Rev. Teri Peterson
Real Live Camels
14 February 2016, Lent 1, NL2-23
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is 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.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘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—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
I remember distinctly the very first time I heard this story. I was in high school, and it was my first time in a church service. I was a hired musician for the day at a Presbyterian church across town from my house, in West Valley which was everything you imagine when you hear those words.
This story was read and I thought “dang, this guy doesn’t mess around.”
The pastor stood up and I will never forget his first words: “Jesus doesn’t mean you have to sell all your stuff and give away all your money.”
I have no idea what the rest of the sermon was about, because in one sentence he proved to me every stereotype of religion was true. Not only did they not really believe this Jesus guy, but they were going to find a way to twist his words to justify their big houses, nice cars, and sparkly jewelry while over in my neighborhood my family was helping out a woman who couldn’t afford olives to make Thanksgiving dinner special for her kids.
In one sentence, he told me, on my first visit to a church, that going to church wasn’t about being like Jesus.
There were two services that day. I stayed through the special music at the second and then, when I was finished playing, I left, in the middle of the service. I had no need or interest to hear the sermon a second time—I’d heard plenty. I didn’t go into church for several years after that, though I certainly talked about that one time.
The way that pastor probably interpreted the story is a common one—that Jesus was speaking only to this man, or that he was saying that the things that get in the way of our relationship with God need to go (but that might not be possessions and money for all of us). He probably perpetuated the myth that there was a small gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle”—a myth created in the middle ages by a preacher who wanted to soften the blow of Jesus’ words for his patron. Or maybe he used the one about the word “camel” and the word “rope” being very similar.
Here’s the thing about those interpretations: they sound an awful lot like a way to justify our comfortable lifestyles and very little like Jesus. And when I hear it, I wonder what else we’re willing to justify, regardless of what Jesus says? We already talk our way around “love your enemies” and around “put away your sword” and “blessed are the peacemakers.” When someone listens to us talk about these things Jesus said, do they assume the same thing I did that day 20 years ago—that we have no intention of even trying to be Christlike?
Jesus is pretty blunt in this story. We are always listening to parables and wondering why Jesus can’t give a straight answer…well, here’s a straight answer, but we may not like it, because it feels so very extreme.
The man seems earnest in his seeking. He wants to know how to be faithful and to experience God’s loving presence. Jesus tells him to keep commandments 5-10, the ones about not harming your neighbor—don’t murder, steal, or commit adultery, honor your father and mother. And the man says he has obeyed them all.
So Jesus looks at the man—really looks at him, sees him to his core. And Jesus loved him—loved him enough to tell him the truth: that now it was time to keep the first half of the commandments too, the ones about love rather than just not-harm. Sell everything and give the money away, and come, follow me. Jesus loved this man enough to look him in the eye and say: the idols of your life have to go—and not just your stuff, but the security it represents for you and the indifference it shows to others. Redistribute your wealth as a sign that you love God and your neighbor, and come walk this road with me.
It’s pretty extreme. Sell everything. Give it all away. The disciples protest and Jesus both commends them and reiterates: leave it all—family and property, everything that tells us who we are. He uses an example: a camel, the largest animal any of them would know, and the eye of a needle, the smallest opening any of them would regularly encounter. That’s how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom. And in case we missed the extremes at play, he finishes with “the first will be last, and the last will be first.”
We want desperately to ease our discomfort and find a way to make Jesus a proponent of moderation in all things. But there’s nothing moderate here—it’s all or nothing. Moderation was what the man wanted to hear too—he has led a good life, followed the commandments. But Jesus loved him enough to say the hard thing: that the path to abundant life is not wide enough for all that he carried.
And the man was shocked and went away grieving. We look at him with sadness, wishing he’d had the guts to follow Jesus, when really, first of all, we don’t know if he did or not. Jesus said Go and the man went…his grief doesn’t mean he didn’t then do what Jesus said. After all, if we followed those instructions, I suspect we would grieve along the way too. We don’t know the rest of his story, or what he did with those words straight from the mouth of God.
And secondly, most of us have no intention of following Jesus this way either. Now, maybe some of us are already sacrificial givers, tithing and giving an offering that represents our gratitude for what God has done. I don’t know about you but I'm uncomfortable with Jesus’ words here. I’m no biblical literalist, but I have to wonder: what if he meant it? Finding out that the whole gate thing and the camel-rope mix-up thing were both made up by preachers as uncomfortable as I am, and that Jesus is almost certainly talking about a real live camel and an actual tiny needle as a representation of how hard it will be for me—because even though I am not wealthy here, I am on a global scale—to enter the kingdom of God…well, let’s just say that shocked and grieving are polite descriptions of how I feel about it.
If we want him to be talking about something else, I think we need to be honest about that—that we would rather Jess be talking to us about something else that gets in the way of our ability to follow him. And then whatever that thing is, we need to see if we’re willing to be just as extreme. Are we willing to give up every little bit of our partisan rancor and bickering, and actually work for the common good? Are we willing to give up every aspect of our love of violence—in our language, in our posturing, in our search for security—and instead learn to love our enemy? Are we willing to give up our nationalism and seek peace for all of God’s world? Are we willing to completely wipe out our indifference to the way other people are affected by our economic and social and political choices? Are we willing to give up any sense that we can secure our own safety or construct our own identity, and place our trust entirely in God? Or are we looking for ways we can make Jesus a moderate?
Lent is a season when we often disrupt our routine—maybe we fast from something, or maybe we take on something new. It’s a season when we examine our interior lives and look for ways to get rid of those things that hinder our discipleship, those things that we have decided—whether consciously or unconsciously—are more important than God’s call.
Jesus looks at us and loves us—not like hallmark cards and pink hearts love, but like giving everything including himself to us love. This isn’t a candy-hearts crush, it’s the kind of love that speaks truth and calls us into real life. To follow him will ask much of us. To follow him will turn everything we know upside down. To follow him will change us, and change the world. For with God, all things are possible.
May it be so. Amen.