This article was originally published in the May-June 1991 issue of New Maritimes, a magazine that was published in the 1980s and 90s as a progressive and alternative voice to the mainstream media in the Maritime provinces.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!… 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.
Mark 10:23, 25
The late Milton Acorn, the poet from Prince Edward Island, once said that if you took a copy of one of those editions of the King James Version of the Bible that has the words of Jesus printed in red, and if you read through just the red parts—the words of Jesus—you would find that they “put an entirely different aspect on whole meaning of Jesus” and what he had to say. In his own case, the poet once explained, he’d left the Church of England because the priest was preaching against what Acorn had discovered in the words of Jesus in red.
The words of Jesus in red on the question of poverty and wealth have been tying Christians into knots for centuries. Matthew, Mark and Luke each tell the story of the young man who, loaded with money and influence, and with a reputation to protect, presents himself to Jesus with the question, “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” And Jesus takes him through a kind of checklist of the commandments. “Well, there is the business of not bearing false witness, of your personal integrity. You haven’t defrauded anyone, have you? No perjury? No insider trading?” The young man shakes his head. “And then there’s adultery. Is your record clear there?” The young man nods self-approvingly. “And what about honouring your father and mother?” asks Jesus. “Do you write when you can, call once in a while, and not go to too preposterous lengths making up crazy excuses explaining why you can’t take the kids up to see them on Thanksgiving and Christmas the odd long weekend?” The young fellow gives all the appropriate answers.
“Well then,” says Jesus slowly, “There is really only one other matter. Have you taken all that you’ve got in that big estate of yours and given it away to people who need it more that you do? And have you taken the money you’ve make from the employees on that estate over the years—with which you bought all those things in the first place—and given it back to them?” Long, long silence: and “at that saying,” writes Mark, “hist countenance fell…for he had great possessions.”
Now, it’s very important for us to stop right here and be as clear as we possibly can be about Jesus’ meaning. For Jesus is not talking here, for example, about pensioners who might happen to have some savings with which to get a better car or fix up the house. Jesus is not talking here about ordinary families who might from time to time have some extra money with which to buy something they don’t really need, like a VCR or a waterbed or a costher-than-usual March-break vacation. Jesus has got better things to do with his time than to go around dumping guilt on people for what they might decide to do with their odd bit of occasional disposable income.
No, Jesus is talking here about something different. He is talking, for example, about that handful of powerful business people who so have the federal government’s ear that, in a budget where corporate taxes aren’t going up one cent, working people’s cheques are slated to shrink because of an .increase in personal income tax disguised as a hike in unemployment insurance premiums. Jesus is talking about that small group of people who sit at the top of the gargantuan armaments business—people who so have the ear of Finance Minister Michael Wilson that, in a budget which tightens the screws on transfer payments for education and pulls a big part of the rug out from under foreign aid to the poorest countries in the world, the allocation for military procurements (not even counting spending on the Gulf War!) is scheduled to increase, percentage-wise, more than that of any other single area of government spending. He is talking about—we might as well call them by name: Jesus did—the rich.
When my son Freddie was three years old, our family lived quite near Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, while I was going to school in that area for a while. Freddie and his brother and I spent a lot of time in Fenway’s right-field grandstand, and from those seats you get an excellent view of the goings-on in the luxury boxes, the behind-tinted-glass plush seats back of home plate where people in expensive clothes sit and sip expensive liquor while watching the game in climate-controlled comfort. Freddie wanted to know who those people were the first time he saw them (to a three-year-old the luxury boxes look a little, I suppose, like a gigantic television set with people inside), and, watching the game, I always shrugged him off with,’ “Oh, those are just the rich guys.” But then it was, “Dad, look, that rich guy’s getting up. Where’s that rich guy going? Do they have a rich guys’ bathroom?”—etcetera. Then, last summer, when Freddie went to his first ball game at a field other than the one in Boston, he surprised me by saying, “Dad, this sure is a lot different from Fenway.” “Why?” I asked, expecting like most paunchy middle-aged fathers at a game to hear some in-depth analysis about the quality of play from their pre-schoolers. “Because, look,” he said—pointing behind home plate where there were, not luxury, glassed-in box steats, but rather, ordinary, open grandstands—”There’s no rich guys here.”
When Jesus says that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich many to enter the kingdom,” he’s expressing an opinion about the realm of God much the same as Freddie’s observation about that minor-league ballpark. Karl Barth, probably the most influential Protestant theologian of this century says that the church has tended to miss the clear moral force of this message of Jesus’ on the subject of wealth and eternity because it has often been guilty of trying to be just a little too cute in its interpretation. Barth once wrote that “clever theologians have made the discovery that the eye of a needle is not really the eye of a needle, but a Palestinian name for a narrow gate through the city wall. A camel could pass through such a narrow gate only with great difficulty; thus a rich man, if otherwise virtuous, could supposedly enter the
Kingdom of God, albeit with great difficulty.” How foolish can you get? Asks Barth. Can’t you read the story? The fact is: it doesn’t matter whether it’s a real needle or an eye or a camel or a horse or a donkey or a half-starved moose—Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Humanity, is of the view, Barth says, that “a rich person does not enter into the kingdom of God.” That’s what the story is about.
Talk about some shocking kind of gospel! From the time we’re old enough to start absorbing these kinds of messages, we’re given to understand that the bigger a person’s house, the nicer their car, the more investments they’ve accumulated, then the more intelligent and hard-working and blessed-by-God-with-success their efforts are likely to have been. And now here’s this troublesome Jesus showing up and telling us it’s just not so.
With the words of Jesus in red, God calls us to think thoughts that don’t belong in the greed-centred world we live in, because we belong to the sharing-centred world it will become.
Did you like this article? Help us produce more like it by donating $1, $2, or $5. Donate