SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU
and at St Alban’s, Kurow
ORDINARY SUNDAY 27 (3rd October) 2021
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
There was a period of scholarship – forgettably – when scholars did their best to ensure that the harsh Jesus-saying about camels passing through the eye of a needle wasn’t about camels and needles at all. Fortunately for us all that aberration was in the mediaeval era, probably not the high point of biblical interpretation. The short scholarly parenthesis is best forgotten except as a reminder that scholarly attempts to wriggle away from the harsh claims of the gospel, or from the harsh demands of Jesus, are utterly misguided. For what it’s worth another scholarly interpretation, based on Greek misspellings, suggested that the original referred to a thick cord passing through the eye of a sewing needle. That too was incorrect – and denudes the Jesus-saying of its humour. Jesus was totally capable of illustrating his points with outrageous humour, and many of his illustrations were what we might call in an internet age OTT. Sewing with camels, anyone?
But beneath the humour was a serious point. Paul would put it a different way a decade and a half after Jesus (though probably about the same period before Mark recorded Jesus’ words). All fall short of the glory of God. We live an existence the very basis of which is short-falling. Ever tried passing a camel through the eye of a needle?
So Jesus is making a point that will recur often in the scriptures. Wealth – not evil in itself – is a noise that all but inevitably drowns out the voice of God. The love of riches is the root of all evil, says Paul. Prosperity gospel preachers who claim that God is telling you to buy them a Lear Jet have somewhat missed the point of needles’ eyes and camels. The saying, as Mark records it, is in the midst of a series of Jesus-sayings that remind us that the way to God is not a picnic, and the way with God is not a stroll in the park. Jesus and his followers called it the way of the cross and even after two millennia of turning an instrument of execution into pretty jewellery and bumper stickers we haven’t quite rid ourselves of the brutality of that symbol.
Jesus spoke these words in a world that operated on what today might be called a zero sum basis. First century economic were based largely on the premise of a limited-goods society: if I have goods then you miss out, and I will attempt to do all I can to accrue goods with the result that you are increasingly beholden to me to receive even the scraps that fall from the table – as it happens a key to interpreting another Jesus moment, that we shall flag but leave for now. Some of us might recognize that it is ever thus: we may dress it up in a modern economy, but we might note, must note, that the rich do not benefit the poor by their accrual of limited resources. “The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor” wrote Cohen in a terse exposé of universal exploitation.
Jesus, then, was not mucking around beneath the gentle overtones of humour. But nor of course was he shutting the door on hope. The author of Hebrews describes the word of God – and remember John refers to Jesus as the Word – as sharper than a two edged sword. Jesus himself speaks of the choices he presents as providing no in-between spots – and indeed the witness of his ancestors simply foreshadowed that: chose this day who you will serve. Binaries may be unpopular in post-modern society but in some of the contexts of our faith binaries are a thing. The thing. Though I don’t think here we are talking about choosing heaven or hell, as many would tell us. But that’s a complex subject for another time. What we are choosing is the difficult path that is Christ-following, as against other paths that are not.
The more important point that the author of Hebrews is making is that we are surrendering ourselves to a Saviour, a priest, a God who has been there done that. Matthew and mark make this point when they tell the visual tale of Jesus Temptation in the Wilderness. Whatever we might be seduced by along our journey, Jesus has had bigger issues to deal with. And yes we will fall short – it’s not even that we will succeed. Paul too constantly talks about the human, even the follower-of-Jesus-humans – volition to failure. Except that this is not the end. The Christ who has been there – even to the point of utter godforsakenness, will pick us up, wind us up, patch us up and send us on into his footsteps one again.
And the strange thing is that this side of the grave we won’t see the outcome of the journey. But it’s the journey Jesus leads us on. Scholars give it fancy names – divinization, as I prefer to call it, or theosis, the transformation into the likeness of God that we were always designed to attain from the moment of our creation.
The answer to the infamous kids’ question “are we there yet?” I’m afraid, is no. It is awfully hard to get camels through the eyes of needles, and we have an equally awful lot of distractions from that task. But with the help of God and beyond our sight we can and will.