Saturday, October 10, 2015

Camels, needles and rich men

Amos 5.6-7, 10-15  & Hebrews 4. 12-16  & Mark 10.17-31

“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.

Right now, if I’m perfectly honest, I wish I was in Ghana – as indeed I will be next week.  It would easy to preach on this text among people who are often desperately poor.  It is easy to rail against the inequity of the world, to people who have nothing.  In those circumstances, the preacher can call on all the inbuilt sense of injustice in his congregation.  Ghanaian congregations will call out ‘Amen!’ or, as my friend Matthias frequently does ‘Preach on!’.   The preacher can raise the tone and the excitement of a sermon to fever-pitch.  Oh, I can imagine it now…

This is the cry of God.  This is the two edged sword of the word of the Almighty!  It divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  The mighty word of God cries out to the rich, “Beware!”  You have oppressed the poor.  You have lined your pockets, and built your mansions, while 90% of the world is starving.  You have gold taps, while billions of people have to carry their own water from the river.  Beware!  The day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night.  Amos accuses you to…You have trampled on the poor.  You have taxed them, so that you can build your fine houses.  Beware!  You have planted fine vineyards…but you shall not drink their wine.”

Preach on!  (I can hear it now).  Ay-men!

Oh yes, it would be easy to preach like that in Ghana.

But here in Havant, it’s a little more difficult, isn’t it?  Here in Havant, it is tempting to offer words of comfort to people who may be fearful that the preacher is about to ask them for their mortgage deeds! 

It is tempting, for example, to repeat the old preachers trick about the eye of the needle.  Over many years, western preachers have offered a little hope to western congregations, by suggesting that in Jesus’ day they used to be a pedestrian-only gate into Jerusalem, called the eye of the needle.  Such preachers would offer the hope of heaven to their congregations by saying that it was just possible to push a camel through that pedestrian passage.  Therefore, they would conclude, it is possible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.  He just has to work out how to accomplish it.

Unfortunately, however, scholars have more recently shot that particular fox.  There is, in fact, no archaeological or manuscript evidence that there ever was a pedestrian gate called the ‘Eye of the Needle’.  It didn’t exist.  Nothing.  So, the only conclusion that we can draw is that Jesus meant his metaphor quite seriously.  He was talking about an actual camel, and an actual needle – and the practical impossibility of threading the one through the other. 

What we don’t know, and can’t know, is how big a twinkle there was in Jesus eye when he said this.  Was this a joke?  Was he deliberately using a comic image to make his point?

Well, probably, yes.  There’s a lovely moment that Mark captures for us in the text.  The rich young man was keen to show that he had kept all the laws and done all that was required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  But Jesus’ response, painted by Mark, is lovely.  Mark says:  ‘Jesus looked at him, and loved him’.  That’s not like Mark.  Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the Gospels, and often the most compressed.  There is a sort of breathless quality to Mark’s writing.  He goes from story to story, place to place, very efficiently.  But here, at this moment, he pauses and he gives us this beautiful detail…”Jesus looked at him, and loved him”.

We can use the eyes of our imagination to picture the seen.  We can imagine Jesus looking at the rich young man with a knowing smile and with love in his eyes.  We can imagine him looking deeply into the man’s soul, and realising that for him the problem was material.  He was keeping all the religious laws, but he had this nagging feeling, which wouldn’t go away.  He had this sense that somehow keeping all the laws wasn’t enough.  There was something still preventing him from moving forward in his relationship with God.  So he came to see Jesus.  He came to see if Jesus could diagnose the problem.

And Doctor Jesus puts his finger on the problem.  Wealth.  It was the man’s wealth that was holding him back.  It was the single greatest obstacle on his journey of faith.  Doctor Jesus saw that the only way the man would be able to move forward would be to shrug off the weight of his wealth.

Wealth can affect us all that way, can’t it?  For one thing, it can make us reliant on ourselves, rather than others or God.  We lull ourselves into a false sense of security.  We tell ourselves that with our reliable monthly salary or pension, with our private health insurance, with our substantial well maintained house, all will be well, and we will never have to reach out to anyone, or even to God, for help.

The trouble comes when bad luck, or market crashes, or an unexpected car crash rips away our self-reliance.  Then, we find that we need others, and God, after all.  But, for many who find themselves in that situation, they have forgotten how to do it.  Pride in one’s own self-reliance prevents us from reaching out for help.   

Many such poor souls find themselves lonely and cut-off from the world in their final years.  They are too proud to seek help.  They are too proud to admit that they are lonely.  Too proud to seek out the company of people who they would once have thought beneath them.  And so they choose the alternative – miserable isolation, fear, and hatred of the world outside.  These are the habitual letter writers.  This is ‘Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’ whose only way of interacting with the world anymore is to write poisoned pen letters to the Editor of the Telegraph.

Wealth was the problem for the rich young ruler.  But it isn’t everyone’s problem.  Many wealthy people manage to live beautifully balanced lives, which overflow in generosity to those around them.  Wealth itself is not evil.  Money is not, in itself evil.  It is the love of money which is at the root of all kinds of evil (as St Paul teaches us).

But there are other obstacles to faith too.  Every one of us is likely to have some obstacle to our own growth in faith.  It’s perfectly natural.  And it’s very real.  Part of the job of a Pastor, like me, is to help people identify what the obstacle in their life might be.

Perhaps it is some unresolved anger, or hatred for another person who has wronged you.

Perhaps it is some habit that you can’t shift, but which consumes you to the point of being fixated upon it day and night.

Perhaps it is an addiction – to sports, to video games, to porn, to alcohol, to gambling – each one calling you away from the life of faith into the dark place of addiction.

Perhaps it is just plain laziness.  Perhaps you (and I) are just too darned lazy to take on the discipline of being a follower of Jesus.

I don’t know.  Only you can know.  But what I ask of you now, as I sit down, is that you ask yourself this question.  What is my personal obstacle to moving forward in my faith?  

If the Rich Young Ruler had to sell all his goods in order to advance in his faith, what do I need to rid myself of?  

What is God calling me to dispense with, to put away, to fundamentally change in order that I might go forward in my faith?

Let’s pause, for a few moments, and think on these things…


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