Summary: This rich man stands in stark contrast with the many whose lives were changed through their encounter with Jesus. From Andrew to Zacchaeus, men and women shared in the joy Jesus offered them through a renewed relationship with God. That joy is for those
The Camel the eye and the faith to get through
A Sermon for the 22nd Sunday of Pentecost
This story of the joylessly religious rich man is a setting for the most memorable of images - that of the camel trying to get through the eye of a needle. To our ears this is hyperbole of the highest order. The two things seem so totally unrelated. If Jesus wanted to suggest something merely very difficult he could have said that is it harder for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Some who have studied the Greek of the New Testament and the Aramaic language of Jesus’ native tongue suggest that this might be closer to what Jesus meant. For example, the words for camel and rope were very similar because rope was sometimes made from camels’ hair. Other’s say Jesus was most likely referring to the gateway into Jerusalem that had been partly blocked up so that mounted horsemen or chariots could not enter. It was apparently a comical sight to see the wealthy traders unloading their camels and guiding them though the small opening.
But still others say that the story should not be glossed over like this. It is an outrageous example of hyperbole designed to stick in our memories by combining ridiculous elements -the eye of the needle, a tiny aperture, and the camel, the largest animal usually seen around Jerusalem. There are examples of some of the stories of Rabbis which try to force elephants through eyes of needles to make a point. It is a truly memorable image brought about in the context of Luke’s gospel by the refusal of the rich man to accept the call to discipleship.
This rich man had some deep spiritual yearnings that could not be satisfied by established religion. He was one of those archetypal people that would have been held up as a righteous man. Not only would his wealth been seen as a blessing from God, but there was no question that he might have come into his wealth through dishonest means such as tax collecting or changing money at the Temple. Here was a fine, upstanding member of the community who could also say that he had kept the commandments all his life. He was not like any of those who surrounded the woman caught in adultery where Jesus issues the challenge that any without sin may cast the first stone. Just as well for the poor woman this rich man was not present!
I wonder if the upstandingness of this man was the reason Jesus treats him rather sharply. Often Jesus talks of coming to seek and save the lost, to set the captive free and heal the sick. At first this man seems to need nothing more than a little advice. To the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, “You know the commandments…obey them and you will live.” Then we move closer to his real problem. “These I have kept from my youth.” What I believe we can read into this account is the man’s persistent sense of dis-ease. In fact he was suffering from the deepest spiritual malaise – in spite of all his efforts he had no firm conviction that he was a child of God created and loved by God. He had no sense of the joy this relationship brings, even though his tradition would have soaked him psalms that include words like these -
You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God. Ps 43.4
Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. Ps 47.1-2
None of this seemed to be within the rich man’s experience of faith. His so called ‘blessings’ brought him many responsibilities but not much joy. He was one of those who can be found in every age as the American Preacher Billy Sunday once noted:
The trouble with many people is that they have got just enough religion to make them miserable. If there is not joy in religion, you have got a leak in your religion.
- Billy Sunday SERMON, NEW YORK 1914 http://elbourne.org/sermons/index.mv?illustration+233
We learn from the rich man of Luke 18 that all the correct behaviour, right devotion and responsible living cannot, of themselves, guarantee the joy of knowing God as a beloved child knows God – trusting and secure in the knowledge of an eternal bond of love. Quite the contrary, the one who knows his or her frailty best is the one most likely to know the importance of what God has done in Christ. Remember last week’s Gospel of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Temple.