It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words. They were exceedingly astonished and completely overwhelmed not only because it seemed from His words that no one could enter the kingdom, but what complicated their effort to understand was a powerful Jewish tradition, part of the very air they breathed. Wealth was a mark, a sign of God’s favor.
We read it time and time again in the Old Testament: if the people obeyed God, they would prosper, they would lack nothing. If you loved and feared God you would be blessed with the good things of the earth. What does Jesus say to that revered tradition? He reversed it, rudely and brutally. He who had nowhere to lay His head condemned wealth. Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. It is to the poor that the kingdom belongs.
This was raw language for the Jews of Jesus’ day, but there is another side, a side that makes us hesitate about His harsher words. As far as we know, he never told Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary to give up all they had. He did not announce to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea that they were excluded from the kingdom. Rich Zacchaeus proclaimed, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor, and Jesus told him, today salvation has come to this house. Jesus did not require Zacchaeus to give up everything.
So we are left with a dichotomy: the radical Jesus, and the moderate Jesus. There is the Jesus for whom wealth is totally linked with evil, and there is the Jesus who counsels a prudent use of possessions to help the less fortunate. There is the Jesus who tells us to give it all away, and there is the Jesus who advises others to share what they have. There is the Jesus who stresses how selfish and Godless the rich become, and there is the Jesus who experiences how generous and God-fearing His well-to-do friends can be. There is the Jesus who forces you to choose between money and God, and there is the Jesus who loves a rich man who keeps both his wealth and God’s commandments.
What is the message? That nothing, absolutely nothing should take the place of Christ in my life. We all know that there is peril in possession whether is it an adult’s preferred stock or a child’s toy. Whether it is power or wealth, my new home or car, whatever I own, the peril is simply that it is mine and it can become the center of my existence. It can organize my life, manipulate me, even strangle me. When that happens, Christ takes second place. I do not listen, I do not hear His invitation or His command to give it all up, or only half, or just a little. I have not heard to care and to share, and to let go.
The radical Jesus poses a perennial question: what rules my life, the camel or the kingdom? On the other hand, the moderate Jesus fixes my eye on something splendidly positive that, ultimately, whatever is mine is God’s gift. Even if it stems from my own fantastic talent, that talent owes its origin to God. And God’s gifts are not given to be clutched selfishly, but rather they are given to be given freely.
Each of you is a gifted person, gifted in more ways, perhaps, than your modesty will admit. You may be rich or poor, or in between, you may have great intelligence and power, beauty or wisdom, gentleness and compassion. What the moderate Jesus tells you is to use your gifts as He invites or commands you to use them. To some He may say, give all you have to the poor and come and follow Me. To others, share what you possess, use it for your brothers and sisters. Employ your power for peace, use your wisdom to reconcile, your knowledge to open horizons, and your compassion to heal.
I see it symbolized in a story told to me by one of our Friars. He works in the slums of Brazil. He was worried because he was coming back to the states for some study and to a lifestyle far higher than that of the people he left behind. His people told him, do not worry, Father, by all means, go and relax, study, enjoy yourself, but do not forget the poor.
My friends, the poor surround us. They walk our every street, poor in so many ways. They need not only food, but faith. Not simply cash, but caring. Not merely social security, but the touch of love. They are those around us who lack the ordinary things of life: someone to care, or someone to just listen. These poor may be at your work or live next door, or be in your own family. For the sake of the kingdom, for your salvation, do not forget the poor. Then you will be able to drive a herd of camels through the eye of even the smallest needle.