Sermon for November 22nd, 2020

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Matthew 19:16-26

16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, 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.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Counting Camels: Through the Eye of A Needle

Today is our final sermon in our series on Camels (and their status as valuable resources) in the Bible. Last week, we talked about Job, the man with 3,000 camels, and so I couldn't resist this joke:

  • What's the difference between Job and King Arthur? One had a lot of camels. The other had... Camelot.
  • You probably already know that a camel with one hump is called a dromedary camel, while a camel with two humps is called a bactrian camel. But what do you call a camel with three humps? Pregnant.
  • What do you call a camel with no humps? Humphrey
  • What do you call the cry of a camel? A hump-back wail!

In today's scripture passage, Jesus famously (or infamously) says that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God.

When I was in my twenties, I heard a sermon preached on this passage. At the time, Amy and I were both teachers, and didn't consider ourselves rich by any stretch of the imagination--even though we had just bought our first house (a pretty small one) and owned two cars, and generally ate three meals a day (unlike most people in the rest of the world). But we didn't feel very rich, and so I listened to the sermon on this passage thinking "Whew! I'm off the hook --so in that case, you go Jesus! You put those rich people in their place!"

But then the preacher, who was a well known televangelist in the Dallas area, explained that actually, the "eye of a needle" that Jesus was talking about in this story was the nickname of a small gate entering the city of Jerusalem. It was the "after hours" gate, and for security reasons, if you arrived at the city late at night, you would have to get off your camel, unpack all of your stuff, and your camel would have to crawl to get through, but that this gate, the "eye of the needle" gate, was just small enough that you could slowly, painstakingly, make it through to the city.

I think the point of the sermon was that it's not, in fact, *impossible* for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of God--you just had to humble yourself (and your camel), and take stock of all your possessions, in order to barely squeeze through.

The problem with this fairly popular interpretation (as I learned in later research) is that there's really no evidence that such a gate ever existed in Jerusalem, historically or archaeologically.

Another interpretation, slightly more plausible, comes from the language used in the story: The Greek word for camel used in this passage, κάμηλος (Ka-MAY-loss) is very similar to the Greek word κάμιλος (Ka-MEE-loss) which means a thick rope or cord. Despite the fact that this word never shows up anywhere else in the Bible, as early as the third century, theologians made the assumption that this was all a typographical error, and Jesus meant to say that it's easier for a thick rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God's kingdom--meaning it would be difficult, but (once again) not at all impossible. You'd just have to have a pretty big needle.

Both of these approaches fall short, however, when you look at the response from Jesus' disciples. When they hear Jesus's analogy about the eye of the needle, they don't say, "Yeah, that would be pretty hard, know, if you unpack your camel" or "if you just got a bigger needle..." No. We read that they were "were greatly astounded," saying, “Then who CAN be saved?”

And Jesus said unto them: "Well... obviously, poor people. Maybe middle-class people. Actually, I really like those people who put bumper stickers on the back of their camels that say, 'Honk if you love Jesus.' Just not rich people, okay?"

I'm kidding, of course. Jesus didn't say any of that. Instead, in verse 26 he broadened the whole question and said: "For mortals (all of them--rich, poor, or anything in between) it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

The problem is that the young man in the story asked the wrong question. He asked a very self-centered question: "What can *I do* to have eternal life?" To me, he sounds like someone who is proud of his own achievements--like so many of us are. I did this, I earned that, I worked hard and I achieved this, here's my resume, Jesus. Tell me how special I am. Tell me how exceptional I am. And then tell me what you think my next great accomplishment should be in front of all these people so that I can once again demonstrate how far above them I am."

And Jesus says, in effect, "Ok, I'll play your game." He says, "try this accomplishment: let go of all the markers of your exceptionalism. Give up all the things you are so proud of. Relinquish your identity, your sense of self, your sense of entitlement, and give it all to the people you are trying to outdo." This is a classic example of Jesus turning things upside down, saying if you want to be first, then make yourself last, and help those who are last to become first.

The man in this story wanted to know what he could do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus' answer is clear...absolutely nothing. There is nothing you can *do* to inherit eternal life. It's not an achievement you can earn. It's not a game you can win. It's not something you can buy.

