Martha M Shiverick
Sermon October 14, 2012 

Mark 10 : 17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  You know the commandments: ‘you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not defraud, honor your father and your mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher,, I have kept all these since my youth.”  Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” When he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  And the disciples were perplexed at these words.  But Jesus said to them again, ” Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  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.”   They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God;  for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

The word of The Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Oh no…. that passage about camel and the eye of the needle!

In the past few weeks I have been joking with Pastor Eric, that he must have looked up the assigned lectionary readings each week before we chose our preaching schedule.  He had the sweet one about Jesus blessing the little children and well, I have had ones about sin and damnation….

And now this one…. That passage about the camel and the eye of the needle.

I have been talking to people in the past few weeks about the passage.  How did they sit comfortably with the idea that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to go to heaven.

In most cases, I was told about a gate in Israel that was very small and was called the eye of the needle.  Or it was a small door called the needle’s eye which was in the Jerusalem city gate.  And in this door it is hard, but not impossible for large things to get through, and a camel would surely find it difficult, but not absolutely impossible to go through.  You know, I had heard these explanations as a child as well, but I must admit that I always secretly thought the story was a misguided way to make those of us with money feel better.  And, I hate to be the one to tell you, but the truth is that in Ancient Israel there was no such door.  It was a made up explanation to help us and make us feel more comfortable with this passage.

I also read another explanation, that scholars used to say that the word camel is actually a poor translation from the original Greek text.  The Greek word for camel is Kamelos where the Greek word for cable is Kamilos.

So…., the expression as they explained it is really that it is easier for a cable to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.

But most modern theologians are now saying that both explanations are just made up to white wash a hard text, and an important one with which to wrestle.

Lamar Williamson, professor emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, describes this passage as another one of the ‘call passages’ that are found in Mark.    A rich man, who it is said Jesus loved, wants to inherit eternal life.  Even as an heir, he must meet certain obligations, so he asks what he must do.  He really wants to know what HE CAN DO?!  This is an interesting question when you think about what an inheritance is.  Normally do we do anything do to receive an inheritance.  It is, by its very definition, something that can only be given.

And Jesus knew this.  We are told that Jesus looked at him and loved him.  The story gives the reader no reason to doubt the man’s claim that he has followed the commandments of God since he was a young man.

And although Jesus looks with love at this man who has followed God’s law his whole life, his response is to challenge him.  He first challenges his addressing him as a “good teacher” by saying no one is good but God alone.  And this is something to remember as we look at the text for its full meaning.  Why would Jesus feel he has to say this?  Surely others have referred to him as good before!

Then Jesus responds with the really hard message.  Jesus confronts the man on his weakness; his captivity to his possessions.  Jesus says that he must GO- SELL- GIVE- COME- and FOLLOW him.  These commands must have been like punches in the poor rich man’s stomach.  Although Jesus extends the invitation to join his circle, the man must first divest himself of his property.  A disciple can not be a rich person with the accompanying complex socio-economic ties and relationships. He left grieving.

As an aside here, one commentary I read said that we don’t know what the rich man did at this point.  We only know that he went away grieving.  We assume he went away grieving because he loved his possessions too much to give them away.  We have assumed the rich man turned down the call to follow Jesus in discipleship but perhaps he went away to sell all his possessions that he loved and that was why he was grieving.  Whichever action he took, the message does not change.  The discipleship to which we are called demands everything of us.

And this part of the story is a bit discouraging.  If a person who is committed to living life by God’s commandments and he walks away sad, then who can follow Jesus.  But some have…. Doesn’t this make you think of all the saints who have come before us and were able to do just that.  I don’t know how many of you know the story of St Francis’ background, but he was the son of a wealthy merchant.  He stripped himself of the rich clothing that his father gave him to care for the powerless.  And what about Mother Teresa who gave up the comfortable life of her religious order to help those who had been abandoned on the street.  These people gave up there comfort, their power and prestige in order to enter into a special relationship with the community they felt called to serve.  I know that I can’t be like them, …. I really relate to the rich man who wants to be a disciple but has too too much baggage to do as Jesus commanded.

Baggage!  Could it be that we all have too much baggage to enter into God’s kingdom too?  Does this baggage control our lives and our relationship with God?  At this point I want to share with you a wonderful stewardship story that was shared with me when I was first ordained about the tyranny of having possessions.  The story goes that a man was traveling by train and told of the thefts aboard the train.  He sat holding onto his valise while the train traveled throughout the journey.  Night time came and the man continued to watch his bag, sure that if he fell asleep, the bag, with his possessions would be taken.  The train continued into the night.  It became nearly impossible for the man to keep his eyes open as the train rocked back and forth and the movement and the sound of the engines lured him to sleep.  In spite of his best efforts, at one point, he did not off, and his valise was indeed stolen.  Thank God, he thought, now I can go to sleep.

