Year B Proper 23: of camels, elephants, and us

You may have heard the story that there was, in olden times, a gate into Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle, through which a fully-loaded camel could not go without shedding its burdens of material goods, getting down on its camel knees, and camel-crawling through.

It’s a good story, but completely without foundation. Since the theory was proposed in the middle ages, no evidence of such a gate has been found. What we have found is that there was a parable in oral rabbinic tradition that replaced the camel with an elephant, saying much the same thing. Add to that the obvious objection that no one would unload their camel and squeeze it through a gap too narrow for it when there’s another gate a few hundred feet along the wall, and we begin to realize that Jesus meant what he said, absurdity and all. He was making a point for us, not for some hypothetical camel drivers.

The people who proposed the narrow gate theory were like the disciples who did not want to accept the premise of Jesus’ statement to them, or his advice to the rich young man, whom he loved. Whom he loved.

The man had many possessions, and he was grieved and shocked when Jesus told him to leave them behind for the use of others and follow him. His grief was natural. It would be not only his material possessions that he would leave behind if he unpacked that camel.

Money buys prestige, reputation, name recognition. How many impoverished famous people can you name? How many billionaires? Money buys airtime, advertising. Money raises profiles, puts faces in front of the public. Money talks.

Money buys privilege, which means, literally, private law. You have heard it said that there is one rule for the rich, and another for the rest. Maybe a democratic society tries to close the gap, but we know that if we were in trouble, we would do better if we had money to bail ourselves out, buy ourselves sound legal advice. Would Jesus have been crucified if he were a wealthy man? Money brings privilege.

Money buys influence. It buys access to the people of power; it buys their attention. A word or two at a fundraising event: deal or no deal. Money is a lever to move the world. Our world.

Our world? No, hang on a minute; I meant to say, God’s world.

And there is the problem that Jesus identifies and the rich man recognizes. No matter how willing we think we are to unload the camel, or the elephant, we still want to hold on to the beast itself. We want to know that we can attain eternal life, that we can bring God’s kingdom to bear on our world, that the world is ours to change.

The rich man brings all sorts of wealth and gifts to offer to Jesus’ campaign, and Jesus tells him to leave it all behind for the good of others who can use it. Jesus doesn’t need his campaign contributions. Jesus doesn’t need his influence, his political ability. Jesus only needs his love. No wonder the man went away shocked, aggrieved,

“What you bring is not enough,” Jesus told him. The man failed to hear the rest: “What you are is what I want, heart and soul.”

Jesus wasn’t aiming for rejection, but conversion.

We each suffer the rich man’s delusion that we can buy our way into eternal life, whether with money, or influence, or even by good deeds. We know that we are not supposed to worship at the altar of mammon, of worldly wealth and greed; but we want to keep for ourselves something special, some privilege, some inalienable rights, some back-pocket security that we think we deserve and that we think we can use responsibly and still give away just enough, just enough to follow Jesus.

We believe that if we use what we have responsibly, and righteously, and well, we can save ourselves. We believe that we can save Jesus. We buy into the idea of self-righteous ideology that elevates us into saviours.

We might, grudgingly or gladly, unload the camel, but still we cling to the beast itself. We will push it through that gate without regard for its knees. We will not give up the camel.

Or, in the rabbinic version, the elephant. The elephant in the room.

Honestly, there are so many elephants around these days that it’s starting to look like a 3-ring circus. It is time to start calling some of them out: the ones named racism, inequality, and yes, I will name it again: gun violence. I will name it again because our Euclid schools were threatened this week, because there were at least three shootings in schools around the country on Friday alone, because we know that these elephants will not make it through the needle, that they do not belong in the kingdom of God.

It is time to start naming them. It is time to start giving away our name recognition, our power, our political influence – we all know how to contact our representatives and make our voices heard. It is time to give up our privilege and our possessions in the service of those who are getting trampled by the elephants in the room.

It is time to divest ourselves of those things that keep us from following Jesus, faithfully, wholly, truly.

That is what the rich man did not want to hear, what the disciples did not want to hear, what we, what I, frankly, do not want to hear.

But here’s the thing. There is no gate. There is no Eye of the Needle Gate, Camel Gate, no Elephant Gate. There is only us, looking at Jesus through the eye of a needle.

There is no amount of negotiation that will get us through that narrow gap. There is no bargaining with God.

The only way through is conversion into something that will fit, something fit for the kingdom of God.

We have to sacrifice some sacred cows, put out the camel, give up the elephant in room.

We have to admit that our ways are not the ways of God, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. We have to shed our saviour complex and submit to God’s kingdom, God’s will, God’s way, even if it turns out to be the way of the cross.

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’”

Just because Jesus loved him, he said, come, follow me. Just because Jesus loves us.


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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