“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10: 25), so Jesus tells his disciples, as they witness a rich man, who wanted to know what to do in order to inherit eternal life, turn down the invitation by Jesus to join them.
It’s an absurd picture, of course, which readers down the ages have sought to moderate and interpret in morre convenient ways. There have been claims about a narrow gate in the Jerusalem city wall, such as could be opened after the main gate was closed for the night, to which gullible pilgrims were conducted, no doubt for a small fee, to see how a camel might squeeze through.
Of course, such ways of dealing with the text are a bit stretched. Mainly, however, don’t such attempts to make Jesus sound more reasonable simply miss the point? Surely he was joking, teasing, deliberately provoking his disciples, making fun of their literal-mindedness and that of subsequent readers of the story.
A perfectly decent law-abiding man turns sadly away when Jesus tells him to sell everything and follow him. It’s one of the few instances in the gospels when someone refuses his call. Does it anger or grieve Jesus? On the contrary, he seems unsurprised, shows his affection for the man and lets him go. He takes the man’s departure as an opportunity to test his disciples.
Hearing him say that being rich inhibits one’s entry into the kingdom of God astonished the disciples, so that they ask one another who, in that case, can be saved. They might have asked Jesus, but he will answer them anyway. As it appears, they have the deep-seated assumption in their culture as in our own, that wealth is a proof of divine blessing. It would not be difficult to identify comments in our social media today, and even policies and political decisions in our own divided society, which reflect attitudes that are essentially the same as the disciples reveal here. No doubt, with rhetoric about the option for the poor, we could not write them off; but in the meritocratic culture we inhabit in the West, secular and increasingly pagan as it becomes, isn’t success measured by income, and don’t the rich seem to have inherited the earth?
Jesus’s penchant for irony appears at the start of the story as he snubs the rich man, who addresses him on his knees, politely, deferentially, as “Good teacher”, and gets the immediate self-deprecating riposte: “Why are you calling me ‘good’: God alone is good!” This man turns away from Jesus because following Jesus means taking the radical choice of accepting that it’s Jesus who sets the terms. At this level being a follower means having to follow. There is no conditionality or even mutuality. Faith in this sense is not a question of the existence or not existence of God. It is about believing that love without reward is truly valuable. As the old of St Ignatius prayer says “to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to labour and look for no reward save that of knowing we do your holy will”. Your will be done.
At the climax of the story Simon Peter, perhaps self-importantly, or self-pityingly, or perhaps only in bewilderment (again it is for us as readers to decide), reminds Jesus that he and the other disciples “left everything and followed you”, Jesus responds with a somewhat surreal picture. Since they have left : lost : so much, the disciples will receive everything back : “one hundredfold now in this time houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields”: albeit “with persecutions”. He slips in parenthetically this wry and sobering reference to the inevitability of martyrdom. For the rest of the promise, however, who wants houses, brothers and sisters, and so on, multiplied in their hundreds? What’s with this business of promising everyone a housing estate in heaven? I think what he’s saying is love without expectation of reward and beyond that you enter the realm of God’s grace, His gift it’s a realm beyond the law and mere commerce which were the two realms that the young man was so good at.