Princeton University Religious Life

The Eye of a Needle

John M. Butler ‘12
Princeton University Chapel
May 8, 2011
Sermon by John M. Butler - Winner of Student Sermon Competition

A reading from the Gospel according to Matthew: “Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” … The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the Youngman heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, 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.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For humans beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

“[I]t 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.” What do we make of this statement? In this reading from Matthew’s Gospel, we see the rich young man approach Jesus and ask what he must do to gain eternal salvation. Like we expect from Jesus, he tells him to obey his commandments, to abide by the Law, to follow the Golden Rule. The young man responds, “All of these I have observed.” Like so many of us, this young man has sought to seek God, to follow his faith, and observe the Mosaic Law. Probably to a greater extent than many of us, and I include myself in this category, he seems to have followed these lessons almost perfectly. He has been a devout Jew, followed God’s commandments, and he now wants to know what he must do to assure his salvation. The answer is harsh—“sell what you have.” Start over.

To the young man, to this religious young man, to this virtuous young man, this command to strip himself of all his worldly possessions proves too difficult. As one might presume from his thorough commitment to the other teachings, he seems hardworking, dedicated to improving himself, and resolute to achieve the best in this world, and the next. Such pursuits reasonably yield to him great rewards. In terms of character, this man represents one of the most respectable people that have approached Jesus thus far in the Bible. Furthermore, this young man is rich, and, whether a product of his labor or his birth, he seems to have succeeded in this world. He seems to be doing all right, more than all right in many of our judgments. Especially in our modern world where religious devotion and worldly success are not mutually exclusive, this man seems the paragon of devotion. Dedicated to his religion, he follows the commandments. Presumably, like many of us, he attends service on the Sabbath, and he respects God the Almighty. To us, he seems as close to the image of success as we can imagine, for he does not allow worldly possessions to fog his religion but still can provide himself with a comfortable life, with riches. He seems almost perfect.

Still the command persists: “sell what you have.” These words prove too hard for the young man to endure. As Matthew describes it, the young man “went away sad, for he had so many possessions.” After all his commitment to Jesus’ teachings, this final request proved too difficult, “for he had so many possessions.” What are we to make of this encounter? How are we to interpret this Gospel story? Jesus provides us a clue; he provides us the guide by which to understand and learn from this episode, to learn from this sad young man.

Jesus says: “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, 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.” These two sentences solve the mystery behind the young man’s abandonment of Jesus; they explain and help us to understand the nature of this Gospel episode—the lesson to be learned. However, despite providing an explanation for this event and an important lesson about salvation, to many Christians, this passage proves one of the most frightening and foreboding in all the Gospels. Both in Jesus’ time and in our own, we do not want to have to choose between this world and the next. We do not want to have to choose between success, financial or even in other worldly respects, and our salvation. Understandably, we want the best of both worlds. However, Jesus seems to deny this possibility, to make us choose. Heaven or Earth? Jesus or Jewels? God or Money?

The disciples prove equally scared by Jesus’ words, and they ask for clarification. Jesus crystallizes his thought: “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Thus, from a modern perspective, we seem to have a solution. It is just necessarily impossible for humans to attain salvation on our own. We are bound to fail. But, though this world be a difficult place to navigate, though we desire worldly goods, though we struggle with choosing between monetary savings and Heavenly salvation, God will provide the way. We will fail, we will stumble, but God will provide the way. We will not choose properly and, like the rich young man, we will sometimes walk away from Jesus, but God will provide the way.

To modernity, this reading of the Gospel seems the most logical, for, throughout the New Testament (and really the entire Bible) we continually hear references to God’s greatness, that anything is possible through the Lord. However, while Jesus does state that “for God all things are possible,” this response must be placed in the context of his first teaching: that is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to go to Heaven. At first, to the modern reader, this idea just seems a natural extension of Jesus’ lesson regarding God’s omnipotence—a camel just cannot physically pass through the eye of a needle; only through God’s divine omnipotence is this miracle possible. Blending with many other readings and aligning with a common motif in the Gospels, this story would once again express the wonder of God, that God makes all things possible. This reading is accurate and particularly two millennia after Christ, seems the best choice, the only choice; however, today, I would like to provide an alternative interpretation to this normal understanding of the passage, another reading this Gospel account.

In Jesus’ time, Jerusalem, like so many cities, was surrounded by an enormous wall. Logically, this wall protected the holy city from invasion, it guarded it against attackers, and it prevented an all-out siege by narrowing the entrance to a few main gates. The Gospels even make reference to these gates, probably most famously in Jesus’ entrance into the city on Palm Sunday. At night, even these large gates would close, as fewer guards would be stationed to police them and the risk of an unanticipated attack increased in the dark. Thus, all of Jerusalem’s main gates and entryways shut down at nightfall. For the traveler or merchant arriving late to the city, these avenues into Jerusalem were unavailable; however, rather than need to endure until morning outside of the city’s protection and shelter, an alternative route still allowed access into the city: a small passageway called the eye of the needle. This small opening of the wall would allow late-night travelers a cramped but open way into Jerusalem. But you may ask: “How does this passageway pertain to us today? To our reading of Matthew’s Gospel?”

