Here comes that man again, running up to Jesus, asking him his simple, urgent question about life. And before we had even a moment to see him kneeling before the good teacher, we can already hear those dreaded words from Jesus’ lips, “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.” We already know that he will go away grieving, because he has much to give. And a part of us grieves with him, knowing that his choice could be ours as well.
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.
This is not the kind of word we look for at the calligrapher’s booth at the craft fair, so we can frame it and hang it over the fire place. This is not the kind of word we want our auntie to cross stitch on a sofa pillow; we know it will disrupt our slumber. Sure, it’s funny, but it also hits us like a hammer: What if the rich aren’t just other people? Is he saying that I am too rich for the kingdom? Do I have to sell what I own and give it to the poor?
The nervous questions trigger my desire for comfort, for somebody to calm the waves of my anxiety: Surely this episode isn’t to be taken literally. Surely there is a preacher somewhere who will find in these unsettling words a spiritual meaning that won’t render me penniless. And if the calming voice that soothes our worries with some measure of authority can’t be found quickly, we don’t despair, for we have learned to rationalize: The women among us will point out that Jesus is talking to a man, not to them. And all of us rich men will discover that wealth is a relative term and that, comparatively speaking, we are not rich at all but only comfortable.
Perhaps somebody who has done a little research will remind us that according to some medieval commentary ‘the eye of the needle’ was the name of one of the city gates in Jerusalem; in order for a camel to get through, the burden had to be taken off its back, and the camel had to get on its knees.
Now this was obviously an excellent interpretation for a time when the pope was building a new cathedral in Rome and was in need of a steady stream of cash; and it remains a tempting interpretation for some churches who are looking for solutions to their fund raising shortfalls: tell folks who wish to enter the kingdom to get on their knees and write checks until the burden on their back is small enough to fit through the gate. But the pope’s accountants and their contemporary brethren in Christian tv conveniently ignore that Jesus tells the man to give the money to the poor, not the church.
No, Jesus isn’t talking about a tiny gate that a camel could only crawl through. He points to the largest animal his audience would have been familiar with, and to the smallest aperture they knew from daily life, the eye of a needle, and he makes his point. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for you and me to squeeze through the card-slot of our local ATM. The point is indeed that it is impossible, not just really, REALLY hard.
In the scene just prior to today’s reading, people are bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. In that scene he teaches the disciples, saying, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (You may notice that he’s been talking about children a lot lately.) A little child is the personification of need, helplessness, and trusting dependence, and Jesus teaches that we are to receive the kingdom like little children.
The man who comes running to Jesus in today’s lesson is everything a little child is not; he is the personification of power, achievement, and confident independence. He is grown-up and successful. He is used to making things happen and getting things done. When presented with a challenge, he weighs the options at his disposal, and a solution is never more than a phone call away. And yet he comes running to Jesus, and he’s kneeling in the dust. Something is missing in his life, and his desire to change that is urgent and sincere.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“You know the commandments,” Jesus responds, naming six of the big ten, and the man replies, “I have kept all these since my youth.”
Nothing in the story suggests that he is lying or bragging. He is a good man who has done everything right, yet his life is incomplete. His considerable achievements are not enough. His virtues are not sufficient. His best obedience cannot still the question.
“What must I do to live in God’s realm?”
At this point, Mark briefly interrupts the conversation between the two to let us know that Jesus loves this man. We could say, “O well, Jesus loves everybody, let’s get on with the story.” Yes, he does, but this man isn’t just an extra put on stage so Jesus can do his teaching in dialogue. Jesus looks at the man intently and he loves him; perhaps for his integrity and his commitment to live a God-pleasing life; perhaps for asking the question that so easily gets drowned out by the world’s noisy answers.
“What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?”
And Jesus says to him, “You lack one thing,” and gives him a five-step answer, “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”
Jesus turns our world upside down to set things right. The little children who possess nothing, achieve nothing, and know nothing, the little children don’t lack anything – the kingdom of God is theirs. Yet this man who knows so much, has achieved so much, and possesses so much, he lacks the one thing that opens the door to eternal life. He was a child once, perhaps he still remembers being small, dependent, helpless and trusting. Can he become small again after all these years of growing and knowing?
“Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.”
He can’t do it. He walks away saddened.
“Children,” Jesus says to the disciples, “it’s hard to enter God’s kingdom!” Children he calls them, all of the grown-ups who are trying to keep up with him on the way. Like us, they are perplexed and shocked. The eye of a needle is small, too small to squeeze through – then who can enter?
Nobody. The rule and realm of God is not a squeezing matter. No amount of knowledge, goodness, or wealth will open the door to life’s wholeness. The big question is not, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” but rather, “What is God doing to make life whole and how am I part of it?” And the answer is the life and the way of Jesus.
We want to believe that with enough money or education or ability or goodness or effort we will be able to make it all work. And Jesus, God’s Messiah stands there, looking at us, loving us, and says, “No. Come with me.”
We can stop running. We can stop worrying so much about how to get ourselves through that door. Again Jesus redirects our attention from ourselves and our salvation to the poor, and to the way of Christ, and to what God is doing to make life whole. Our salvation is not a private matter but deeply connected with God’s salvation of the world.
For life to be truly full and fulfilling for all, the perils of wealth must be addressed as well as the perils of poverty, and Jesus gets us to think deeply about both in this encounter. Ken Carder wrote several years ago, echoing the best of Christian teaching of many generations,
“If our worth is based on what we know or own or achieve, we are always going to be insecure, for our value will depend on that which is precarious and temporary. Instead of loving one another, sharing with one another, nurturing the well-being of one another, we compete with one another, use one another, abuse one another and discard one another.”
Jesus says that those who leave behind the things that promise security for the sake of the good news of God’s reign will live rich and full lives, now and in the world to come. How? They find themselves members of a large family of unlikely brothers and sisters, no longer living for themselves, but for one another.
As to the wealthy man in the story, I imagine he eventually returned, perhaps not running this time, and said, “Jesus, it’s me again; no matter how hard I try, I can’t do this on my own. Is there another way?” Yes, there is. It is the way the children know: Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. It is the way of Christ: he opens his arms to embrace and hold us, rich and poor, to heal our wounded lives, and bless us.
 Stacey Elizabeth Simpson, “Who Can Be Saved? (Mark 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, September 27-October 4, 2000, p. 951
 Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches (Mk. 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997, p. 831