Instead, it's something God does, something that the Holy Spirit achieves, and something that Jesus bought and paid for long ago with the sacrifice of his own life.

I suspect that the piece about the camel and the eye of the needle was Jesus' way of saying that even though the gift of eternal life is given freely, and there's nothing any of us can do to earn's perhaps hardest for a rich person--someone who is used to buying, achieving, earning things--to see and understand this, to receive this gift un-skeptically, un-critically, and with appropriate gratitude.

This is true for us today, as well. The wealthier we become as individuals, or as a nation, the more convinced we become that all this is a result of our great effort, our great achievement, our great wisdom. And it follows naturally that eternal life, or what some today might call "the good life" is something that we can figure out, unlock, or power our way into all by ourselves.

Two thousand years ago, if you were a promising young individual trying to make your way in the world, you would find a local guru, a local rabbi, and say, "Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?"

Today, we have a slightly different approach: "Google...tell me how I can live the good life? Alexa...what can I do in order to be happy? can I find purpose and meaning in my life?

And by the way, the fact that you have purchased, and are speaking to, a computer that you hold in the palm of your hand which is ten thousand times more powerful than any computer your grandparents ever had access to, is a sign that you are indeed a wealthy person.

For what it's worth, I actually asked Google, Alexa and Siri those exact questions. They did their best to point me in the right direction, but I still prefer the answer Jesus gave 2,000 years ago: For mere mortals, it is impossible to do this on your own. But with God, all things are possible. There is great hope in that answer, and I only wish the young man in the story could have stuck around long enough to hear it.

In all of our "counting camels" sermons up to this point, the camels in scripture have represented wealth and resources, and we've asked ourselves the question, "What should we do with those resources? How should we manage them?" But in today's passage, I think the camel represents the wealthy...or, if we're being honest, all of us.

I've heard it said before that the definition of being "rich" is this: If you have enough money that you've ever worried about losing it, then you qualify as rich. And that means you are the camel in this story.

What's standing between you (the camel) and the good life you dream about, the life that is full and whole and complete, the life God has planned for you--is just one small thing. A needle, with an impossibly small eye that you must somehow pass through. You could, of course, just walk away...turn your back on the promise, the hope and the dream of something better. Or you could choose to believe in the impossible.

I've given this a lot of thought, actually--how could a camel go through the eye of a needle? Well, if you have a large enough and powerful enough blender, and a very small funnel... Or, if you're a fan of Albert Einstein, you know that you could accelerate the camel at the speed of light squared, convert it to energy, and then pass it through the needle. Per Stephen Hawking, you could launch the camel into outer space towards the nearest black hole, which would effectively condense it to a small enough mass to pass through the needle with room to spare.

All of these options have two things in common:

  1. They are beyond our current human ability,
  2. They require a dramatic transformation of the camel.

Which brings us back to the same place where we began: In order to pass through the needle, you need the help of a higher power, and you need to be willing to let yourself be transformed in a profound and permanent way.

I want to conclude today with one more thought: This Thursday is Thanksgiving, a holiday in which we take stock of our resources, all that we have to be thankful for, our ability to prepare a feast for ourselves, and (this year) the technology we have access to that keeps us connected even when we are socially distant from the ones we love.

All of these things are good, they are gifts from God, and worthy of our thanks and gratitude, not just one day out of the year, but every day, throughout our lives.

It's one thing to simply be grateful, but another thing entirely (and an even better thing) to create gratitude in others, to give others something to be grateful for, and that means taking those blessings we have been given, and using them bless other people.

One way to pass a camel through the eye of a needle is to shrink the camel. But the other way is to grow the needle, to enlarge the circle we pass through, the circle of people we are responsible for, the circle of family and friends and neighbors we care for, the circle of community we are connected to. Here again, we cannot do it alone. But we can start, trusting that God will see and bless the effort, making the impossible possible.

So this Thursday, when you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast, whatever that looks like in this crazy year, don't just give thanks. Commit yourself to being a source of thanksgiving for others. Commit your resources, your time, your energy, and your wealth to growing your circle of care.

And by the grace of God, I'll see all of you--my fellow camels--on the other side of the needle!