By The Reverend Andrea Budgey
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 Psalm 90:12-17 Hebrews 4:12-16 Mark 10:17-31
In our Old Testament reading today, Amos channels God’s wrath against those who become rich through the exploitation of others: “because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain,” thunders Amos, “you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine… you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” The rich man in today’s Gospel, though, believes himself to be in a very different position: he knows himself to be righteous; he’s kept all the commandments from his youth; he manages his resources wisely, and his prosperity, in the eyes of his culture, marks him as favoured by God. He has just the inkling of a suspicion, though, that there’s more to know, so he goes to Jesus to ask what he must do to achieve eternal life. He uses property language: “What must I do to inherit, to be allotted, eternal life?” as if it were one more thing he could acquire by some sort of righteous management strategy. In the list of commandments which Jesus challenges him on, there’s actually a submerged rock: “Do not defraud”. It’s not in the Ten Commandments, and when Matthew and Luke re-tell this story, they leave it out. But Mark doesn’t use it by accident – what is Jesus saying here? I think it’s actually pretty clear – one doesn’t become wealthy without taking for oneself material resources which are more needed by other people (just as you can’t have a “middle class” without also having a “lower class”). But the rich man doesn’t notice; he simply hears a list of commandments going by, and says, “Yes, yes, I’ve done all that”. And when Jesus, because he loves him, because he wants him to understand what the fullness of the life of the kingdom might mean for him, points out what the real implications of “Do not defraud” would look like – sell your stuff, divorce yourself from the things that mark you as prosperous and righteous, and give away the proceeds – it’s too much for the rich man to take in, and he goes away grieving. He is a prisoner of his own flawed understanding, his own failure to make a connection between what he has and what others don’t, and how that connects with God’s commandments.
At this point, some preachers might suggest that the “Eye of the Needle” is a gate in Jerusalem which a camel couldn’t get through unless you took off everything it was carrying and re-packed it on the other side. There’s no evidence that such a gate existed in the first century, and the saying about the camel was a widespread equivalent of “pigs might fly” – it turns up in the Talmud (where it’s actually an elephant) and the Quran, as well as in the Gospels. So what does Jesus mean when he uses this saying? Forget it, my friend? Live large while you can, because heaven is closed to you?
The problem here is that many interpretations of this passage begin from a very simplistic image of “heaven” as “the beautiful place where you go when you die, if you’ve been good enough to deserve it.” In fact, nobody in this conversation actually mentions “heaven”. The young man asks about “eternal life” and Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God, about the life that can begin here and now. His response to Peter’s self-justification “Lord, we’ve left everything to follow you” seems intended to knock Peter off balance in order to help him see better: “Sure, sure, houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields – whatever – also persecution. And also eternal life.”
In all of this, Jesus is speaking out of love. After all, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus knows that: knows that the young man has a lifetime of conditioning to overcome before he can catch a glimpse of the vision of God’s kingdom, and that Peter usually takes a while to process anything new. The disciples ask “Then who can be saved?” (meaning “What about us, then?”) and Jesus looks at them, probably shaking his head, and reminds them that, “For God all things are possible.” I don’t think the disciples are particularly worried about the wealthy young man and his place in God’s kingdom; they immediately try to process the message and its implications for themselves, and Jesus calls them back to the universal. Because that’s a crucial element of what he is trying to show them in this passage: the focus of God’s kingdom is an outward one. We are called to look away from our own comfort and advantage, and to seek the good of the world around us, to follow Jesus on the path of love and self-emptying. Very few humans ever become good at this, but “With God all things are possible,” and the invitation to live the life of the kingdom is always before us.