Have you heard that there are some questions you can ask of kindergarteners and 9 out of 10 kindergarteners will get them right? But if you ask the same question of an adult 9 out of 10 adults will get them wrong? Like this one…
How do you put an elephant in the refrigerator?
Answer: Open the door, put the elephant in, close the door.
How do you put a camel in the refrigerator?
Answer: Open the door, take the elephant out, put the camel in, then close the door.
When I told these jokes to Pastor KJ she was like “yeah, but can you really fit an elephant in the refrigerator?” And I said, it depended on the size of the elephant, or maybe the size of the refrigerator. Right? Kids have the imagination to understand this, that refrigerators can be huge and elephants can be small, but as we age we lose some of that mental flexibility.
Jesus has an uncanny way of asking us these kinds of questions that children might get right but adults really struggle with. I think our story today is a lesson that is a little bit like that.
We’re reading from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10, Verses 17-31. We’re picking up in the lectionary where KJ has been teaching for the last few weeks. I wanted to continue with the stories of Jesus that Mark is telling us. So again, Mark 10 starting in verse 17.
17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before Jesus, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”
20The man said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, 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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Our story today is a familiar passage found in three gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Scholars call it the story of “the rich young ruler.” Matthew tells us he’s young. Luke tells us he’s a ruler. And all three of them tell us he’s rich. So, when you put them together you get the rich young ruler.
And this man approaches Jesus with a question. He wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. But he starts out by calling Jesus “Good Teacher.” And Jesus responds to that title by saying “No one is good but God alone.” When I first read that, I was like “uhhh Jesus, you’re pretty good too…” because it kind of sounds like Jesus is saying that he’s not good a teacher.
But, of course, we have the value of hindsight 2000 years after this occurred and we know that Jesus IS God. So when Jesus says that God is good, he’s really giving us a hint about his own nature. If Jesus is good, and God alone is good, then logic tells us Jesus must also be God. He’s saying that he’s not JUST good. He is a good teacher, but he’s more than that. He’s a good teacher… plus.
And with that clarification out of the way, Jesus starts teaching. This rich young ruler was educated, so when Jesus says “You know the commandments” the answer to that is yes. This man already knows all 10 commandments plus the rest of the Jewish laws. Everyone is on the same page about the expectations of the law.
And then Jesus rattles off 6 commandments:
1. You shall not murder;
2. You shall not commit adultery;
3. You shall not steal;
4. You shall not bear false witness;
5. You shall not defraud; (which he substitutes in for you shall not covet)
6. Honor your father and mother.
This is the second half of the commandments. Does anyone know what Jesus left out? He left out all the commandments about our relationship with God. He left out:
1. No other Gods
2. No idols
3. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain
4. Keep the Sabbath
All the things that are about us making God a priority in our lives.
But the rich young ruler would have known those commandments too, and regardless of how many commandments Jesus lists, the man says he’s kept all of them since childhood. Well, when I heard that I thought “liar liar pants on fire”. Right? Because no one keeps all the commandments. But Jesus doesn’t call him a liar. He doesn’t correct him at all. In fact, Mark tells us that Jesus loved him. Jesus loved him. And then Jesus goes on to confirm what the young man is saying “Yeah, you’re only missing one thing,” says Jesus, “Give your money to the poor and come follow me.”
And Mark, because Mark is just such a great storyteller, then gives us the punchline. Now after all the buildup we find out that the man is rich, and so he goes away sad. But the teaching moment isn’t over. The disciples want to understand what just happened because they don’t get it. So, Jesus paints them a picture. He says “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.”
If you Google this passage (which I don’t really recommend as a way of learning the Bible by the way—believe it or not the Internet does not know everything)… But if you Google it, the first thing you will find are possible alternate interpretations for Jesus’s metaphor about the camel going through the eye of the needle.
It’s obviously impossible for a literal camel to go through the eye of an actual sewing needle. So, people throughout the ages have gone looking for another explanation or meaning for these words. There are two commonly used ones, neither of which are accurate.
The first is that some say that there was a small gate leading into the city called “the eye of the needle” that you could get a camel through only by taking off all of its burdens. If you removed the cargo that a camel was carrying, and made it get down on its knees, a camel might be able to squeeze through the gate. In some ways, I like this interpretation. It’s akin to our saying “you can’t take it with you when you go.” Right? The idea is that you can still inherit eternal life, but not with your stuff. The stuff doesn’t fit through the gate. But, historians and Biblical scholars alike have looked for this gate, and it’s clear that there was never any such thing. There was never a gate called “the eye of the needle.” This is a concept that people applied AFTER Jesus made this statement. In fact, the whole idea didn’t show up until the 9th century.
The second way that people talk about this passage is that some people also say that we misinterpreted the word camel when we translated it into English and that Jesus meant to say “cable” instead of “camel.” But the word camel is correctly translated in other parts of the Bible and no one questions that. The wise men did not come to baby Jesus on a cable. They came on camels. So, this is sort of silly. And even if he did say cable instead of camel. You can’t get a cable into the eye of a needle either.
