Just then, a man came up to Jesus and inquired, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to obtain eternal life?”
"Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”
This Gospel is one that we’ve probably heard many times before and maybe it just passes over us. We tend to focus on the part about the rich man’s chances of getting into heaven being compared to a camel passing through the eye of a needle. We dismiss it because we say to ourselves, “Me rich? I’m not rich” or as a moral message that’s a bit tired: “Riches = bad… I get it.”
But in this message we find grace and, through the power of the incarnation and cross, not just a tired moral message but a bit of hope for this world and for all of us.
Let’s look at how this Gospel starts:
Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.
What is meant here by “ruler?”
The original word “archon” can have two meanings relevant to this passage: of royalty or it can also mean the ruler of the synagogue, i.e. a Rabbi, or a Pharisee.
And what about the use of the word “Good” here.
“Good teacher” is a common title for well-known and respected Rabbis. Christ’s response isn’t contradicting the use of the title. He’s just pointing out that the man only sees him in earthly terms.
We have to remember that Jesus despite his condemnations of the Rabbinic establishment’s hypocrisies was a Rabbi. Indeed this was an institution developed by the Pharasitic reformers. Pharasites were actually preaching the prophets’ message of internal repentance over outer temple worship which largely matches up with what Christ taught.
Eye of a Needle: Camels, elephants and us.
Then there is an examination of the ruler, how he has kept the law all his life but still feels lacking, then goes away sad as he is unwilling to give up his riches and follow Christ. What follows is Jesus’ famous commentary
“For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Some claimed that there was a gate in Jerusalem that was called “the eye of a needle,” and Jesus here was referring to it. But scholars now agree that there is little evidence for this.
That metaphor of the challenge of getting something large through small opening is a pretty common Semitic turn of phrase. It crops up in the Talmud and other ancient sources, with some versions mentioning elephants instead of camels. Jesus’ audience probably would have recognized this image signaling the absurd.
Is being rich the problem? Does that make salvation absurdly impossible?
Throughout the scriptures wealth itself is not demonized. Wealth becomes a problem when it is not recognized as God’s to begin with; when wealth is not recognized as a gift from God. Wealth is a gift for the community, not just the individual and therefore inherently imbued with social responsibility. Manna and the Israelites in the desert is just one of many Old Testament examples of this.
So Jesus isn’t introducing something new here -- this has been a consistent message of all the prophets:
Do all these evildoers know nothing? They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the LORD. (Psalm 14:4)
Because there is something about having that makes it hard for us to relinquish. We lose our trust in God that he will provide for us and our family and instead buildup storehouses. It keeps us from risking and doing what he has called us to.
We all know the struggle that greed and riches provide. Whether we’re in the so-called top 1% or the bottom 10% we are all the rich man. We all have that thing we can’t give up, whether relationships, jobs, desire for fame, comfortableness, even fear, anger and hate. Whatever it is that keeps us from trusting, from giving to that stranger beside us that also keeps us from making the leap and following Christ totally.
Even if we realize in our heart of hearts that we do lack, that we could do so much if we just made that leap.
So who then can be saved?
Today, right now, in Toronto where we are so obviously blessed with so many gifts? Is salvation possible or are we all camels or elephants trying to make it through the needle’s eye? Is there no hope for us here in Toronto, today?
What is Possible“and Jesus replied, "What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
This phrase “possible with God” is echoed two other times in Luke:
These two other places show us where the hope comes in.
From today’s epistle Ephesians 2:15:
“For he himself has… broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two (Jews and Gentiles), thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.”
We are preparing to be a new temple with “Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,”
God works the impossible. He takes the broken and weak and confounds the wise. He makes the blind see, and the barren give birth. This is who he is, this is what he does. So no matter how difficult, real change in ourselves (I know I don’t find it easy to change) is actually possible.
But this isn’t an excuse to sit back and pat ourselves on the back knowing that we’ll all be saved in the end. What is possible is the ability to repent. St Gregory of Nyssa interpreted this as even the rich man can learn repentance. God can turn my heart of ashes into flesh and transform me to real change. God respects our will. The young man turns away but I have a choice do I say yes or no.
Him who strengthens me
So in the end, this all about grace, by bearing our nature to the depth of the Cross there is a chance we can be saved.
Because of human sin, we are all losers; we’re all caught up in sin together. But in Christ we are all victorious; we are all winners. And it’s possible to win. It’s possible to endure anything.
Read how St. Paul describes what he had to endure, but all that was possible because… “(with God) all things are possible”.
That’s exactly how Paul says it: “I can do everything through him who strengthens me.” So it is possible for human beings to be saints. In other words, it is possible for God’s plan to work.
It is possible that God’s Incarnation of a virgin and his death on the cross can really serve for the salvation, the sanctification, the illumination, the glorification, and the deification of human beings. This is all possible because, with God, all good, true, and right things, according to nature, are possible. And the human nature is such a nature that it is possible for a human being to live a divine life by faith and grace. That is possible, because with God all things are possible.
With God, God has done everything possible to save us, and with God, we can be saved. We can be glorified. We can be what God created us to be from the beginning, and we can be what he saved us to be. In Him and through Him.
Glory to God for this great mercy.