The eye of the needle was a gate into Jerusalem, a narrow gate inside a larger one. This gate was so narrow that a camel could not get through unless it was completely unloaded. Thus a wealthy person could not get into heaven without completely unloading their wealth. That’s a nice and often told story, but it’s likely baloney. There is no evidence that there was ever a gate called the eye of the needle.
When Jesus said, “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,” he meant it literally. We like to loosen things up a little, give ourselves an out because we know Jesus wasn’t talking about Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, he was talking about us. In comparison to much of the rest of the world, all of us here are rich.
I’ve recently moved, and every time I move I learn again that our family has a lot of stuff. I’m guessing most of you do too. Thank God for the inventor of the garage! Every time we move, I have a temptation to have a BIG bonfire in the back yard.
Our stuff weighs us down. Our stuff controls us. I don’t have stuff, stuff has me. Imagine for a minute that you did get rid of everything. What are the essentials that you would need to live and function in society? Shelter. Water. Clothing. Food.
What about a refrigerator to keep the food in? A stove to cook the food with. And don’t forget pots and pans and dishes and silverware.
And we need a few different outfits, we can’t wear the same thing to work every day, and we can’t mow the grass or weed the garden in our dress clothes. Oh, and we’ll need clothes for both summer and winter at least. And if we have all those outfits, we’ll need something to keep them in. What about a washer and dryer?
Do we need a telephone? Probably. It’s useful in emergencies and how else can we stay in touch with our far-flung family and friends. I could live pretty happily without a television, but a radio really is necessary for safety, to hear about weather situations or gas leaks.
What about a computer? That’s harder. I would have to write sermons by hand. I would have to use the phone to communicate. Until the pandemic I might have been able to live without it, though I wouldn’t enjoy it.
Furniture, a bed? A table, and chairs at the very least? If there’s a bed, we’ll need linens
Don’t forget hygiene products, towels.
Running water and electricity we’ll take for granted as coming with the shelter.
Is that it? Did we miss anything?
How necessary are books? Learning? Art? Music? Fun and games?
Oh my goodness. We have stuff again. As soon as we get stuff, our stuff needs stuff.
Now, thinking of all the necessities we just bought, think also about this: According to the Pew Research Center, 4.4 billion people live on less than $10 per day. That’s nearly ¾ of the world’s population living on less than $300/month.
Let’s throw out some numbers:
|Global Priority||$U.S. Billions|
|Cosmetics in the United States||8|
|Ice cream in Europe||11|
|Perfumes in Europe and the United States||12|
|Pet foods in Europe and the United States||17|
|Business entertainment in Japan||35|
|Cigarettes in Europe||50|
|Alcoholic drinks in Europe||105|
|Narcotics drugs in the world||400|
|US military spending||780|
|World military spending||1.9 trillion|
|Basic education for all||6|
|Water and sanitation for all||9|
|Reproductive health for all women||12|
|Basic health and nutrition||13|
Do you feel rich yet?
Now, I know, some of what is necessary for us to function, isn’t necessary in other parts of the world. Our society makes it necessary. That’s because our society doesn’t have stuff, stuff has our society. Our wealth and stuff give us a feeling of independence, makes us think we can accomplish anything. And that’s exactly the problem. Our wealth cuts us off from our neighbors, and worst of all, our stuff cuts us off from God. Instead of using our wealth, our technology, our stuff, to help God’s children across the world, we each set ourselves up as little gods, with our own power over our own little worlds. We fall again and again into our first sin, trying to make ourselves God.
So how do we get out of it? As a society or as individuals, how do we free ourselves from bondage to stuff?
The answer is not popular, it’s entirely countercultural, but I hope we will all learn it. The only way out from under the pile is sacrifice.
This is a finite world, and our economy is a zero sum game. What I have you don’t have. What I spend on pet food or perfume, I cannot spend on basic education or medical care for those who lack it. We cannot just give from what’s left over, we must mindfully, purposefully, sacrifice stuff to help the world escape from the finitude that traps us.
When I give to the church, or to Episcopal Relief, or to the woman on the corner, it frees someone from bondage, maybe it frees someone from poverty, and it sets me free from stuff. When I spend a little more to buy the local produce that didn’t fill the landscape with pesticides, it not only benefits the earth and the farmer and fragile earth, it sets me free from finitude. When I hire the man who comes to the interview in the only clothes he owns, when I pay a living wage to all my employees, it not only lifts them up, it frees me to follow Jesus.
It isn’t easy, usually it’s downright painful. But if we are to follow Jesus, we must remember that his path leads through the cross, through sacrifice. We can’t go over it, can’t go around it and can’t just meet him in the garden in front of the open tomb. The path of Christ is sacrifice.
Of course, we live in the world, and even if we had the will we couldn’t sacrifice everything we have. If it were possible, then we could fit through the gate by just unloading enough stuff. Possible or not, we have to try. Some saints have made a pretty good run of it. But as Jesus said, it isn’t just difficult, for mortals it is impossible.
Maybe the man went away grieving because the price was too high or maybe he was sad because he was about to sacrifice a great deal. Regardless, sinner or saint, Jesus looked at him and Jesus loved him, and so he went to the cross, sacrificing eternity, to free him and us from the finite.