It’s another of those gospel readings that’s slightly odd and difficult to understand, and in which the bits we do understand make for challenging reading.
First, I’m not going to explain away the thing about the camel going through the eye of a needle by saying that ‘the eye of the needle’ was the name of one of the smaller gates into the city of Jerusalem, large enough only for a camel on its own, not one laden with possessions. This may well be the case, but it’s not the point. At least, I don’t think it’s the point.
So what is? Well, there are a few things that are well worth pursuing.
Let’s start with what Jesus says just after the camel bit, namely that what looks impossible turns out not to be, because God is not limited by what we can imagine, and by what we think the normal rules set out. ‘For people it is impossible, but not for God, everything is possible for God.’ The other famous time in the gospels which talks about what is possible and what is not is when the angel speaks to Mary in Luke chapter 1 – the proof that God can do the unlikely thing of giving her a child while she is still a virgin is that God has already given a child to her elderly cousin Elizabeth, after years of the older woman and her husband trying to conceive. ‘For nothing will be impossible with God,’ concludes the angel. We might well try and find ways of explaining away that bit of divine intervention too – many people do – but sometimes the gospels do present us with a miracle. Jesus does them all the time. If God can perform the miracle of a virgin birth, which human beings consider to be impossible, perhaps he can also thread camels through needles, and indeed grant a place in heaven to someone rich. Indeed, anything is possible with God.
So far, so good.
So is the rich man doomed or isn’t he? He certainly seems to think so, as he goes away despondent. But is he really? Remember that lovely line, ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him,’ or words to that effect. Is the rich young man, whom Jesus loved, condemned by his wealth, or is there something less simplistic going on?
Remember the famous phrase, that money is the root of all evil? I can see some of you longing to correct me, that it is not money itself, but the love of money that leads us into sin (that’s from 1 Timothy chapter 6). Perhaps it is not ownership of wealth itself that is problematic, but rather the miserliness and selfishness that clings onto it, that will not let it go, that gets obsessed by it. Is Jesus testing the young man’s ability to let go? To be generous? Contrast this story with the encounter between Jesus and Zaccheus: the man was a crook, but Jesus did not ask him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor – Zaccheus himself demonstrated that he was no longer a slave to his money by repaying with interest the people he had defrauded, and by making a generous donation to the poor from what was left over. But at no point did Jesus require him to give everything.
So why does he ask for such an enormous act of generosity and selflessness from this young man in today’s gospel? Is it at least in part to test the man’s attachment to his wealth? That’s certainly part of is. Great wealth brings great responsibility. All of us here are wealthy in comparison with so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world. We all bear great responsibility in the way that we use and spend and give away our wealth, and we all need to spend time thinking about praying about how our possessions and our money can be a blessing to ourselves and to those around us, to God’s church, to the charities that are close to our heart, and to God’s world and people. The more we have, the more decisions we are called to make when it comes to how our generosity is going to find expression.
All of that goes without saying, but it’s not all that is going on. Remember how the story starts. The man approaches Jesus, and asks him what he must do to get to heaven. When Jesus replies, reminding him of the commandments, the young man is able to reply that he’s always kept them all. Unlikely? Maybe, but even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really has led a super-virtuous life, it does rather seem as if the man is asking the wrong question. If he’s kept all the commandments, the likelihood is that he already thought he’d done enough to earn his way into heaven. Was he asking just to be sure? Or to get a nice pat on the back from the traveling Rabbi? Or was it yet another trick question, and had the young man been put up to it by the Pharisees? We don’t know.
But what we do have is Jesus’ answer. He loves the young man, but takes his question at face value. You want to guarantee yourself a place in heaven? Well, the price is more than you thought. In fact, it’s more than the law demands. Jewish law had plenty in it that encouraged, even demanded generosity but it didn’t ask people to give everything. What Jesus is saying is that getting a place in heaven isn’t something that is a matter of dotting every i and crossing every t. You can’t get to heaven by keeping your nose clean and obeying the law. He deliberately asks what feels unreasonable and unjustifiable because getting a place into heaven isn’t about reason and justice, it’s about the generosity and mercy and grace of God.
That’s why Jesus’ response to the young man only makes sense in the light of what he goes on to say to the disciples: all things are possible with God. We don’t know what became of the young man. We hope that he reflected on his wealth, and learned how to be generous, to exercise good stewardship over this possessions, to sit more lightly to them, to use them for good. But like so many of the walk-on characters in the gospels, as far as we know we never see him again.
But that’s not the end of the story. Not for him, and not for us. Because a young man who thinks he’s done everything right is like a red rag to a bull for Jesus. Even though the young man is probably a very nice chap, his attitude is that of a pharisee-in-the-making: he thinks everything is about keeping the law, and that if he tries really hard and ticks all the right boxes, he’ll be OK. That’s how the Pharisees knew were they were in the religious and social pecking order. That’s how they could be confident about their status before the people and before God. But that wasn’t how Jesus saw them.
The reading ends with ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’. If this is a parable about the relationship between our earthly life and the life of heaven, then I’m strangely comforted by it. The rich young man, by the miraculous grace and mercy of God, may well find himself in heaven when he dies. But he’ll find himself there not at the head of the queue, having earned his place, but somewhere in the crowd, perhaps towards the back, with the poor and destitute going in ahead of him. And that is the real test for him. When he sees that his place in the earthly pecking order doesn’t translate into the life of heaven, will he still want that eternal life that he was pestering Jesus about? That’s Jesus’ test. And it’s a test to any of us who have things that we cling to here, any of us who have ideas about our status, our importance. Any of us who fall into the trap of trying to earn our way into God’s favour.
Eternal life, a place in heaven, involves being willing to relinquish any kind of status, either in terms of what we’re born into, or what we’ve earned. Quite simply, we can’t take it with us. If there’s a hierarchy in heaven at all, Jesus is quite clear on how it goes: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. We may read this story and imagine that the young man’s moment of choice was in his conversation with Jesus: will he give everything away to buy his way into heaven or won’t he? But in reality the man’s true moment of choice comes much later. When the time comes for him to find out if he made the cut, if he was good enough, if he really did earn his place, he’ll find that God isn’t sitting in state like a judge at all, but instead is welcoming all and sundry, including the unwashed, the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes, the lowly, the poor and the lame. Does the young man want to join the queue behind them in order to receive the mercy that God is offering so freely? That’s the real test of whether he’s willing to give up everything.
But, you know, it wouldn’t do him any harm to start practicing while he’s still alive.