The rich man in the Bible was held captive by his possessions!  And imagine how shocking this must have sounded to the people of Jesus’ day.  In the ancient world, (Greek, Roman, and Hebrew), material prosperity was widely seen as a reward for spiritual virtue.  You know…, things go well for the good people.  Oh, there are exceptions like Job, but for the most part, the good people had money, were happy, and lived long healthy lives.  Back then, it was generally thought that the wealthy elite were closer to God. They were more likely to be saved than were the common people as they provided the funds to support the synagogues and the temple sacrifices.  Because of this there was an ancient patronage system where the wealthy were celebrated.  And if we look at our present society, we can see how this still plays out.  We hear interviews by millionaire philanthropists who talk about how the power and influence, the ability to get things done, is the greatest advantage to wealth.  And thank God for these people and their money which they use to create a better world.

But the message is clear here, that being rich does not give you a seat in God’s kingdom.  No, in the church, we can not distinguish one person from another.

So, the rich man leaves, and Jesus turns to his disciples and says not only does God not have favorites, but it is actually harder for the rich man to get to heaven.   This truly is a reversal from what society and culture had taken as a truth.  Jesus says that it is indeed harder for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle.  A paraphrase of this might be- “how hard, indeed, it is for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God, but for a rich person it is indeed quite impossible. In fact, humanly speaking it is impossible.  A camel can not go through the eye of a needle and a rich person can not be saved…. In fact no one can be saved, rich or not; but with God all things are possible.

I think that there are several dimensions to this message. The first one is about Christian stewardship.  We are to give of what we have to God’s work if we are to be one of God ‘s disciples.  Now, early Christians thought that the world was ending shortly, that God’s kingdom was at hand.  So the writers of the Gospels, and the early disciples, really thought that it was important to get your houses order before Christ came again on the day of judgement. So for them, giving everything away made sense. And here we are a couple centuries later, realizing that although we do believe in God’s realm, it is not most likely happening tomorrow and it will indeed come in God’s time.  As the old hymn goes ‘God is working God’s Purpose Out”.  So, if we were to sell all we had to get ready for God’s coming, we might get hungry, cold, and be homeless.  And we would indeed become a burden on society.  So, modern church has said that good discipleship and stewardship is giving a percentage of what we have to the church.  And we do this through our annual stewardship campaigns.  But we give in other ways such as through planned giving.  And this morning we will celebrate Fairmount members who have realized the importance of giving a portion of what they have accumulated on earth in their estates.  Oh, there is definitely a stewardship message here! We are not to hoard what we accumulate but are to share it.

But the reason that we are to give is a lesson in this passage as well.  Jesus does not in fact say that we are to give away our possessions as a way to gain our place in God’s kingdom.  That would sound a bit like the indulgences that the church leaders  fought against in the Reformation. In fact Jesus says the radical sacrifice practiced by Jesus’ disciples did not guarantee their place in heaven as well.  However there is a strong message to our society of haves and have mores.  The message is clear that we need to resist the pressure of our consumer society.  We need to look at our excess consumption which might be depriving others of resources they need to survive.  It is indeed our place to worry about the environment as Elaine Price, Keith Mills and all the people in our earth keepers ministry remind us.  We need to wrestle with our life styles, feel uncomfortable with our call as stewards and the society in which we live. We do this, not to gain access to heaven, but to act as people who follow and love God.

If the promise of discipleship was a reward in heaven, then it seems being a good disciple would be no more virtuous than the pursuit of material gain.  If the message here was that faith promises a hundredfold return on your investment,it would be pursued with self interest.  Jesus is not saying here that selfless discipleship is not an expedient route to the great reward.  Selfless discipleship is the response of the believer.

Which leads me to the last point in the passage for today.  And this is the message that Jesus intended in this story.  It is indeed impossible for all of us to achieve a reward for our discipleship and go to God’s kingdom based on our own good deeds.  We can not do it on our own.  When called Good teacher, Jesus says that only God is good.  So if Jesus is saying that only  God is good,  we must acknowledge that we have a long way to go!   We definitely will not be earning our place in heaven!  AND, We can not do it on our own.  But the promise that Jesus gives us is indeed our very Good News.  Even though for us mere mortals we can do nothing to be in God’s kingdom, it is indeed possible for us to still enter God’s realm.  Because with God all things are possible.  With God, we enter the kingdom based on God’s good grace and God’s love for us.  Amen!

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