Sunday, June 21, 2009

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

- Matthew 19:23-30

So important is this story to the evangelists, that it appears in three gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. The quotation about the camel and the eye of the needle appears in each. The final sentiment, that many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, also appears in all three gospels. The statement about riches, about discipleship and humility is inextricably linked in the writing of all three gospels. So we must take this passage as a whole, and understand its great emphasis in the teachings we find in the evangelists' works.

To this day, of course, the difficulties of separating ourselves from what we own, and what image that makes in the eyes of others, remain. The sayings remain true in the sense of how hard it is for we human beings to separate ourselves from all the things that add up to make an identity - socially - of who we are. We're best off counting things: what job we have, what house we have, where we stand with others in terms of rank through some form of wealth in the world. But spiritual life asks us to be able to separate ourselves from all of those things in the sense that we put an allegiance first to something else, something Other - something that will radically define us as human beings in the context of our relationship with that Spirit, with the something Other. God, the ultimate Other, pulls our allegiance and understanding away from possession and what we have, and asks us instead to work on who we are at places within ourselves that "neither moth nor rust can corrupt."

This ability to distinguish between all the things that define us - all the possessions and wealth, if you will - in terms of a social context, and the things that define us in prayer and relationship to God seems to me to be crucial to the practice of our faith. At least that's what I find so completely and emphatically emphasized in the gospels, if only through repetition (not just in the repeated instance of this same story, but other passages illustrating the same point as well). We have to be able to pull back and ask, "How'm I doing?" in the context of a relationship to Spirit, to values that aren't about climbing a particular ladder of social status or accumulation. I might even venture here to include the notion of accomplishment as well as one of those things we tend to look at as accumulation. All of this, I believe, has to be framed first in the context of "How'm I doing?" with regard to God's particular answer to that question. There are all kinds of ways of being "someone" in the world, but there's one place where "someone" is defined spiritually - and that place is intimate and apart from all the rest of it, yet frames the rest of our lives within a particular context of Spirit. Deep in our psyches, in our souls, we can reach out to a place where we separate who we are from what we have and think about how we live, and how we're doing.

Humility is an extraordinarily difficult virtue to practice. I think there's nothing tougher. Jesus goes to the great length, and our three evangelists each repeat it exactly to us for emphasis, to tell us that this kind of humility is not possible for us alone. So difficult is it to be a human being and to create this personal detachment, that Jesus declares it impossible. For you or me alone and of ourselves, it's simply not possible. But with God it's possible. It's the intervention and union or relationship with Spirit that gives us the ability to do this for ourselves and our lives. So, the very act of seeking, of declaring ourselves loyal to something beyond the world we understand socially and with our five senses, our framework of reference for an earthly life, opens up a door to a different perspective, to detachment.

The apostles have given up everything for this kingdom. Absolutely everything: homes, family, work. The rewards, Jesus says, will be a hundredfold. There's a phrase I've heard repeated that casts disdain on such teachings - "Pie in the sky, bye and bye." But I think such phrases are meant to cast doubt on leaders who'd ask us to refrain from finding that true internal identity. Far be it from me to claim this doctrine has not been used to enrich the pockets of hypocrites! The whole point here is not about receiving the same wealth in return, or promising the riches we're told we must detach ourselves from (that would be a ridiculous contradiction). No, the point here is about a kind of richness and membership in a reality, a place in which we dwell in union with something, that rewards us in ways a hundredfold more rewarding than the comfort provided by what we collect. It's a hard saying, but in the end, what defines who we are - whether we possess millions or we are impoverished - really rests within ourselves. It colors our perspective about who we are and what wealth we possess internally, in the nature of our souls and our psyches and our depths of relating to the world and even ourselves as human beings. In this hierarchy of values there's a deeper structure to be attained within ourselves and in that relationship to God than the one we put so much faith and effort in through our daily lives and social status. And really, what can be more cruel or unjust than the values assigned to persons through rank in the world? It is a teaching of mercy to understand the radical equality of this internal life of the spirit within us, an uplifting doctrine about the worth of every human being. The value of faith in adverse circumstances can make all the difference to how we go through difficulties. I see this teaching as a call for the redemption of the humble and the recognition of this essential spiritual equality, of worth, within all people.

"Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" is a statement about rank, a statement about humility - an understanding that what is internal reality in that life of the Spirit may be something opposite to what we find in life and in the society. We put our faith in who we are as persons in relationship to Spirit, and then let life unfold through that relationship. A tall order, but one we practice, and which millions of people put their faith in every day. By oursleves, we're told, it's impossible. But with God all things are possible.

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