October 14, 2018, The Gag Reflex and Fat Camels – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000102
Over the past few months I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the dentist’s chair. And one thing I find difficult is having x-rays taken. After they lay the lead apron on you, they take the film, which is about the size of my cell phone, and stuff the whole thing way in the back of your mouth. And then you’re supposed to close your teeth to hold it in place and perfectly still while they go behind their little barrier and snap the picture. The problem is, people come equipped with a thing called a gag reflex, so that if somebody stuffs a huge thing in your mouth the reflex takes over and tries to get rid of whatever it is.
I was thinking about that problem this week as I read and re-read the gospel for today, because it seems to me that there are certain passages in the Bible, certain things that Jesus said, specifically, that activate a kind of spiritual gag reflex in a lot of people. Sometimes, it turns out, Jesus was just too much of a radical, especially when he talked about money and material possessions, which tends to be a very touchy subject. And the reading today, about the rich young man, is exactly that kind of hard-to-swallow passage.
A wealthy young man comes to Jesus with the question any pastor would love to hear. “Good teacher,” he said, “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” But strangely, Jesus seems just a little prickly in his answer. “Why are you calling me ‘good’? No human being is good – only God is good. But you know the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, don’t defraud anybody, respect your parents.” “Yes, of course,” the young man replies, “I’ve obeyed all those commandments since I was a child.” Jesus looks at him, and Mark tells us he loves that young man. And he says, “There’s just one more thing you need to do.” And that must have sounded very encouraging – he was almost there. “Go,” Jesus said, “Sell everything you own and give all the money you receive to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And then come and follow me.”
Not what that young man was expecting to hear. Mark says he’s shocked. The word can also mean appalled – it’s a word that is used to describe a stormy sky, dark and threatening. And he goes away deeply grieved and offended – you might say he leaves in high dudgeon. Then Jesus looks around at his disciples and says, “My children, it is so hard for wealthy people to get into the kingdom of heaven! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And the disciples are completely dumbfounded.
And us, too, because it is at this point that the spiritual gag reflex so often begins to kick in. Jesus says to that young man that the one and only thing he lacked in becoming a disciple was to sell all of his worldly goods and give the proceeds to the poor. And since that moment, much ink has been spilled and countless sermons have been preached trying to reassure people that of course Jesus didn’t mean that we are supposed to sell everything we own and give all the money to the poor. There is no way Jesus could have meant that.
The most creative explanation is the one so many people like to give about the camel and the eye of the needle. The Eye of the Needle, they say, is the name of a particular gate into the city of Jerusalem. And it was built with super low clearance, so low that when caravans came through with their camels, the camels had to get down on their knees to pass through the gate. It’s a metaphor for humility, see? And possibly prayer, as well, with the reference to knees and all. And that makes us all feel better because we don’t get uncomfortable when we are told to be humble, or when we are told to pray. We expect to hear that spiritual kind of stuff. And so we end up with a satisfying sense of having learned some interesting historical trivia, but with no threat to our personal possessions. It’s perfect.
Except, the problem is, there isn’t any evidence that such a gate ever existed, and that whole explanation is actually just a very clever story that someone thought up a long time ago. But when Jesus said, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” what we was doing is he was drawing a picture for us – like the most ridiculous cartoon you can imagine – of this enormous animal trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. We aren’t too familiar with camels here in New York. But they are huge. Consider this – most of us have some idea how big a moose is. A camel is maybe even a little bigger than a moose. Now try to imagine what Jesus is describing: an enormous, fat, woolly, awkward, bad-tempered beast squeezing itself through a hole that is too small for most of us to actually see without a magnifying lens. Now you have some idea how hard it is for us to get into the kingdom of God with all our worldly goods. Because by any kind of global standards, everyone in this room is wealthy.
The reason the disciples were so confused by what Jesus was saying was that they assumed, as most people do, that wealth is a mark of God’s favor. People 2,000 years ago, and people today, tend to look at the wealthy with respect. It is a common assumption then and now that the rich are worthy of greater honor than the poor. We might think we don’t behave like that at all, but consider, just for a moment, how you would react if a gentleman in a very nice suit came in those doors, with a lovely, well-dressed wife and clean, well-behaved, attractive children. And then consider how you would react if a family came in, all in ragged clothing, with bad teeth and dirty fingernails. What if they smelled like they hadn’t bathed anytime recently?
I am pretty confident that everyone here would be kind and polite to anyone who came into our church, whether they were rich or poor, because this is a very gracious church. But, which one of those families could you relate to more easily? Which one is more like your own children and grandchildren? But listen, hear what Jesus is saying to us: “Children, how incredibly hard it will be for that beautiful, attractive family to get into the kingdom of God.” Let that sink in. And then, let us all stand, confused and dumbfounded, with the disciples.
“Then who can be saved?” they ask Jesus. And I don’t think they were expecting the answer that he gives them, when he says, “Well, the short answer is, nobody. For human beings it’s impossible.” And I imagine Jesus pausing for a moment, just to let that sink in. Then I imagine he gave them an encouraging smile, and said: “But not for God – for God anything and everything is possible.” That is something that we all ought to have tattooed on the insides of our eyelids so that we see it every moment, waking or sleeping. No effort or value or attractiveness or morality we can ever claim will ever have the power to save us. But God, he has the power to save any and all of us. That is the good news of the gospel in a nutshell.
But then there is still that ridiculous, ungainly image of the camel. We hold onto the truth that that we are not, that we cannot be, that we will absolutely never be, saved by any goodness of our own. “Only God alone is good,” Jesus told the young man. But – but – there is something more we need to understand, something about the things we earn and collect and save and hold onto, that those belongings can be a real and serious hindrance to our ability to follow Jesus Christ.
Jesus looked at the rich young man, and he loved him, and he told him, “Sell all your stuff, everything you own, and give the money to the poor, and come, follow me.” I feel pretty safe in saying that this is not a universal command for us all to go home and sell everything we own and donate it to the Salvation Army, and become homeless, barefoot, modern-day St. Francises. But if Jesus is not saying that, then what is he saying to you? To me?
My Mom used to wear a sweatshirt with a funny picture of a tiger and a David Foster Wallace quote on it that goes, “Everything I ever gave up had claw marks on it.” It’s a popular quote with recovering addicts, who have learned the hard way that the things they have come to depend on are the very things they need to leave behind. But the truth is, we are not so very different. Our wealth, our possessions, our savings accounts and “nice things” and retirement security – how tightly are we holding onto those things? How dependent have we become on the things we surround ourselves with? How much of your sense of self-worth and security would you lose if tomorrow, all of a sudden, you were living in a shabby old trailer, or in your car, if the only food you had to eat was bought with your EBT card, if your mailbox was filled every day with threatening letters about all the bills you couldn’t pay?
How big is your camel?
Listen to what Jesus says to the people he loves.
“Go,” he says, “get rid of everything that has become a hindrance for you,
those things you are tempted to put your trust in,
the things that you depend on to make you feel like a worthwhile person.
Give it away to people who actually need it.
And then, come on.
Come follow me.”