The eye of the needle
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Mark 10:17-31
Some years ago I found myself at a revival meeting in a small rural church. One of the young women from my Lutheran youth group had been asked to sing a solo so I went to support her.
The preacher was a traveling evangelist and he put on quite an exhibition: shouting and hollering and stomping his feet and breaking into song and denouncing sins, some of which I had never heard of. It was quite a show, both his theatrics and the crowd's reactions. One little boy in particular caught my eye.
While his grandmother tried to pay attention, he kicked the pew in front of him, he laid down, he slid off the pew onto the floor, he drew in the back of the hymnal with that stubby little pencil you can usually find in a pew rack, he loudly chewed gum and he sucked on a mint, he played with Grandma's car keys, and he asked if it was time to go, oh, about every two minutes.
Finally, as the preacher launched into a fire-breathing altar call, with the congregation standing, every head bowed, every eye closed, I saw the little boy stand on tip-toe in the pew and whisper loudly into Grandma's ear, "Are you sure this is the only way to get to heaven?"
This is a question that in one way or another, all of us get around to asking eventually. The man in our Gospel lesson asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" When Jesus tells the disciples that rich people are going to have a hard time getting in, they ask, "Well, who can be saved then?” "What must I do to be saved?" says one. "How can I get right with God?" says another.
There are secular, non-religious versions of the question: "What is the meaning of life?" "How can I be fulfilled?" "What does success look like for me?" To me, it's all a part of the same question.
In the Gospel, a man came up and knelt in front of Jesus. We have traditionally referred to him as the "Rich Young Ruler." This is a composite name from three gospel writers. Matthew calls him "young," Luke calls him a "ruler," and all three say he's "rich."
The man came asking a question to which he thought he already knew the answer. He's like the wicked witch in "Snow White" talking to the mirror. "Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" The rich young ruler believes he is and comes to Jesus for affirmation, not information.
He wants Jesus to give him a benediction, a good word. He wants the "Jesus of Nazereth, Prophet and Teacher" seal of approval on his life. And much to his surprise he doesn't get it, not in the way he had expected.
You see, he had rested his claim on the kingdom of God on the twin pillars of righteousness and riches. Obey the Ten Commandments and enjoy worldly success. And worldly success is an outward and visible sign of God's inward and visible blessing. So the young man believed. And honestly, so did everyone else in that time and place. That very debate is part of what the book of Job is about. Do we love God because we're blessed with material things, or are we blessed with material things because we love God?
If we're not blessed, does that mean we're bad? And if we're clearly good, and we have nothing, does that mean God's not fair? The people in Jesus' world, including his disciples, believed that morality and material blessing went hand in hand. If you were good, God would bless you with riches and comforts in this world.
So, when Jesus said to the young man, "You lack one thing, go and sell all and give it to the poor…" it wasn't just the giving up of his money and stuff that bumfuzzled him; the rich young ruler's whole world view, his entire way of looking at how the world works, has been turned upside down and inside out.
Remember the little boy at the revival meeting? After church I was standing in the parking lot chatting when Grandma came marching him out the door -- hat squarely on her head, suitcase-size pocketbook on her arm, holding him by the neck with one hand and swatting at this behind with the other. He danced ahead of her with that pelvis-forward, swat-avoiding, Michael Jackson moon walk we've all seen. He yelled back at her, "What you hitting me for? I ain't done nothing."
The rich young ruler hasn't done anything either, and that's just the point. Though he has lived a fastidiously moral life, ("All these I have kept from my youth"), he had never learned that there is more to the moral life, to life in the kingdom of God, than being good and safe and not wrong. He had never learned to go the extra mile, to take a risk, to boldly go where he has never gone before.
Jesus looked upon him with love and spoke to him out of that love when he said to him, "You lack one thing." Because Jesus then tells him to get rid of his wealth and give it to the poor, we can become confused about what Jesus sees as missing in his life.
The man doesn't lack generosity, he doesn't lack compassion for others, he doesn't lack morality; he doesn't lack an awareness of the call of God on the Jews to hospitality to the stranger. This man lacks faith. He lacks a willingness to trust God both now and into the future. He lacks a confident and joyous reliance upon the love and generosity of God.
He is relying upon his goodness and his goods to get him through this life and into the next, and Jesus says, "Friend, that's just not good enough." Why is it hard for a rich person to get into heaven, harder than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle? Because when you're rich, it's really hard to realize how much you need God and other people.
Being rich is not evil; it is just exceptionally dangerous to your spiritual health. The question for us today is this: What are we depending on in our relationship with God? Are we depending on our rightness, our ability to discern and know the right answer to spiritual and religious questions? Are we depending on our righteousness, on our goodness, on our obedience to the Ten Commandments? What is it that keeps us trusting ourselves and not fully trusting God?
What is the one thing that we lack, the one thing that keeps us from totally and completely committing ourselves to God's will and God's way? What keeps us from doing wild and wonderfully right things in the name of the Living Christ?
The good news is that Jesus has come to transform the impossible into the possible. Jesus has come to release us from our bondage of serving ourselves and our things. Jesus has come to take us by the scruff of the neck and to drag us kicking and screaming through the eye of that needle, into the center of God's love.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
You might also want to read:
Rich or poor? Comfortable or afflicted?
Lazarus at the gate
'God doesn't need your good works'