Just Let Go
Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Hunter warns us not to be smug about the rich young man.
One interpretation that I’ve heard of the key sentence of today’s Gospel, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” is that there is a gate known to Jesus’ hearers, called the Eye of the Needle, which is small enough that it would be difficult, but not impossible, for a camel to enter that way. The problem for that interpretation is that there is no evidence for a gate of that name, but also it doesn’t fit at all with the reaction of the disciples, “In that case, who can be saved?”
On the contrary, I think Jesus’ saying is more like the silly joke we used to tell when I was kid: “How do you know if there’s been an elephant in your fridge? Footprints in the butter!” Jesus is talking about a real needle, and the point is to say, not that it is difficult, but that it is impossible, a point he hammers home with this incongruous image.
Why is Jesus so down on the rich? Sometimes, Scripture criticises the rich because their riches have been accumulated through injustice. They’ve gotten rich by withholding the wages of their workers or somesuch. But Jesus isn’t, it seems, making that claim here. Some people become rich without injustice or dishonesty. Jesus is saying, rather, that there’s something about being rich in general that makes for trouble.
Jesus doesn’t directly tell us here what the problem is. We can deduce part of the answer by seeing the context in which he says these things, though. The rich young man is asking Jesus about what he needs to do to attain eternal life. He means, of course, eternal life with God. That is, he’s talking about the most precious and valuable goal anyone could ever have. And yet, when Jesus tells him that he should sell all he has and give to the poor in return for treasure in heaven, the man goes away sad. His wealth, it turns out, is more important to him even than life with God.
Riches are a particularly dangerous distraction, because they can insulate us from a fact that is obvious to the poor: life is precarious, and ultimately, we rest in the hands of God. Without God’s help, we can do nothing. If you have money, it is all too easy to pretend to yourself that you are in control of your life. Many situations which are a set-back to the rich are an absolute disaster for the poor, since they have nothing material to fall back on. They can only rely on God.
We may find ourselves hearing this story and feeling all smug and superior. “That rich young man,” we want to say, “What a fool! Doesn’t he see that treasure in heaven is better than earthly wealth?” The disciples, who so often misunderstand Jesus, on this occasion are one jump ahead of us. Notice, they don’t reply, “How can the rich be saved?” Instead, they say, “Who can be saved?” with the implication that the answer is, “Nobody.”
What they see, and we’re tempted to miss, is that rich people have their distractions, but all of us have our own, whether rich or poor. We’re all tempted to put other things ahead of God. For every one of us, there are some things that if Jesus said to us, “Give that up, and you’ll have treasure in heaven. And come follow me,” we would be reluctant. We would want to walk away in sadness. I say, “if Jesus said to us”. I should have said, “when”. Jesus is saying that, to you and to me, all the time. And the truth is, we find it difficult to let go of the various distractions and comforts in our lives that help us pretend for a while that our lives are our own and in our own control. We are just like the rich young man.
That is why Jesus’ reply is so comforting. “For people it is impossible, but not for God. For everything is possible for God.” I said before that we rely on God, but that is even so of our turning from the various false gods we have made for ourselves, and especially in our finding forgiveness for our reliance on false gods in the past. We rely on the power of God, and what we cannot do, he will do by his power. And we will have treasure in heaven.