Squeezing the Camel Through the Eye of the Needle Pt.5

Some reflections on wealth and the Kingdom from Church Action for Tax Justice Chair Sue Richardson.

“it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)

This is the fifth in a series of short reflections for the Advent season exploring some gospel texts about wealth, its creation and its use, our relationship with it and how it causes us to relate to others, as an invitation to some faith-based reflection on our times and our response to them. The intention is to test various understandings of the spirituality of wealth to resource our actions as Church-based organisations seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.

What do we see?

As the Advent season draws to a close we are invited to think about new beginnings: a light shines in the darkness, our winter equinox has passed and, in the northern hemisphere, we begin to think of the night receding and the longer days to come. We like to mark significant moments, like Christmas or an equinox, to give our everyday lives shape and a goal. Soon New Year will arrive, with its presumption of resolutions and amendments. 

Meanwhile there is a seemingly endless cycle of threat to public and private health. The virus assails us in a new form, we are called back into more protective and isolating ways of living. We long for a clear step into something new, something that will ease our anxieties and calm our fears. We look for wisdom to guide us and get only platitudes and slogans. We yearn to celebrate with family and friends, but we fear community and what it might bring to us.

What do we believe?

We know that Christian communities have faced threat and fear and lived with anxiety in social settings which see their faith as a challenge to the public gods.  We have scriptures written in times of war, exile and persecution that stress above all that God is present in creation and with the people. Jesus was called Emmanuel (God with us) at his birth and assured his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “I will be with you always”. Our question is how we can perceive that presence, where and with whom? And what gets in the way of our running towards it?

We read: The Rich Ruler questions Jesus      Luke 18:18-27

What strikes you first from this passage?

Jesus is very abrupt with his questioner.  He starts by being picky about his language and ends with the most unambiguous challenge. Yet this, unlike other gospel instances of people quizzing Jesus, does not bear the stamp of intent to trip him up. This man is someone charged with authority, possibly in the synagogue, and one who has knowledge of the Law. He missteps in his address, “Good teacher”, perhaps this is flattery, or an attempt to smooth out the difference in status between himself and this itinerant man of God? But his question seems sincere.

It is framed in an interesting way, however. He speaks of ‘inheriting’ eternal life. Is this linked to his wealth and how he came by it? Is that process of ‘stepping in’ to economic security the way he understands favour?

Jesus offers him a chance to measure the actions of his life and he passes with regard to how he relates to others, those most intimate to him and their trust in him, neighbours and their possession, and even, perhaps, strangers from whom he might take life. But the absent query is how he is relating to God? So Jesus poses his most brutal challenge: walk away from everything that keeps you safe and gives you status and come to me. The reaction of the one challenged is interesting; he is not angry or defensive. We are told that he is sad because he knows he can’t do it. Jesus is sad too, and the disciples are really perturbed because culturally they see God’s blessing in material prosperity and here Jesus is saying that it actually blocks access to God and the kingdom.

This is the text from which the title of these reflections has been taken. This is the text that follows from our exploration of the Rich Fool, Dives and Lazarus, the Good Samaritan and Zacchaeus with their various commentary on wealth. This is the text that pulls us up short when we ask: how then are we to live?

What seems to be common is an exploration of how wealth and space relate. Wealth is insulating and distancing, wealth induces blindness to the proximity of suffering; but wealth can be the servant of goodwill, it can resource compassion and succour as rescuer draws near to victim. It must be critiqued and scrutinised for its tendency to create an alienating gap between the powerful and the exploited, but it can also be mobilised for mercy, (and we might add, the practical support of Jesus and his disciples!)

Jesus did not just correctly identify that this man was owned by his possessions, he offered him a way out. He invited him to join another sort of community where personal poverty would be overcome by communal care and support. Where God could be found and eternal life understood in the here and now, not through inheritance, not through some sort of legal entitlement, but by a positive change of daily geography and social network. It was issued to him, alone, in the text, but it is a challenge to all of us and we may repeat with the disciples: who then can be saved?

And Jesus said: “what is impossible with man is possible with God.”

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