God, the giver of life, whose Holy Spirit wells up within your Church: by the Spirit’s gifts equip us to live the gospel of Christ and make us eager to do your will, that we may share with the whole creation the joys of eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
God, our light and our salvation: illuminate our lives, that we may see your goodness in the land of the living, and looking on your beauty may be changed into the likeness of Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, •
and are so far from my salvation,
from the words of my distress?
2 O my God, I cry in the daytime,
but you do not answer; •
and by night also, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are the Holy One, •
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
4 Our forebears trusted in you; •
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 They cried out to you and were delivered; •
they put their trust in you and were not confounded.
6 But as for me, I am a worm and no man, •
scorned by all and despised by the people.
7 All who see me laugh me to scorn; •
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
8 ‘He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; •
let him deliver him, if he delights in him.’
9 But it is you that took me out of the womb •
and laid me safe upon my mother’s breast.
10 On you was I cast ever since I was born; •
you are my God even from my mother’s womb.
11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near at hand •
and there is none to help.
12 Mighty oxen come around me; •
fat bulls of Bashan close me in on every side.
13 They gape upon me with their mouths, •
as it were a ramping and a roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water;
all my bones are out of joint; •
my heart has become like wax
melting in the depths of my body.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd;
my tongue cleaves to my gums; •
you have laid me in the dust of death.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You 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; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, 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.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus 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, who 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 20
Jesus tells us quite clearly that everything will be turned upside down. The wealthy will be forsaken and the ignored will come into the centre of the Kingdom.
This saying, that the camel will go through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, has been the source of so much debate in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. When we couple this saying with the story of the rich man and Lazarus, don’t we often give up hope because we are so disoriented in the present. If the rich man can be so bad in this life with all his possessions, no wonder there is trouble brewing. The haves and have-nots are always in conflict. What was called, “The Politics of Envy”, has always been playing in all our minds and on the world stage. We have all said, “If only …” haven’t we?
But “If only …” does not mean that we are covetous, does it? Whenever we compare ourselves with others, do we always desire their possessions – do we always set our hearts on something we do not have? Envy is not what our thought, “If only …”, means. – When we say to ourselves, “If only …”, don’t we really mean that things have to change? Don’t we really mean what John Lennon meant when he sang, “Imagine …”
I think this is the import of Jesus’ saying. Things have to change – it may seem impossible, but Jesus tells us that things will change radically. We, however, have to see how many things we put in our way on our journey to the judgement whether we enter the Kingdom or not. Is our way going to be as difficult as putting a camel through the eye of a needle?
This has always been a problem for the Church. There has always been great conflict over the use of money and its collection – Can we charge people for coming into this place of worship? Or should it be free at the point of need? Do we fix the roof or do we make charitable donations? These may seem to be outlandish questions for us here locally, but our cathedrals are faced with this problem. Some do charge people for just crossing the threshold. (And I say, no wonder people have never been into a church today!)
But is this really the intent of Jesus’ words? I think we should see these words of Jesus less as a condemnation of the rich than as a description of the worldliness of humanity, that we concentrate on our possessions rather than using them to mutual advantage. Our greed gets in the way of our passage through to our ultimate goal, our ownmost possibility.
The other night there was a programme about the Medici – you know, the ruling and banking family in Florence which had bankrolled everyone in the medieval period. Some of the family were gold-diggers, and there were some who were scared about the state of their salvation. Particularly there was one who went to a monastery, eventually he became a pope. His cell was decorated with the art which had become synonymous with the family – beautiful yet full of meaning.
His cell was more like a suite of rooms rather than the cell of a monk who had taken the vow of poverty. In the cell shown on the programme there were two frescos. One, the crucifixion, was in the room you immediately entered. It was the humbling sight of the saviour on the cross, then up some stairs was the other fresco, depicting the adoration of the Magi in a similar beautiful but simple style. The Christ-child was central, with the Magi offering their gifts around him. It is that adoration, that giving of self and possession to something other than ourselves, which is the focus of that fresco. It is the expression of their faith which the artist depicts. – Yes, they are rich kings, offering gifts of immense value to a newborn child, but that is not the meaning of that fresco.
I think the adoration of the magi allows us to put the rich man and the camel together on that passage through to the Kingdom. These rich men are divesting themselves of their possessions in front of the Christ. They see something which is of more value than their riches, so they are happy to give up that gold, frankincense and myrrh, those symbols of wealth. Their delight was in the child they had found, outside of themselves and their possessions.
In Florence in this period of the Medici, the Magi became the preeminent figures in popular piety, even assuming a place of honour in the Medici palace – there the Magi were portrayed as kings with their exorbitant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were pictured in regal robes and crowns with gold leaf as the content of the paint. Obviously, no expense was spared in that palatial portrayal. They were seen as the powerful which the medieval period had come to know. The palace’s fresco is a completely different style to that in the monastic cell, but the fact that the magi are depicted, points to something, doesn’t it?
I remember being told that the explanation of this saying about the salvation of a rich man was simply that “the eye of the needle” was a gate in the city wall which required that the camel’s load had to be removed before the animal could enter this very low doorway, on its knees was how it was described. I don’t know about the factual truth of that explanation, but the symbolic intent was very clear. – The camel had to be divested of everything it was carrying, if it were to enter that gate. It had to get down on its knees to enter – unburdened, to enter naked, just as we ourselves enter and leave the world. Jesus must be saying to us that we can carry nothing through this portal to the Kingdom of God. That gold we covet, whether we be rich or poor, has to be left on the other side for us camels to pass through the gateway. I like that interpretation of this saying. It is fanciful and yet an accurate account of how we need to live our lives. Possessions have to be forsaken at some point, maybe only at that last moment when the decision is made to enter or not.
To pass through the eye of a needle makes no sense to us camels, does it? But as human beings we do understand.that very small gateway through which we must pass, that doorway to something other than what we understand here and now on this side of the wall. Here we burden ourselves with the politics of envy. Here we have forgotten how to live with one another for mutual benefit. Jesus’ saying should show us rich camels the way through the eye of this needle.