CAMELS AND THE EYES OF NEEDLES
By biblical standards most of us today are rich. We have houses with piped water, electric power, gas cookers, loos that pull, beds with sheets, blankets, duvets, and pillows, arm chairs, radios, televisions, and maybe a car - not to mention our stocks and shares, wage packets, state pensions or what-have-you.
Meanwhile, from time to time we fly to the Costa del Sol for a fortnight, or Corfu, or - if the worst comes to the worst - book a package holiday in Ramsgate or Blackpool for a few days. In view of which, what are we to make of the saying of Jesus that “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?” It comes at the end of a story of a rich young man coming to Jesus and asking him what he could do to gain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments; but when the young man replied that he had tried to do that all his life, Jesus said, “You lack one thing, go and sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” ‘When the young man heard this, he went away with a heavy heart, for he was a man of great wealth;’ and it was at this point that Jesus said to the disciples, “I tell you this, a rich man will find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven…..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.”
What are we to make of that? If it was an isolated saying, we might perhaps be able to forget it; but there are too many other stories, in which Jesus emphasises the same thing, namely that riches are a barrier to entry into the kingdom of God, to make it possible for us to ignore it; and its import is clear. Unless you surrender everything - all your worldly securities - you cannot enter the Kingdom of God, It is a challenge. How should we - members of an affluent society - respond?
In the earliest church men and women responded in a literal sense. Indeed, there was a time when the Egyptian desert was so full of dedicated men and women, who had given up all their worldly possessions in order to embrace the total poverty of a life of bare subsistence, that it was known as the desert of the saints. Others, sometimes alone and sometimes in little groups, lived lives of prayer and fasting in the caves and eroded valleys of Cappadoccia, scratching a living as best they could from its rocky soil and owning nothing; and as time went by thousands and thousands of men and women took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in response to Christ’s command to sell all that they had and to follow him. Thus the monastic orders were born, and however corrupt they may have become in later years - and by no means all of them did so - they inspired millions of people to try to live lives dedicated to God, acknowledging no other authority but his will and relying on no other security but the triumph of his love. Of course, they did not always succeed in doing so, but that many became lights of the world and saints in their generation is undeniable; and though fewer people adopt this way of life today, it still thrives, and produces a few obvious saints and a large number of less obvious ones, who do not attract the publicity which made Francis of Assisi famous in his own day and has singled out Mother Teresa for celebrity in our own time.
Before going on to look at other possible ways of responding to that saying of Jesus about riches, it should be remembered that embracing poverty as a godly way of life is by no means peculiar to Christians, and has never been so. Although riches were regarded by the Jews in Old Testament times as the reward of righteousness and poverty as the wages of sin, there were always a few lone voices raised against the smug-self-righteousness of such a viewpoint and in praise of the poor; and as time went by Jewish sects like the Essenes seem to have adopted a way of life not unlike that of the desert Fathers of the Christian church. Similarly, in Islam, in origin Sufism bore a remarkable resemblance to early Christian asceticism, and was probably influenced by it, while monasticism and a life of self-denial lie close to the heart of Buddhism. But it is probably in Hinduism that this way of life has been take to its limit, hundreds of holy men choosing to live entirely naked in circumstances of the utmost poverty and discomfort in order to win total freedom from all that is implied by the words ‘this world’; and they are greatly respected as a result.
But while those who practice such austerity and self-denial are revered in all religions, in none is their way of life regarded as the only way possible for a religious man or woman. Indeed, some Christians, while acknowledging its virtues, have also pointed to some of its limitations. Is it not, they have asked, essentially an escapist way of life - a way of avoiding all human responsibilities? After all, monks and nuns no longer make their own decisions, but surrender that responsibility to another as part of their lives of obedience; they escape from the various responsibilities involved in bearing children and raising a family; they live on the charity of others instead of making a living, avoid the various responsibilities of citizenship, both in peace and war, and make no material contribution to the commonwealth of mankind, especially if they are members of an enclosed and contemplative order.
Moreover, do not some people seek the monastic way of life, not so much out of devotion to God and horror of riches, but as a way of escape from some of the problems of being alive such as coming to terms with their own sexuality, whatever that may be, coping with the inevitable difficulties and pains of loving another human being, of watching your children grow up and make their mistakes, of sitting beside someone you love, as he or she dies, and of coping with the resulting grief?
The monastic way may be a way of escape from some of those things. I don’t know. But I very much doubt whether a desire to escape them plays any part in the motives of most of those who adopt this way of life, even if as a result they do avoid some of the worst of them. But if the monastic way of life is not the only possible response to that saying of Jesus about rich men, camels and the eyes of needles, what other response is there? The answer is obvious enough. Don’t depend on any worldly security. Surrender them all inwardly to God, while still living with them in this world with all its responsibilities; this world of family life, commuting, the nine o’clock news, joy and sorrow, divorce and death. To say such a surrender is difficult is the under-statement to exceed all under-statements.
Jesus said that for men it was impossible; and so, I am sure, it is. But that does not mean that it should not be attempted, even if complete success is out of reach; for with the help of God a measure of success is not unattainable. I know this to be true, because I have known and loved some people who have manifestly attained it, even though they were still very much living in this world with all its hazards and responsibilities.
One such, a middle-aged woman, lived in my parish in the Paddington area of London years ago. She was a widow, fairly well-to-do, in her late fifties or early sixties, lovely, warm, unostentatiously godly and a devoted member of God’s Church. She had three grown up married daughters and a number of grand-children. I can’t remember how many. One day, she told me that she would not be in church for a bit; her youngest daughter was ill - very ill, I gathered - and she was going down to the country to look after her and the children. I hugged her, and said we would all pray for her and her daughter. Ten days later, she rang me to say that her daughter was a bit worse, and please would I go on praying. Two Sundays later, she appeared in Church. “How’s your daughter?” I asked her. “She is fine - absolutely fine,” she said. “She died four days ago”, and burst into tears.
She died herself some years later, as lovely as ever and full of the peace of God which comes of acknowledging no other King and trust in no other security but his love.