Ever since those thirty pieces of silver, money has played a treacherous role in the life of the Church. Why, even the Lutheran Reformation was launched on October 31, 1517, because of money! Oh yes, it was also about those great themes of grace and faith…but if you read Martin Luther’s 95 Theses which he nailed to the Wittenberg Castle Church door, most of the theses deal with money!
#27, “It is nonsense to teach that a dead soul in Purgatory can be saved by money.” #42, “Christians should be taught that the buying of indulgences does not compare with being forgiven by Christ.” #82, “Why doesn’t the pope [empty Purgatory] for holy love, if he can redeem innumerable souls for sordid money?”
It’s no wonder Herr Luther found himself in hot water. Yes, the abuse of the Gospel riled him concerning the selling of indulgences, buying God’s forgiveness like a sack of potatoes. But…then as now…a person can quickly find himself getting burned at the stake because of what he says in the Church about money!
Oh, to be sure, the wise and faithful use of money has witnessed incredible blessings in the life of the Church, from the time of the Apostles. But it is this potential for great blessing as also for great treachery which has made money in the Church so…potent. And in this passage, Jesus makes it scary: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
The passage always reminds me of the famous W.C. Fields quote. Fields was as famous for his love of liquor and scandalous social company as for his skill on the Vaudeville stage and screen. An actor friend once found him studying the Bible. “What are you doing with that?” asked the friend. Fields replied, “Been lookin’ for loopholes!”
“Loophole looking” has been the game with this text for a long time. Just a few centuries after Jesus said these things, an ancient scribe inserted some softening words into the text of St. Mark’s Gospel, making Jesus say, “Children, how difficult it is [for those who trust in riches] to enter the kingdom…” It’s as if it’s only a misplaced faith which bars a person from heaven. But the older manuscripts don’t have those words. Jesus is blunt: “It’s the money!”
In the 9th Century A.D. an interpreter first cooked up the idea that “the eye of the needle” was not really a needle but a small gate in Jerusalem through which camels could enter if they were unburdened of their loads. Not to be outdone, later interpreters cooked up the idea that “the camel” was not really the beast but only a reference to coarse thread. In other words, it takes work, but it’s not impossible to get in. But no, Jesus is blunt. Getting into heaven with money is like pushing a big, hairy beast through a tiny needle’s eye.
Well, when all else fails…the simplest loophole is to say that Jesus is only testing the reader, like that rich young man in the previous verses or the Disciples here. He didn’t really mean that anyone had to give it all away to the poor. In those verses last week, the rich guy just didn’t stick around long enough to hear the rest of the story. Jesus could have run after him, “Wait, wait, I was only testing you!”
No…Jesus’ words are painfully clear. Just as large animals simply do not fit through tiny openings, so people with wealth do not fit in the kingdom of God. Even a rich young man who had faithfully kept all the Commandments couldn’t get in. And if a man, whom Jesus loved, couldn’t make it, gulp!, what of us?
Will we also go away from Jesus because His words are too hard? Do we look for loopholes…which is just another way of turning away from Jesus? Because people do go away when Jesus talks this way. And not only do people go away sad, but people also go away mad when money and the kingdom mix together. They go away sad, they go away mad, they go away rude, they go away critical, they go away snotty, they go away embarrassed, they go away…
Practical experience overwhelms us with evidence that Jesus is absolutely correct. It is very hard for people with wealth to be involved in the kingdom of God. Money always has this power of making us forget God when we have a lot of it, and cursing God when it grows scarce!
So the riches and not the kingdom, the money receives so much attention, so much worry, so much debate, so much concern. Oh yes, the work of the kingdom will go on—indeed, it always goes on. Not even the gates of hell, let alone the economy, can prevail against Christ’s kingdom. But the point here in today’s Gospel Reading is that the work of the kingdom will continue without the presence of those whose money gets in the way.
Oh, but it’s not just a matter of having the money! Simon Peter misses that point, and he starts listing all the things which he and the other disciples have given up, as if giving away enough things is the ticket into the kingdom. Oh, and we in the Church can make such a great spiritual thing out of what we give, polishing that golden calf of tithing. We think 10% is this great thing…but it’s pretty miserly compared to Jesus’ words about 100%. They all miss the point—it’s not what you have or what you give!
“Children,” Jesus says, “how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!” It’s like His words about chopping off hands and plucking out eyes in the Reading three weeks ago; it’s like His words about marriage and divorce in the Reading two weeks ago; it’s like His words last week to the young man about his wealth… “How difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Very difficult! And finally, Jesus looks them all squarely in the eye, and He says, “With man it is impossible…but not with God.”
God excels in the impossible. Look at the cross. Out of death God brings life. Out of weakness God brings strength. Out of the self-emptied poverty of Christ, God brings us riches that no mind has ever conceived. Jesus Christ the crucified is the source of all impossibility made possible. More than that, He is the source of impossibility made certain…for us. “Follow Me,” He says.
So whether we have little or much in the way of wealth, Jesus is the One who gets us camels through the needle’s eye. Whether our own personal riches are managed responsibly, that is, in faith and love toward God and neighbor, or whether we tend to squander our resources on ourselves…still the way into the Kingdom is not going to be by better financial management. It’s only through Christ.
Whether we have much to give or little in the way of time and money for the work of Christ in our own St. Peter’s congregation, it’s not the time or the money. It’s not what we give or retain. It’s always the Christ—Christ, whose pierced hands and feet and side are the needle’s eye for us camels to get in. It’s the Christ, who, having drawn us rich camels into the kingdom through the eye of His wounds, it is Christ who gives us the freedom to use our wealth, to use it freely according to the faith in us, neither dictating what that faith must do nor obsessing about what we accumulate or what we donate. In Christ, we put it to use freely, because we rich camels have been threaded through the kingdom needle’s eye in Christ.
This is the kingdom. This is the way God in Jesus Christ. No, faith doesn’t mean that we ignore the issues of money—it’s not wise to ignore the rival god, Mammon, who can so easily take over the sanctuary. And money does take over many a congregation so easily, that it’s no surprise when Jesus says, “How difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!”
So it always comes back to Jesus. Always! “Follow Me,” He says. We have heard Him say that now for the last several weeks. To those whose hands and eyes cannot but offend in sin, He says, “Follow Me.” To those who are not doing well at all keeping the commandments of God, He says, “Follow Me.” To the rich young man, to the disciples, to us, with all of our concerns about money, He says, “Follow Me.” “Follow Me.”
And how hard is that? Impossible, you say? Aye, it is. But then, all things impossible are possible with God!