No Rich People in Heaven!? (A sermon on Mark 10:23-25)

“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

In any journey, such as a trek through the bush, there are exciting parts, such as when we start out (perhaps) and when we near your destination, there are relatively boring parts, and there are patches that are just hard work. In our journey through the Gospel of Mark we seem to have reached an uncomfortable stage in the journey – a particularly thorny stretch of track.
In last week’s reading we heard Jesus hammering divorced people (or so it seemed) and many of us said ‘ouch’. And now this week we have the story of the rich guy whose money apparently creates an impenetrable barrier between him and Jesus, and again, it is an uncomfortable passage.

It’s one of those stories that makes us squirm, partly because most of us would really like to be that rich man – pious, respected, upright and wealthy, and partly because many of us suspect that we already are!

And this is where we look to the preacher – as to a benevolent tour guide, who has the knowledge to lead his fellow travellers safely down the more treacherous parts of the track – to get us through this apparently threatening stretch without letting us get entangled in the thorns.

That’s sort of what I did last week. Jesus seemed to be hammering divorced people in His statements on divorce and re-marriage, and I questioned whether there might not be other ways of interpreting what Jesus was saying, and indeed I ended up suggesting that there was another way to read it and that Jesus was almost certainly not targeting those experiencing marital breakdown, but rather persons who were hypocritical and legalistic.

And perhaps there is a quiet hope that I will be able to perform a similar act of exegetical sophistry this week – demonstrating that Jesus’ issue with the rich guy wasn’t really because he was rich as such, but that He had another issue with him altogether, unrelated to his wealth, though we must admit from the outset that Jesus’ statement does look rather impenetrable.

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth 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.”

Is it possible to interpret these words of Jesus such that they don’t mean that following Him requires of us that we shed our wealth? Well you may be encouraged to hear that there has in fact been a proud history of interpretation within the church that does attempt to do exactly that – to take the sting out of this painful passage!

The most well-known of these interpretative masterpieces goes back to at least the fifteenth century, and possibly to the ninth, and you may well have heard of it. It’s the suggestion that when Jesus referred to the ‘eye of the needle’ He was not in fact referring to a regular needle at all (such as we might use in sewing) but that He was instead referring to a small gate in the wall of the city of Jerusalem, known as ‘the needle’s eye’!

According to this thesis, the “needles eye” was an especially small gate that was used to allow people into Jerusalem only at night, after the main gates had been closed, and this gate was in fact too small for a camel to get through standing. The creature would have to unload its baggage first and then get down on its knees in order to crawl through the opening.

Now, if we can hold off historical judgement on the existence of the gate for a moment, you can see, I think, the fantastic homiletical opportunities that this interpretation gives to the preacher. The rich man can get in but, like the camel, his ultimate approach to God has to be made with his baggage removed and in humility, on his knees!

As you can see, this medieval discovery of the ‘needles gate’ is a preachers dream! The only problem with it is that it’s also a piece of pure fiction! For while indeed there are references to this supposed gate in the Christian literature of the 15th century, and while indeed the idea may be able to be traced back as far as the ninth century, there is no mention of any gate like this whatsoever prior to the 9th century!

In other words, for the first thousand years of Christian history and for all the period before that, in both religious and secular literature, this supposed gate never gets a mention, and the only plausible explanation for that is that such a gate never existed, which is why you won’t find any self-respecting scholar today supporting the ‘needle gate’ theory, and indeed, if you think about it, it makes very little sense that any architect would design a gate into the city and forget to make it large enough for a camel to get through, as it makes even less sense that, if there were such a gate, the authorities should choose that gate as the one to be opened up at night in order to usher in weary travellers!

No, sadly the ‘needles gate’ is a fanciful construct of the medieval imagination but don’t despair, for it was only one of a number of sophisticated attempts our forebears made at reinterpreting these wealth-threatening words of Jesus. And indeed, the theory that I find far more intellectually stimulating is the one that suggests that the early copyists confused the words for ‘camel’ and the word for ‘rope’

In Greek, the word for camel (‘kamelos’) is only one letter different from the word for ‘rope’, which is ‘kamilos’. And, as we know, all the early copies of the New Testament were all copied by hand. And so the theory is that early on someone wrote ‘kamelos’ instead of ‘kamilos’ and that the mistake was then inadvertently passed on through the copyists!

