Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon: "Squeezing a Camel into the Kingdom"

Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, Amherst NH
October 14, 2012

Mark 10:17-31

 “Squeezing a Camel into the Kingdom”

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  (Mark 10:25)

Our passage from Mark’s gospel today is 15 verses long, yet for most of us this is the verse that stands out.

Many of us may have learned in Sunday School or heard in a Sunday sermon that there is a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle through which a camel could not pass unless it stooped down low and had all its saddle bags removed.
After dark, when the main gates were shut, travelers or merchants would have to use this smaller gate, through which the camel could only enter unencumbered and crawling on its knees.
This makes for great sermon material, with the parallel image of us coming to God on our knees without all our baggage weighing us down.
It’s a great story and provides a memorable sermon illustration, but unfortunately there is no evidence that it’s true.

From as early as the 9th century, this story has been put forth as the contextual explanation for Jesus’ eye of the needle reference, however, there is no documented evidence that such a gate existed. There are gates in Jerusalem today that people identify as the “eye of the needle” but this was done in response to the story. No ancient Jewish source mentions it.

Another variation on this theme tells the story of an old mountain pass known as the "eye of the needle"; a pass so narrow that merchants would have to dismount from their camels, which made them easier prey for robbers lying in wait. Thus the only way to pass through the eye safely was to leave one’s belongings behind. Again, this is a great story, but there is no evidence that it is historically true.

Yet another explanation for the camel passing through the eye of a needle imagery is the suggestion that this verse contains a translation error.
It’s been said that the Greek word kamilos (meaning 'camel') possibly appeared in the original text as kamĂȘlos, meaning 'cable or rope'. Thus the verse should read,  “It is easier to thread a needle with a rope, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom.”

Most scholars do not support this mistranslation theory, but a few have taken it even further and suggest that Jesus was referencing a thin rope made of camel hair and the needle was actually a 6 inch carpet needle, which for some is a more logical and acceptable pairing than the image of a camel squeezing through a tiny sewing needle.

My favorite rendering of this iconic image is the cartoon that some of you may have seen on our church facebook page yesterday.
In it the disciples have taken a full size camel, greased its sides, strapped roller skates to its feet, and placed it in a giant sling shot while other disciples stand at a distance atop a giant needle with a mallet and plunger at the ready, and the determination to get that camel through that eye anyway they can.

Why is it that we are so fascinated and perplexed by this image?
To the point where we try to explain it away by suggesting alternate interpretations that appeal to our sense of rationality?
It’s not because we don’t think Jesus was capable of using exaggerated imagery or hyperbole to make a point. We have other examples of him doing so – He once told the disciples “Before you notice the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, remove the log from your own eye.”
We know in this case he wasn’t referencing an actual log. He was speaking metaphorically and we get the point he was trying to make without the need to do mental and linguistic gymnastics to make it more realistic and thus more understandable.

So why do we feel the need to lessen the sting of the eye of the needle text by embracing stories of Jerusalem gates, carpet needles, and camel hair ropes, and in the process reduce the difficulty of the task from impossible to doable with effort?

Perhaps we’re hopeful that increasing the probability of fitting the camel through the eye of the needle will in turn increase our chances of gaining entrance into the Kingdom of God.

Before I go any further let me clarify what we mean when we say “Kingdom of God.” We’re not talking about heaven, although the two are often confused. Heaven is the Christian understanding of where we go after we die. Jesus as a Jew would have understood heaven to be a kind of temporary waiting area for souls but it’s not our final resting place. The Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about is the world that will come into being after this one passes away. A world where creation in its entirety will be restored to its intended state of being. Where death and fear are no more and we all share in the abundance of God’s creation equally. This is the Kingdom that is both here and not yet. We catch glimpses of it when we witness acts of absolute love and compassion, and we anticipate its arrival whenever we come together around the Communion table and share in God’s abundance.

This is the Kingdom that the rich man in our text hopes to gain entrance to.
And whether you believe that only God has the power to create this Kingdom during an apocalyptic end times, or that we as God’s children have been called to assist in its gradual creation by working to make this world a better place for all, the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, a world where death and fear is no more, is one that we all long to experience.

Which is why the rich man was said to have walked away grieving when he was told his wealth would prevent him from entering God’s Kingdom.

For thousands of years we’ve been looking for the loophole in this text.
One that eases our fear that if we are “rich” by Jesus’ standards, it doesn’t matter how well we keep the commandments, we will not find entry into God’s Kingdom.
And let’s face it, every single one of us here is rich by Jesus’ standards. Compared to the average first century Palestinian Jew we live like kings. 
We sleep comfortably in multi-roomed homes with indoor plumbing, heat, and electricity, and most of us have more material goods, food, clothing and money then we need to live contently.
Most of us may not be wealthy by modern day American standards but compared to the majority of people alive in the world today, we’re sitting on a pile of gold.

