In this Gospel (Mark 10: 17-30) St Mark makes a surprising observation as he tells us about this encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. After the young man explains that he has followed the commandments since his youth, St Mark tells us that: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Imagine what that look was like. It was the look of the Creator directed towards his beloved creature. It was the look of an older brother directed towards a younger brother in need. It was the look of a father gazing upon a son who is striving to do all the right things.
But what was more surprising is what Jesus said to the young man after giving him this look of love. He tells him to go off and sell all his possessions – the very things that this young man is most attached to. Now, if Jesus really loved this young man, why would he ask him to give up what he valued most? If Jesus really loved this young man, why would he be so demanding? Why would he make him so uncomfortable?
We all know the answer: it’s because love seeks what is best for the beloved.
Love by its very nature is demanding; it will never settle for mediocrity. And this young man, because he was so attached to money, possessions, and worldly success, was in great danger of falling into a mediocre, stifling, and frustrated life. And so Jesus, out of love, invites him to choose the path of wisdom instead of comfort, the path of following God’s will instead of self will. The Lord is constantly doing the same for us: looking at us with deep, personal love, and inviting us to follow him more closely, even though it will mean leaving our comfort behind.
Imagine that you are at your favorite coffee shop holding a mug full of warm coffee. Now, you like coffee and are used to coffee, but in the back of your mind you are convinced that there may be something that will satisfy your thirst better than coffee.
So you bring your mug up to the counter and ask the person for a drink of something more satisfying. And he replies, “Sure! We have just the thing – a special brew. It tastes fantastic, fills you up with energy, and lasts the whole day long.”
But when he reaches for your mug, you hesitate. You have never tried this special brew, and you are a little suspicious: What if it’s not as good as the man says it is? Maybe you should just stick with what’s familiar. You can’t have both, because you only have one mug. To get the special brew, you would have to pour out the warm coffee.
That’s the situation this young man finds himself in. His mug is full of wealth and possessions. Jesus is offering him true, lasting wisdom instead, promising that it will give him the satisfaction his money hasn’t given him, but he hesitates, afraid to take the risk.
It’s an image that helps us understand the nature of sin in general. Sin is putting something in God’s place; putting something that ought to be second place into first place; filling our mug with warm coffee when God really gave us the mug so that we could drink his special brew.
Unless we pour out the warm coffee, whichever brand it may be, we simply won’t have room in our souls for the special brew that brings true satisfaction. In the case of this rich young man, the thing that was holding him back from the truly meaningful life he desired was his attachment to possessions, to money, to wealth.
Jesus explains this with a striking image. He says that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” A camel was one of the biggest animals known to the residents of Palestine at the time of Christ. And the eye of a needle is one of the smallest passageways that the unaided human eye can actually see through.
It’s a powerful image when taken literally.
But some biblical scholars point out that the image may also be taken in another way. In Jerusalem at the time there was a back door in the city walls, a small, short, narrow gate used mostly by locals, who called it “the eye of the needle.” When big merchant caravans came to the city for business, if they wanted to get in through this gate, they had to strip their camels bare – taking off all supply packs, saddles, and trade goods. Then they could lead them through on foot.
It is possible that we are like those merchants. Maybe we are loaded down with so many self-centered hopes, habits, and worries, that we are unable to enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. Maybe we still think that the right house, job, promotion, spouse, bank account, or award is going to fill our hearts with the happiness we long for.
It’s not that Jesus did not want us to have wealth; or that Jesus had a problem with wealthy people or that Jesus wanted us to feel guilty if we have accumulated a lot of wealth. He does not care about the size of your 401(k), or your stock portfolio or how many ounces of silver or gold you may have purchased.
What he does care about is first and foremost the importance you attach to that wealth. Is it the most important thing in your life besides the ones you love? If it is, there is something askew in your priorities. Secondly he cares about what you do with your wealth. He expects that, first and foremost you will take care of yourself and those you love. But if it stops there then, once again, something is askew. Because you know, as well as I do, that he calls us to not only be servant to one another but to care for one another and caring means helping those in need.
Material possessions may bring us a degree of comfort but they do not bring us closer to God. Those things must take second place to our friendship with Jesus Christ; because in him alone can we find the inner peace, meaning, and strength we so ardently desire.
As we contemplate this Gospel, let’s consider what’s hindering our progress along the path of wisdom, the path of drawing closer to God. That path calls for us to be Christ centric in all that we do and say. When that happens, the eye of the needle becomes an easy place for us to pass through.