Of course, putting a rope through the eye of a needle wouldn’t normally be that much easier than getting a camel through, unless, of course, Jesus was referring to the sort of needle that might be used by a carpet weaver (so the theory goes). If such were the case, squeezing a ‘kamilos’ (ie. rope) through the eye would take a bit of effort but would not be impossible, as with the rich man, who might be required to put in a little extra effort to make his way into Heaven, but who can surely find his way in eventually nonetheless.

I find this reconstruction of the text to be ingenious, and yet it is frankly even less plausible than the tiny gate theory. For one thing, while there are references to a ‘rope’ rather than to a ‘camel’ occurring in manuscripts that date back to (strangely) the same historical period we were discussing before – the 9th to 15th century – there is no record of any manuscript dating back prior to that period containing the word for ‘rope’ at all.

All the earliest and best manuscripts are unambiguous in how this statement is to be understood, and, just in case you still have doubts, we should note that in Luke’s version of the story he uses a different word for ‘needle’. He uses the word for a surgical needle, which was most definitely the same size as one used in normal sewing rather than in the manufacture of carpets.

Now, these are not the only theories aimed at getting around the more obvious meaning of Jesus’ words about it being “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”. There are others, though what fascinated me was that they all seem to have their origins in this period from the 9th to the 15th century.

So I did a bit of research into what else was happening in the church during that period and I found that in fact this period of the history of the church is designated as its own special era, known as the ‘high medieval period’.

This period, which is dated from the coronation of Charlemagne as monarch of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800, was really the golden era of the church, at least in terms of power of the church, and the spread of Christianity through forced conversions across the known world.

This was the period when even the greatest of political leaders would have to grovel on their knees before the indomitable power of the Pope, and it was from this era too that the church left us two of its best-known and most-despised legacies: the crusades and the inquisition. And so it seems that the church of this era also left us with one other legacy of dubious value – the doctrine that it is OK to be a follower of Jesus and to be rich!

The ‘high medieval period’ of the church came to a crashing end with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and with the subsequent crushing critique of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s, and, truly, all these scholarly attempts to reinterpret Jesus’ warnings about wealth and discipleship should have been buried alongside their authors as this golden era came to a close, and they probably would have been, had not they been revived by certain high-profile preachers of our own generation, who were bent on continuing the quest to reconcile their Christian faith with their sizeable salary packages.

Now in truth, let me say that I don’t fully understand why our forefathers and foremothers went to so much trouble to reinterpret these verses, when all you have to do in order to dilute the teachings of Jesus about the problem of riches is to teach it as I was first taught it in my Scripture class at High School:

‘The rich young ruler was obsessed with money, boys and girls, such that he loved his money more than he did Jesus. We too can become obsessed with things that can come between us and Jesus. It might be your money or it might be your girlfriend, or your surfboard or even your studies that becomes your focal point, and so comes between you and the Lord Jesus’

And I am sure that that analysis is correct as far as it goes, in that the ultimate issue here between Jesus and the rich guy is his preoccupation with money rather than with the money as such, Even so, what this analysis fails to recognise is that it is always money that we are preoccupied with! It is our obsession with money that keeps us slaving away in that soul-destroying job instead of really doing something more worthwhile with our lives, just as it is our love of money that forces us to close our hearts to those in need.

And there was a time when I could preach on this passage with a great level of moral self-righteousness, and when I could wag my finger at the great unwashed from my position of almost voluntary poverty. But that was before I got myself a mortgage, and that was before I took on financial responsibility for Binacrombi Bush Camp, and that was before I had to fight repeatedly to avoid bankruptcy and keep myself and my ventures afloat, for that was before I had ever experienced the soul-destroying nature of financial stress!

One of my favourite lines in the movie ‘Forrest Gump’ is where the hero finds that most of his money had been invested in Apple Computers and that he has consequently become extremely wealthy and won’t have to worry about money issues any more. “Well”, says Gump, “one less thing to worry about”, and oh how I have wished for one less thing to worry about!

And yet there are alternatives to the soul-destroying nature of financial stress, and the Forrest Gump alternative of a sudden windfall is not the only one. There is another option, known as ‘faith’!

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” .. and how hard it is for us to accept this teaching at face value. How hard it is for us to accept that we can’t serve two maters but that love of Jesus excludes love of worldly wealth. And how hard it is for us to negotiate our way through this painful part of our journey through the Gospel of Mark without letting go of all that we have!

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth 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.”

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 2009.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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