So, if neither of these explanations are really what Jesus meant. Then what was Jesus saying, when he 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.”? Well, it’s likely that he really did refer to the largest animal that was well know at the time, and he talked about it trying to go through the smallest aperture that was commonly known at the time. He told the kindergartners to put the elephant in the refrigerator. He gave us a brilliant mental picture of something that is quite impossible.
This shocks the disciples. In verse 26 it says that they were greatly astounded. That’s because in both Judaism and Paganism at the time there was a prevailing idea that wealth was equal to blessings. That if you were rich, it meant that God had blessed you. And it followed that if God had blessed you, God was pleased with you.
I think we still believe this today sometimes: that because God gifts us and blesses us differently that some people must be more loved by God than others. Well, let me dispel that myth. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we find plenty of places where it’s clear that God loves all of creation. The idea that we need to earn God’s grace and blessing is NOT a Christian idea—Jesus didn’t teach that—but it was the prevailing thought of the day. The understanding was that the rich, blessed, God-loved people were more likely to go to heaven than poor, not blessed, people who must be atoning for some past sin. But, as Jesus so often does, he turns this idea on its head. He clarifies by saying that the first will be last and last will be first.
So, what’s the point, Kimberly? You might be asking. Are you saying that only poor people can go to Heaven?
Well, that question has been debated for centuries in the church, and some people have taken this passage very literally. Many Christians have taken a vow of poverty. And, there is something truly beautiful about sacrificing what you have been given for the good of another. We see this in the early church where groups of believers lived together and shared everything they have in common. Everything they earned went to the good of the community. So, is that what we are all called to do? Maybe. It’s definitely an option.
But, I personally think this passage is more about our priorities. It’s not about how blessed we are in this life, but about what we’re willing to do with the blessings we’ve been given. I think the message here lies in those first four commandments that Jesus left out. That’s what’s missing. We’re to love God first. If we love God first, then everything else falls into place.
Are you all familiar with the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”? There’s a song in that musical: If I Were a Rich Man.
If I were a rich man
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum
All day long, I’d biddy biddy bum
If I were a wealthy man
Anyway, in that song it talks about how if he were rich, he would sit all day in the Synagogue and pray because he wouldn’t have to work all the time. And that sounds right to us: if we were wealthy, we’d have more time for God. We’d do all sorts of things for the church. We’d be more generous. We’d show up for every church workday and special service.
But we want the wealth to come first. It’s the “God if you make me rich, THEN I’ll take care of the poor” model.
But, this passage begs the question, if we truly love God first, shouldn’t we be doing those things anyway? If we claim to love God first, then isn’t feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and taking care of the sick what follows?
The rich young ruler goes away sad because he’s not willing to put God above his wealth. But I think this passage is actually very hopeful because right there in verse 27 it says “For mortals this is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” There is no needle too small. No camel too big. No mountain too high or ocean too deep. When following Jesus is our priority, nothing is impossible. Jesus is the good teacher… plus. And he’s teaching us to see our wealth and blessings as resources and tools to serve our communities and love our neighbors.
It’s about how we look at our blessings. We can look at blessings as a sign that we’re doing everything right. That we’re keeping the last six commandments—as the rich young ruler did. Or, we can look at them as blessings that can be used to bless others. Gifts that are meant to be regifted.
I would challenge us this week to look at our resources. What do we have that we can use for the benefit of others? It can be money, but it doesn’t have to be. Maybe you have a talent—you can fix cars or a broken furnace. Maybe you can read to a child or an elderly person who is losing their eyesight. Maybe you can drive someone without transportation to a doctor’s appointment.
We had a watermain break at our apartment this week, and we didn’t have water for about 48 hours. And every time I went to turn on the tap and nothing came out, I was reminded about how blessed we truly are. We have an expectation that clean, hot water will always be there, right in our kitchen sinks, but that’s not a privilege that everyone in the world has access to. And I’m grateful to the people who gave me containers to fill and let me use their garden hoses to refill them multiple times. I’m grateful for my neighbors who checked in on each other to make sure that everyone had enough to drink and wash their hands.
I think that’s what inheriting the Kingdom of God looks like. It looks like neighbors helping neighbors carry water. It looks like soup dropped off on the porch for a family that has COVID. It looks like bringing a friend to church when their car is not working or filling their gas tank when they can’t afford to.
When Jesus says “come follow me” we get a choice. We can try to drag our heavily laden camels though the eye of the needle on our own. Or we can say “all things are possible only with you God” and we can begin to follow Christ’s example by serving one another.
Let us pray.
Gracious God. Giver of all things. We thank you for the amazing blessings in our lives. We thank you for people who are willing to help their neighbors in times of need. We thank you for the privilege that it is to serve you and follow in your ways. Help us this week to see the needs around us and to be generous in our giving. Amen.