But I suspect few of us believe that we’re supposed to take this text literally and do as Jesus instructed the rich man to do and sell all that we have and give the money to the poor.
Realistically, even if we plan on emulating St. Francis or Mother Teresa by committing to a life of poverty, we still need a few possessions and some money to survive.
But how much is too much? What is the dividing line between rich and poor?
Even among the poor, some have more than others. Must they give all that they have as well?
What of the widow in our text last week who gave her last two coins to the treasury, would Jesus have condemned her if she gave only one coin and kept the last for herself to buy bread?

It’s safe to assume that most of us find a non-literal interpretation of this text to be more meaningful. One that suggests that it’s not the man’s wealth that Jesus objects to, rather it’s the fact that he has made his wealth the center of his world. His money has become a distraction and maintaining it has kept him from devoting time and energy to helping others.
By selling all that he had he would release himself from this burden and be better able to serve God.

The question here is: What would Jesus have to say about the way we live? We may be wealthy by Jesus’ standards but what if we give a certain percentage of our money, time and energy to serve God and others?
We may still wonder, is this enough? How much is enough?
Our question to Jesus is still the same:
What must we do to please God?
What must we do to gain entrance into God’s Kingdom?
How much do we need to give to be a good Christian and to feel like we’re doing all that we can to make this world a better place?

There are so many questions that arise within us when we encounter this text that it’s no wonder that we try to find ways to explain it away or lessen its impact upon us.

In many ways, the people who heard Jesus rebuke the rich man 2000 years ago were equally confounded.
Then, as now, wealth and prosperity were seen as a sign of God's blessing. Deuteronomy 28 lists all the material blessings that are bestowed upon those who follow God’s commandments. An increase in crops, cattle, children, and wealth was a sign that you were living right by the Lord.  
How many of us look at all that we have and can’t help but say the words, “God has blessed me.”

But do we then also believe that the poor are poor because God has withheld blessings from them as a form of judgment?
I certainly hope not.

We can imagine that Jesus’ disciples had all of these questions spinning around in their minds as well.
Which is why they said to Jesus, “If the rich man, who is blessed by God, is not saved, then who is? What hope is there for the rest of us?”

The disciples, like most of us, can’t help but get hung up on the money.
Which is why the verse about the camel squeezing through the eye of the needle sticks in our minds.
Yet few of us remember the verses that follow.
The part where the Disciples ask, “then who can be saved?” and Jesus responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
We cannot save ourselves, only God has the power to save us.

Ultimately, this text is not about money.
It’s about Grace.
It’s about the Grace that God offers to all of us abundantly,
And there is nothing that we can do or need to do to earn it.
We don’t earn salvation. It is given to us.
We don’t earn eternal life, or a place in God’s Kingdom.
We inherit it….and an inheritance by definition is given, by the one who has it to give.

There is a paradoxical tension alive in this text that is difficult to sit with, and it’s important that we acknowledge that it exists.

God’s love, grace, and salvation are not earned, but are freely given.
As the rich man learned, we don’t earn a place in the Kingdom of God by following the commandments or ticking off boxes that identify us as a good and compassionate person.

But God does call us to follow the commandments and to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, because if we don’t do so we won’t exist in right relationship with God.
And if we don’t have an intentional, active, and right relationship with God we can’t accept God’s grace, because we don’t know that it’s there for the taking.

It’s like having a neighbor lean over the fence offering us a basket of fruit from his harvest. If we’re preoccupied with what’s going on inside our own house and we haven’t made the effort to build a relationship with that neighbor we won’t know that the gift is there for the taking, and that all we need to do is to walk outside our front door and extend our hand in love to accept it. That’s what God’s grace is like.

This is a tension that the rich man cannot accept. He walks away in grief because he can’t see that his money is keeping him from building a full relationship with God. The attachment that he has to his money is the barrier that prevents him from accepting God’s grace.

For him it was money, but there are many things that consume our attention and prevent us from building a relationship with God.  Our desire for power or control. Our tendency to hold onto grudges or disappointments.  Our anger caused by perceived slights or injustices. Our addictions to substances, behaviors, activities, and people. Our fear of failure, uncertainty, and change.
As long as we hold onto any of these, we siphon off time and energy that could otherwise be dedicated to building a relationship with God and serving God’s people.

The tension that we learn to live with as God’s people is that God’s grace is freely given to all, but we need to make the effort to turn towards God and accept it.
And as Christians we turn towards God by following in the footsteps of Jesus.
As Christians,
We are called to be generous with our money, our time, and our energy.
We are called to not store up treasures here on earth but rather to use those treasures to help alleviate the suffering of others.
We are called to recognize that all we are given belongs to God, and that we should give to back to God with the attitude that we live in world of abundance rather than scarcity.

But if we reduce our giving to a numbers game, to just another commandment that we need to follow to buy our way into the Kingdom of God, then we’re no different from the rich man who asks, “What must I DO to inherit eternal life?”

The good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to DO anything to earn eternal life.
Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself.
And compassion and generosity will flow naturally from that love.

Now you may still not quite understand or be overly concerned with what it means to accept God’s grace or how we come to enter or help co-create the Kingdom of God.
The point that Jesus was trying to make is that we don’t need to concern ourselves with all that.
Just Love God. Love your neighbor, and love yourself.
And in doing so you can’t help but recreate yourself and become more like the person God intended you to be.