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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Mark 10:17- 30. The Camel, the needle, and God
October 12, 2003
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

As the great theologian Spongebob Squarepants says, “You’ve got to use your imagination.”

I want you to imagine that in this hand, I’m holding a needle. Wow. Good imaginations.

Now, I want you to imagine that standing on this side of me, behind the flowers, and not knocking them over, is a camel. A big, hairy, snorty, smelly, spitty camel. Camels are what, like, seven feet tall with their long necks and their humps? Big creature. Kind of a frightening creature to find in your church sanctuary.

OK. Now, imagine that I’m going to pass the camel through the eye of the needle.

There just isn't any way to do it, is there? Well, we could try to imagine a really big needle. But, technically speaking, something that big wouldn't be a needle. Needles are supposed to be small. We could use our imaginations to see a really tiny camel. But something that small wouldn't really be a camel. So, there really isn't any way we could pass a camel through the eye of that needle unless we made one of them into something else - something other than a camel, something other than a needle. Or we’re going to really have to use our imaginations, and deceive ourselves into thinking we can do something impossible.

To a camel through the eye of a needle, one of them is going to have to become something else, or else we’re not living in the real world.

In today's New Testament lesson, we read that a rich man came up to Jesus and asked him, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus answered, "You must sell all you have and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me."

Just as a camel can't pass through the eye of a needle unless it first becomes something else, so Jesus tells the rich man that if he wants to find eternal life, he also must become something else. If the rich man sells all he has and leaves everything to follow Jesus, he will no longer be (in terms of dollars and cents) a rich man. He’ll be something else.

What will he be? For one thing, he’ll be poor. But will being poor make him righteous?

By worldly standards, we Americans are wealthy people. I grew up with the feeling that the best example of a truly righteous person is someone who has given up all that wealth, who has sold everything and devoted their life to the poor, someone like a Mother Teresa, who has given up everything to minister to those who have nothing. And no doubt, Mother Teresa, and those like her are wonderfully righteous people, God bless them.

But, I'm a twenty-first century American. And my idea of righteousness isn’t the same as the idea held by a first century, Middle Eastern, Jewish person. In fact, it's the exact opposite.

To the people of Jesus' day, a person's wealth was a sign of God's blessing. And by those standards, certainly, the rich man who knelt before Jesus had been blessed. He had kept all the commandments since his youth. He’d been good. No imagining. No deception. And to his mind (and the mind of Jesus' disciples) God had rewarded him for his goodness. To the first century mind, here was a shining example of what it meant to be a righteous person, a saint. Here was a man who was as close to God as a person could get.

And then Jesus said, "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." And when the man heard this he was shocked.

Jesus turned this man's world upside down. He told this saint to do something very un-saintly, unrighteous. "Take the blessings of God - and give them away." Give away the blessings of God? To the ears of Bible-times, the command of Jesus made no more sense than if he had asked the man – to thread a camel through the eye of a needle. Only Jesus wasn’t fooling around. Jesus wasn’t calling the man’s bluff. He wasn’t telling him to use his imagination. Jesus was serious.

I wonder what happened to this man. The Bible says he was shocked and went away grieving. I wonder if, eventually, he gave away some or all of his possessions. Maybe he got over his sadness and kept everything, and found a kinder, gentler savior.

Or maybe the point of the story isn't what the man did with his wealth, his blessing. Maybe the point is simply that Jesus told him to do the ONE thing he couldn’t do. The man couldn't give his money away, not even to inherit eternal life. Like a camel that can't fit through a needle's eye, it was impossible for this saintly man to do everything Jesus demanded of him – no matter how good he was.

No one of us… not even the most saintly of us – whether we determine our saintliness by our wealth or our lack of it – not one of us has the ability to buy his or her way into eternal life. It’s simply impossible. None of us… not even the best of us – lives a life of perfection, and does everything God commands. It’s simply impossible.

"For mortals,” Jesus said, “it IS impossible. But not for God; for God ALL things are possible."

As we search for a glimpse of eternal life, we’re all like camels trying to fit through a needle's eye. If we remain camels, we'll never go through the needle. We somehow have to become something else, something other than camels. Somehow we have to be reborn.

"Very truly, I tell you," said Jesus, "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above," - without being reborn by the spirit of God - a God for whom all things are possible - even sending a camel through the eye of a needle.

If we truly are to follow Christ, we can’t rely on our riches or our poverty, our perceived righteousness or our imagined goodness. For no one is good but God alone. We must learn to have faith in the God who saves, faith in God alone and in God’s saving grace.

But wait a minute. What about the rich man? What about the money? What about selling all that we have and giving it to the poor? If we end talking about faith and rebirth and holiness, we do end our conversation talking about some wonderful, heavenly, Godly things.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Jesus may have been talking about eternal life, but he began his discussion of heavenly life right here, in the middle of earthly life. If all Jesus wanted to do was talk about having faith in God, he could have chosen any number of other means.

But this time, in this story, he chose to talk about a rich man and that man's righteousness. And maybe a first century understanding of righteousness was different from our twenty-first century ideas. But even so, I believe the Bible speaks to us in our situation just as much as it spoke to first century people in theirs. And I truly doubt that the people in the Bible, however righteous they might have been, liked their money any less then than we like ours.

If we raise this story high into a heavenly realm, so high above our wallets, we only tell half the story.

No, I don't believe giving his money away would have made the rich man more righteous, any more than holding his blessings close to his chest would have. For as Jesus said, no one is good but God alone. And the Bible even tells us, Jesus loved the man… just as he was, money and all. But maybe, if the rich man wasn't so busy holding onto his wallet, he might have been able to open his arms, and accept the eternal life that God was trying to give him.

The story of Jesus and the rich man holds a mandate for all of us who have material wealth. It holds a mandate for us as we stand together as a church. It commands us to take the blessings we receive and share them among those who have needs. Those who come to us looking for food or for a place to stay. And I dare say those who have needs also include children who need educational materials, youth who need youth groups, and adults who need a place to learn more about God. The story of Jesus and the rich man holds a real-world mandate for all of us as the Stewardship Committee comes calling upon us in the weeks to come. “Sell all you have and give it to the poor,” isn’t Jesus calling the rich man’s bluff. Jesus is saying it seriously, and saying it seriously to all of us. In this Stewardship Season, please consider the portion of all you have that you’re pledging to the church. I don’t think the Stewardship Committee is going to be as tough as Jesus. I don’t think they're going to ask you to sell all you have and give the money to the church. But they are going to ask you to consider the amount of your everything you’re giving away. And they’re going to ask you to prayerfully consider increasing over what you’re giving this year.

But not even that’s the end of the story.

Jesus' command to the rich man didn't end with selling everything and giving it to the poor. Because that would be a one-time event. You do it, it’s done. Not even selling everything and giving the money to the poor is an end in and of itself. In addition to selling and giving, Jesus then gave the man one more command. He said, "Come, follow me."

Jesus doesn’t want our money anywhere near as much as he wants our commitment. And for Jesus, commitment means giving OURSELVES away – again and again and again. For Jesus, commitment means giving OURSELVES to him, and to God… giving OURSELVES to the leading of the Holy Spirit. For Jesus commitment is never a one-time event. It has to happen every single day of our lives. With every morning, we’re born anew. With every day, we have the chance to serve and to follow Jesus Christ. And God tells us to do it NOT so we’ll buy our way into heaven. God wants our commitment so heaven can find a dwelling place in us.

May we in all we do, in all the money we spend and give away, in all the blessings we share, both individually and as a church – May we in all we do, follow our Lord, Jesus Christ. And may it not be just our imaginations.