Summary: "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
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!