What to Do When You’re A Camel

Last Saturday a number of members of our Parish Council joined me, and priests and Parish Councils from around this region of the Diocese for a day’s workshop in our hall entitled ‘Spirited Generosity’.  The day focused on how we give, and what we do with the money that we give in the life of the Church.  The workshop leader was Carolyn Kitto, and I was struck by two things that she said during the day about the Gospels and money which I had to write down immediately.  Firstly, she said that 1 in 6 verses in the first three Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are related to money; and secondly, she said that 16 of the 44 parables, the stories which Jesus tells deal with issues relating to money.

This confirmed for me something that I said here a few weeks ago, when we looked together at the parable of the rich man and his manager.  I said then that, ‘It is often a great surprise to people, when they read the Gospel of Luke for the first time to find that Jesus says almost nothing about most of the topics that have become pre-occupations in recent years in the life of the Church, but that he does have a great deal to say about money and wealth.’

I think that there are two possible reasons for why this is the case.  One is that the writers of Luke record Jesus saying so much about money because he did spend his time saying a lot about money, and the other is that the reality in the Early Church was that the challenge of wealth and money for those who were seeking to follow in the way of Jesus was so great that they focused on the teaching that he had given about it, to the exclusion of other things that Jesus had taught his first disciples about.

Of course it is not just in the Gospels that we find these references to money, it is throughout the scriptures.  In order to highlight this fact, back in 2008 the ‘Poverty and Justice Bible’ was launched here in Australia.  This printing of the Bible is distinctive from other versions because it highlights 2,000 passages which speak directly about the alleviation of poverty, the care of the elderly and the importance of those on the margins of society (rather than those, like most of us who are in the centre).

When it was published it was publicly launched by our former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the former leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, launched the Australian edition of the Poverty and Justice Bible.  Whatever you think about either of those men and their politics, we should not forget how amazing it is that we live in a country in which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the day are willing to launch new editions of the Bible.  There aren’t many other places that we could live where that would happen today.

In this printing of the Bible each of the passages which speak about God’s priority for the justice and the care of the oppressed are highlighted in orange print (as if someone has gone through with an orange highlighter pen), so that they easily stand out from the rest of the text which is in black.  It is inescapable to read the Bible and not to be aware of the good news that it represents to the poor.  The great premise of the biblical writers is that although in their current age, life was full of sin and injustice, lying and oppression – where good people suffered and wicked people got away with it – there would be an age to come in which everything would be different.

I say all of this because as I approached this week’s Gospel, I wasn’t struck so much by the good news which Jesus offers to the poor, but rather the bad news which Jesus gives to the rich.  “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.”  That point is underlined powerfully for us by the story of the man who approaches Jesus wanting to be a part of that Kingdom.  In Mark’s Gospel he is a rich man, in Matthew’s account he is young, and in Luke’s account he is a ruler, hence the description often given that he was a “rich young ruler.”

For those of us who are familiar with this story (having heard it many times before) it is difficult for us to grasp that it has nothing at all to do with our modern conception of a man trying to get to heaven.  In the time of Jesus time was basically divided, for the Jews, into two segments.  There was the present age (full, as I have said, of wickedness) and there was the age to come, when God’s Kingdom reign and all would be well.  This rich man is not so much asking how he can get to heaven, but how he fair in the age to come, when all is restored on earth to its former glory.  And Jesus has some terrible news for him.  Whilst noting that he has kept the law (and it is interesting to see which parts of the Ten Commandments Jesus highlights here, because he doesn’t highlight all ten of the commandments) he gives the bad news that this will not be enough.  For this man to live fully in the age to come, in the reign of God, he must sell all that he has and follow Jesus.

It is hard to see how what is bad news for this man is not bad news for us as well.  We may not consider ourselves rich, but in comparison to most of the population of the world, and certainly in comparison to what Jesus would have had in his mind, we are certainly not poor.  Yet which of us has given up away all that we have (house, car, superannuation and savings) in order to follow Jesus.

About thirty years ago it became fashionable to talk about a gate in the wall of the city of Jerusalem.  A gate which a camel could pass through as long as all of its baggage had been removed.  It was claimed that this gate was called “the eye of the needle” and that this was what Jesus was referring to when he made his claim about the rich entering the Kingdom of God.  As far as scholars can tell, this gate is completely imaginary and was simply someone’s good idea of a sermon illustration which then found its way around the world.  But it is okay, nevertheless, to understand Jesus’ teaching that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, as a deliberately exaggerated image – its one of many of these images that we find in the teachings of Jesus, which deliberately exaggerate the story and are not meant to be a scientific hypothesis.

Why is it, then, that this man is prevented from participating in the fullness of the Kingdom of God because of his wealth?  And how does this relate to us?  After the Second World War one of the great ongoing debates across Europe focused on what should be done with all of the treasures which were accrued from the innocent victims of that war, particularly but not only from the Jews who suffered under Hitler’s regime.  The point was not just that some people had benefited during the war from those atrocities, but that some people continued to benefit after the war because of the wealth that they had gained as a result of others suffering.  There was a sense that justice would not be fully served, until all those possessions which had been stolen, had been returned to the families of those who had had them taken by force.  So paintings, and furniture and land needed to be restored to those who had had them taken away, rather than allowing them to remain with an unrightful owner.

There are a number of possible interpretations to our Gospel reading this morning, and I want to suggest to you that this is one that is worth considering.  Jesus not only looks deeply in to the life of this man who approaches him, but also into the reality of the context around him – and in so doing he knows that it isn’t possible for that man to be wealthy without also colluding with the oppression of others.  The wealth of this man is caught up in the suffering of others, the same actions which have made him rich, have made others poor.  Jesus is saying to him, “you cannot follow me, whilst at the same time leaving unresolved the wealth which you have accrued from others.”  Those who will share with Jesus in the fullness of the age to come, (‘The Kingdom of God’) need to live in the present age as if the age to come has already arrived.

So what about us?  What does this passage have to say to us this morning?  One way of approaching this question would be to ask what we have gained through others losing out.  What are the things that we enjoy which in fact cause suffering to others?  We might remind ourselves that the cheap clothes, or coffee, or use of resources that we are able to buy, for example, are purchased at the expense of others, and we might well ask how our faith informs our participation in an unequal world, where many have nothing and a few have a lot?

Those are very big questions, and ones that we may feel inadequate to deal with on our own.  We know the reality of the inequality in the world, but we may feel powerless to do anything about it.  Jesus’ point to the rich man is not that by giving away his wealth the whole world will be changed, but that by giving away the wealth which he has gained through the oppression of others, that a start will be made – which may in time inspire others to do the same, as the Kingdom of God becomes a lived reality.  What was true for that rich man, is true for us today.

The task of sharing God’s love with others might seem enormous, but it starts and continues with each simple practical action that we are willing to initiate in the name of Jesus.