This is one of those occasions where Jesus leaves us with such a powerful image that we tend to lose sight of everything else that he said at the time. Preachers still sometimes run into this risk. You come up with such a good illustration, such an affecting story, that all your listeners can remember is the illustration or story itself, but not why you told it in the first place. Jesus declares:
“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.”
What we are left doing is picturing the camel and needle, and wondering how such a large animal could pass through such a small aperture. But then we remember that it Jesus who is talking, and that he given to such flights of verbal fancy, that he is given to hyperbole. We recall that he is given to exaggeration and verbal shock tactics. And we reassure ourselves that the man is nowhere as extreme as his words sometimes sound. Or we fancy that we have misunderstood, and that Jesus really meant or even said something else. We try to pretend that he was misheard and he didn’t say “camel” but a similar sounding word for rope. After al who could possibly have heard Jesus properly in such a crowd. “Rope, needle,” that sounds plausible and a lot less extreme than the juxtaposition of camel and needle. Or of course perhaps he didn’t mean an actual needle, but rather a familiar feature of Jerusalem’s town planning: the Eye of a Needle Gate, a reputed gate in the walls of Jerusalem, that was so small and narrow that a camel could on pass through it without its load and on its knees. Except that it was Jesus’ illustration that inspired the gate and not the other way round. The gate was probably placed in Jerusalem’s wall by someone who wanted to reassure themselves that someone rich enough to build a gate in city wall could still get in the kingdom God. Of course all this speculation rather misses the point and completely obscures what Jesus is like and what he is actually trying to say.
The point of Jesus’ figure of speech is that it is impossible for those who have wealth to be part of the kingdom that he is establishing. Impossible in the way that is impossible for big beast of burden to go through a tiny hole! The trouble is, that for one reason or another everyone seems to stop listening at that point, either because they are rich, or because they are so gobsmacked by the picture Jesus has just drawn for them. So we tend not to see and hear what happens next. The crowd gasp!
“Then who can be saved”
What Jesus has in fact done has broken one of their deepest religious prejudices. They, and in fact we still to some degree, believe that there is or should be some correlation between morality or faith and material circumstances. We certainly believe that the bad should suffer. And they believed that the good should prosper, materially, in the here and now. And they all harboured the belief that wealth was a sign of God’s favour, it was somehow deserved, indeed divinely ordained. And it is not unknown for us to suspect something similar. What is shocking about what Jesus says is he breaks that connection between material well being and God’s favour. Jesus is clear: you cannot tell from a person’s material circumstances, whether they are poor or rich, you cannot tell from that their status before God. Contrary to popular thinking at the time, Jesus has said in so many words, poverty is a blessing, and here asserts, that wealth is a major problem.
The trouble is that the crowd and we are so startled by Jesus’ picture and so shocked by its implications that we’re no really listening any more. Because Jesus goes on to say:
“For mortals it is impossible but not for God, for God all things are possible.”
Jesus once again declares what has been called the creed that lies behind all creeds: “nothing is impossible for God.” Humans cannot get camels through the eyes of needles, but God can! Wealth is a problem, but in the power of God it is not insurmountable one. With Jesus the test of entry into God’s kingdom is clearly established. It is not connected directly to material circumstances. The test is the one which Jesus presented to the rich man at the beginning of the story which prompted Jesus’ reaction that gave us the striking image of the camel and the eye of the needle:
“. . . come follow me”
For this particular rich man it did prove impossible. Impossible because he was unable to pass Jesus’ test. And he couldn’t because he was rich, and being rich was unable to let go of what he had and trust Jesus instead. The trouble with wealth or anything that resembles it, anything that we can use to make ourselves feel secure, is that we are tempted to rely on that rather than trust Jesus and let him take us where he wants us to go. For this rich man it really was the case that his possessions now possessed him and he couldn’t escape!
As it happens Peter is one person who has not stopped listening. At Jesus’ mention of giving things up and following him, Peter’s ears prick up. “That us!” He thinks to himself, “We did that. The rich man failed, but we passed Jesus’ test.” Peter says:
“Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
He really is courting a compliment. This is classic Peter, opening his mouth before he’s really thought through what it is he’s saying. You feel like saying to him, “Oh Peter, stop, you’re embarrassing yourself.” But actually Jesus lets Peter and his friends glow for a moment. He says:
“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age. . .”
There are times when Christians can be really good at not really listening to what Jesus actually says. Jesus moments earlier has demolished the connection between material circumstances and status before God. In the very next breath some Christians hear him promise that if they are right with God they are going to material blessings as a reward. There are pastors and there are churches who have build whole ministries on this “prosperity gospel.” And who have become very wealthy themselves in the process. It goes with the terrible bad news that if you don’t receive all those things, more money, bigger houses, bigger and better things to fill them with and faster cars to drive, you are clearly not faithful enough! Christians have a remarkable talent for not quite listening to Jesus and turning everything he says completely on its head! But Jesus continues:
“. . . who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and fields with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.”
If were listening we would recognise that Jesus offers a second picture every bit as startling and every bit as startling as that of a camel going through the eye of the needle. What Jesus has promised Peter and everyone else who has accepted Jesus’ challenge to let go of what they are relying on and follow him instead, is a place in a remarkable new community he is building around himself. The word “persecutions” should have given the game away, if we had listened that long. Jesus is not talking about hundredfold rewards on an individual and person level. What Jesus is pointing to is community where whatever you have left behind you will find more of. If you have had to leave family, they will be replace a hundredfold by the new relationships within his community, relationships as strong and as close as that between brothers and sisters, parents and children. If you have left your home, it will be replace a hundredfold by the practices of hospitality that exist within Jesus’ community, that means wherever a follower of Jesus goes there is always a home for them. If you have left your fields, the means with which you sustain you life, your work, it will be replaced a hundredfold, for there is no shortage of work to do in the community and for the kingdom, and because property will be held in common everyone’s livelihood is assured. But because this community runs contrary to all the values that hold power in the world of course Jesus’ community will always be persecuted. That is actually what Jesus promises his followers in the here and now. That startling picture presents what the Church should actually look like! With the crowd we gasp:
“Then who can be saved.”
Because that church looks like no church that any of us have had any direct experience of. That is just too idealistic, too unrealistic, too impractical, it’s never going to happen. That church is as impossible as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. The trouble is we never keep listening to Jesus quite long enough:
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Impossible for Mortals, Possible for God by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0