For Jesus’ contemporaries and the vast majority of the early readers of Matthew’s Gospel, the existence of the eye of the needle would have been common knowledge, like referring to the Dinky or FitzRandolph Gate or Palmer Square, a geographical part of the community that anyone familiar with the region would know instantly. Thus, although to the modern reader of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ lesson concerning the eye of the needle seems to describe just another instance of an impossible feat—a demonstration of God’s omnipotence— to readers in Christ’s time period, this allusion contains a markedly different, though equally important, lesson. Let us imagine a merchant approaching Jerusalem at night. Finding the main gates closed, he proceeds to the eye of the needle. However, in order to fit through this small passageway, he must prepare his camels for a tight squeeze. He must unpack their belongings, have them lower their heads, and lead them through the eye.

In the same way, Jesus tells us we must unpack and lower our heads in order to enter into Heaven. Having just watched the young man, he who had come so far in terms of fulfilling the commandments and living a good life, walk away in favor of his worldly possessions, Jesus can necessarily argue that it is harder for the camel to fit through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter into Heaven. While the merchant must only undue the straps holding the goods onto the camel and lead the camel through the passage, for humans, these straps prove harder to untie, and to an almost unswerving extent, we resist lowering our heads; we don’t trust that we will safely make it through the passage and into the city. We only trust ourselves.

Both in Jesus’ time and today, this teaching proves correct. We do not want to strip ourselves of goods and riches; we do not want to lower our heads; we do not want to lose our pride. In this world, and particularly for those at this University, we take pride in our hard work and accomplishments. Like the rich young man, we value and have so much, not necessarily in monetary riches, but in gifts. In terms of motivation, work ethic, intelligence, athletic ability, musical talent, and even religious devotion and observance, we want to maintain and keep our laurels and riches. We take pride in our accomplishments, and, even for those who realize that all of their talents are gifts, they desire to take credit for their effort, to gain respect at least for the way in which they use God’s gifts. We at least take pride in our good intentions, in our good works, and in our charity…right?

In considering this difficulty, it then seems that, although the interpretation of the first part of Jesus’ lesson changes as the allusion to the eye of the needle becomes clear, the straightforward message of his subsequent comment remains consistent and strong: for humans alone, salvation is impossible, but through God, anything is possible. In combining the first and second part of his teaching, the true power of Christ’s message becomes evident. Although it is important to understand the customary definition of the eye of the needle and, separately, to grasp the power and mercy of God on mankind, it is equally, and more, important to see how these concepts work together, to see what we can learn from combining these two ideas. The true beauty and elegance of this lesson only shines forth through this process, and it does so brilliantly even across two millennia.

Let us look to Jesus’ image once again. Paralleling the camel, so all of us come to the gates of the city, having been led by our merchant, by Christ. Guided by his teachings and followers of his commandments, we, like the rich young man, come to the eye of the needle. And how do we come? Loaded down with the weight and baggage of this world, with gold and riches, with accomplishments and respect, with pride. But, though the straps that bind these weights to us be tight, though they resist and are almost impossible for usto shake from our backs, with Christ at our side and our trust in him, the straps will fall slack. Although we ourselves may struggle to cast aside the need for monetary gain or worldly riches, with the support and guidance of Christ, such a feat is possible. The straps will fall slack. Now what must we do? Like the camel, tall and with its head held high, we must dip our heads; we must lower our pride. And this deed, this rejection of pride, this commandment above all commandments, proves the impossible task for mankind.

How often in our daily lives do we allow our pride to remain? We tell ourselves that we treat others with respect, we donate to charity, we go to Church, we do so many great things, what’s the problem with a little pride? What’s the problem with a little self-respect? And while the Lord does not call us to hate ourselves, how often does that little self-respect lead to a little ego, to a little pride. There is nothing wrong with having self-respect, with knowing our God-given talents and understanding how we employ those in our lives. The problem arises in our formation of a hierarchy, in our creation of the notion of superiority. In never letting our heads down. How often this hierarchy appears in our everyday lives. We make judgments about people, declaring ourselves smarter than someone else. More attractive than someone else. More spiritual, or devout, or generous than someone else. We elevate ourselves, and most difficult to prevent, we even praise ourselves for our humility. We take pride in the extent to which we do not think highly of ourselves. It seems impossible not to take pride in something, not to hold our heads high.

However, despite this difficulty, despite this impossibility, we must remember the second half of Jesus’ teaching, that although it is impossible for mankind, everything is possible for God, that the Lord can do anything. All He requires is that we trust. In the context of Jesus’ lesson, the Lord calls us to dip our high heads and allow Him to lead us through the portal, through the gate, through the eye of the needle. Now, granted, this command is difficult. We do not even want to lower our heads for Jesus. However, we do not put our faith in God blindly. Like the camel, we have been led throughout this life by the Lord and by Christ’s teaching; we have arrived at the gate of the city through the darkness of the night. Looking to the image of the Cross, we have followed the target to its natural end, to the point where we may either choose to enter the city or to remain outside. We have come to the crossroads of the Cross. And while it is not easy to make such a difficult decision—to decide whether to make a leap of faith, to put our trust in God—the choice is now ours. Do we, like the young man, keep our head high but walk away, or do we trust in the Lord? Do we stay in the dark of the night, or do we enter the City of Light?

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