I’ve been reading a recently published biography of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. During his tenure as Archbishop of Seattle he became very involved in the protests against nuclear armaments. His anti-nuclear war stance made him the subject of a brutal persecution by the Vatican and the Reagan administration.
The account of the Vatican investigation depicts Archbishop Hunthausen as being very sincere, but very naive. Both the Vatican and the Reagan administration come across as being extremely fearful and defensive.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the account of the years-long communications between Archbishop Hunthausen and various Vatican bureaucrats. For the most part, all involved seemed genuinely concerned with the good of the Church and the world. Oddly, however, the various parties found it impossible to agree with one another. It might seem strange that people of good will could disagree so dramatically about how to serve God, but uncertainty about God’s will is more descriptive of the human condition than is certainty.
The man who came to Jesus in this Gospel passage seems to have had a sincere desire to live a life pleasing to God. It is safe to assume that the man had the very best of intentions. He asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) This was the central topic of Jesus’ preaching, and the rationale behind the miracles. (Mark 1:15) The Gospel says that “Jesus looked at him, and loved him.” (Mark 10:21)
The man’s request was the sort of thing that most people want to know. Even the cruel, the unjust, those who trample on the rights of the powerless do so because they think it’s the right thing to do. Don’t we all want to know how to do the right thing at all times?
Although this is a universal desire of all people at all times, it is also a universally frustrating pursuit. Each of us wants to find ultimate good for our lives, but most of us have a difficult time discriminating accurately between good and evil. The limitations of the world, and the limitations of our own mind and heart, make it very complicated and difficult to find a reliable path to the good.
Many theologians, philosophers and pious authors have proposed answers to the basic human dilemma of finding certainty about right and wrong. Most of these fall short of the mark, and some are actually counter-productive. We have a desire for perfect good, but at our best, we are far from perfect. Unavoidably, then, our own answers to the question of ultimate good are guaranteed to be either completely wrong or woefully inadequate. We are left with a desire that is (apparently), as impossible to satisfy as the metaphor in today’s Gospel is to imagine.
Over the centuries there have been countless attempts to make sense out of the metaphor of a camel being threaded through a needle. (Mark 10:25) What are we to do, then? Is the task of accomplishing God’s will as impossible as threading a camel through a needle’s eye?(*) Or, is the impossibility of the metaphor a clue about dealing with the impossibility of the task?
Some who have searched diligently for God in their lives have proposed an answer that is accessible to everyone. The answer is that we must, on a daily basis, ask God to show us what God would have us do. The rich man in the Gospel reading did this only once, and then became discouraged. He left Jesus’ company, and walked away from the possibility of finding a life that was fully pleasing to God. It wasn’t the circumstances of his birth, or the mere fact of his wealth, that separated him from God; it was the fact that he walked away, and abandoned the search.
Jesus promised perfection to the rich man, but did not ask perfection from him. It is fully possible for us to know God’s will, and to pursue that Divine Will with all our hearts. That possibility, however, isn’t realized in a single day or a week or a year. The project of discipleship, of following God’s will, of finding eternal life, is one that requires daily attention throughout a lifetime.
Do you want to find eternal life? Do you want to experience God present in your daily life? Do you want to have a life pleasing to God? If so, try this daily exercise. Each day, ask God to show you what God would have you see and what God would have you do. The rich man did this once, but gave up too soon. He lost what he wanted most, and he did so for no other reason than the lack of perseverance.
Our attention to God’s will must be a daily practice. Occasional interest in religion is insufficient, and good intentions alone accomplish nothing. The daily practice of seeking to know what God would have us do allows sufficient time for God’s will to unfold for us; it allows us time to persevere in pursuit of the Divine Will. Anyone who makes an honest assessment of their own efforts to pursue perfection will come to the conclusion that perfection is as easy to accomplish as getting a camel to go through the eye of a needle. However, there is ample provision in God’s mercy for finding real satisfaction in life. Those who seek God’s will on a daily basis come to know the truth of Jesus’ words, “All things are possible for God.” (Mark 10:27)
(*) note on the Gospel reading
“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.” (Mark 10:25) The metaphor used by Jesus to describe the effort required to please God is a challenging one. It is a great challenge both to understand the statement and to put its truth into practice.
Wealth, in Jesus’ culture, was valued as ambiguously as it is in western culture today. Wealth is attractive; few people would willingly give up the opportunity to live better or more comfortably. At the same time, wealth is suspicious. There is a popular phrase in western society today, “stupid money.” It is used in reference to people who have so much money that they can easily afford to spend it on stupid acquisitions.
Jesus and his contemporaries lived in an economy vastly different from ours. The economy of ancient Palestine was a static one in which people considered wealth to be a fixed quantity that was already fully distributed. In such a static economy the only way to acquire wealth was to take it from some else. Consequently, the wealthy were usually suspected of fraud or injustice. It was for this reason that Zacchaeus offered to reimburse anyone whom he had defrauded. (Luke 19:8)
At the same time, wealth was considered a sign of God’s approval and blessing. The disciples in this Gospel passage were incredulous over Jesus’ statement that it would be difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. (Mark 10:24) Those of us who live in the western world should take heed of Jesus’ words. In comparison to the rest of the human population we are incredibly wealthy; perhaps we should worry about the salvation of our souls.
Beyond the ambiguities attached to the possession of wealth, there are some challenges associated with the text of this Scripture passage. Threading a camel through the eye of a needle is a poorly formed metaphor. Some Scripture translators have proposed that the current state of the text is the result of an ancient copyist’s mistake. There are two words in koine Greek that are pronounced “camel.” One referred to the desert beast of burden; the other referred to the bowline of a ship. The two words were distinguished by a minor difference in spelling.
The bowline/camel would have been well known to Peter, Andrew, James and John. They were fishermen who regularly secured their fishing boat with a bowline. As a metaphor of exaggeration, this one would have been easily understood by the disciples. Some translators have postulated that Jesus’ original statement was something like: “It is easier for a ship’s bowline to pass through an opening made for a thread than it is for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God.”
This is a more sensibly constructed metaphor, and the argument made by these translators is a compelling one. It is perfectly conceivable that, very early on, a copyist with no knowledge of maritime language corrected what he judged to be a spelling error. This theory also addresses another curious aspect of the metaphor, namely, the use of an un-kosher animal as an example. Camels have two toes (a cloven hoof), and are considered unclean for consumption by Jews. There is a valid question whether Jesus, a rural Pharisaic rabbi, would have used an unclean animal as an example in one of his teaching parables.
Recently, however, there has been research into traditional rabbinical teaching that weakens the case of the translators who support the “copyist’s error” theory about the use of the word “camel.” The Babylonian Talmud contains a saying about the difference between reasonable speculation and irrational speculation. The saying comes from a disagreement between two rabbis in which one rabbi defends the reasonable quality of the images in a person’s dreams. He said, “They do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle.” (Berakoth, 55b)
Jesus’ metaphor, then, may well have been an intentional use of ridiculously impossible imagery. The key to understanding this metaphor might well be Jesus’ response to the disciples’ incredulity, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” (Mark 10:27) Jesus was stating what should be an obvious truth, but is often overlooked by many who are serious about the practice of religion. Salvation is a freely given offer from God; it is not something that can acquired by human effort. Further, mere humans are not capable even of grasping the way in which God will effect salvation.
Thus, the mercy of God remains a mystery to be cherished and contemplated, but not explained or manipulated or owned. Thousands of years ago Jesus passed judgment on statements of certainty about who will be saved and who will be condemned. Jesus’ judgment on those who judge others is that it is a ridiculous impossibility to do so.