know what to release us from so that we might be free to follow.

If we do any of these things, it would be freeing.  I t would also be counter-cultural and different.  And maybe even impossible to recalibrate our lives along these lines.  For human beings it may be impossible.  But not for God.  All things are possible for God.