Trinity 19 - the Eye of the Needle

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr Robert Thompson, 14 October 2012

Mark 10.17-31

You will see that you have been given a picture with your pew sheet this morning.
(This image can be viewed here:

It’s a photo of the sculpture Nine Camels in the Eye of the Needle by Willard Wigan. As you can see it is really the eye of the needle and these are totally miniature sculptures at 0.005mm within it. I chose this picture because in relation to our reading it is obviously quite fun. After Jesus’ exchange with the rich man in today’s gospel he tells his disciples it is harder for a rich person  to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to go though the eye of a needle. Well Willard Wigan has got nine camels into the eye of his needle. So there’s a list at the back of church with nine spaces for those of us who want to sign up to enter the Kingdom. Don’t all rush at once!

But I didn’t just choose this image today to be flippant. Mocking Jesus’ words in that way would hardly be becoming for a priest. I think that this image has much to teach us about the fundamental message that Jesus gives in today’s gospel. It also much to say about what it is that we do today in celebrating Ottilie’s baptism and in recalling our own.

First, Willard Wigan’s sculpture shows us that not just one, but a whole caravan of camels can make it through the eye of a needle. It’s a visual reminder that “rich people” (whoever they may be) can indeed enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus, if we pay close attention to today’s gospel, does not say that they can’t either. He simply says that in God’s economy of salvation what is impossible for us is possible for God. Some might say that the sort of sculpture that Willard Wigan executes is impossible. But it’s possible for him. In God’s world, and by God’s grace, camels go through the eyes of needles too.

A problem with a text like today’s is that when we read it, we sort of look around our neighbours pinpointing the really rich people to whom this gospel is addressed. But the gospel is addressed to all of us. There is a great spectrum of income and wealth among our congregations. But all of us in this parish are rich. We are all so much richer than the vast majority of the world’s population who live on less than ten dollars per week. Today’s gospel is not about particular people who have particular level of capital assets and a particular amount in the bank. It’s not a gospel that is designed to induce spiritual anxiety amongst us simply because of how much any of us may be worth.

On the contrary, today’s gospel rather than aim to induce spiritual anxiety is a text whose main theme is the alleviation of spiritual anxiety. The rich man in Mark’s story is very anxious indeed. He runs up to Jesus and he asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. He is anxious about his salvation. He wants a definitive answer from Jesus whom he has heard is a remarkable spiritual teacher. Jesus then lists 6 commandments that relate to how we treat other human beings. But that answer does not make our rich man any less anxious. He knows those! He has done that! And still he is anxious about his salvation.

The implication behind the text is that he stares into Jesus’ eyes pleading him for something more. It’s to this silent pleading for the real answer to the problem of his spiritual anxiety that the text tells us “Jesus looking at him loved him…” It’s such a beautiful verse. But the story does not end quite so beautifully. Jesus tells him that what he lacks is what he has. To follow in Jesus’ path he must sell all and redistribute to the poorest in his community. The man is shocked and sad and leaves “for he had many possessions.”

All of us should be shocked a bit and sad a bit too. That’s, because all of us, no matter where we are on an income spectrum, have very many possessions indeed. Today’s text reminds us that whenever we have enough to be afraid to lose it, then we are truly rich. Whenever we have enough to be afraid to lose it, then we are rich indeed. The rich man in today’s gospel was afraid to divest himself of his wealth. His sense of who he was, his sense of himself, he thought was tied up in the things that he had earned and accumulated. He had acquired a lot of stuff and in a sense he confused his stuff for who he was.

The rich man viewed religion and spirituality in much the same way as he assessed his possessions. Religiously he has done a lot of stuff. He has kept the commandments. He has followed the law. He has loved God and his neighbour. But he still feels that’s something is lacking. He feels unsettled and not at peace within himself. In his angst he comes to Jesus, and the implication behind the text again, is that he wants the answer to what is that one thing more that he needs to do to bring him some inner peace. The rich man views religion and spirituality in the same way as he views his possessions, because he sees both as all about accumulation, an accumulation of yet more things to do.

No matter how much money any of us have in the bank all of us are like that rich man. Because all of us have got something or some things or someone that we are afraid to lose. All of us at various times and to various degrees share his spiritual anxiety. We too can feel unsettled within ourselves, and before God. We too can feel that there must be something out there that will bring us peace. We too can feel that there must be an easy answer, another thing that we just need to do and then everything will be alright. We too like the rich man, feel that we need more things, more stuff, both materially and spiritually. We with him say to Jesus:”tell me what I lack? “, “tell me what more I can do?”
But Jesus says to him and to us “what you lack is what you’ve got. What you lack is what you have.” What Jesus is saying is that if we don’t want to be anxious anymore we have to face up to whatever it is in our lives that we fear to lose the most. For the rich man in today’s gospel it’s twofold, it’s his material possession and it’s also his view that he needs to do more ‘religion’ to be assured of his salvation. Maybe that’s the same for many of us. Do we define ourselves by our bank balance? Do we see our sense of self as being related to how outwardly religious we are?

But for many of us what we are afraid to lose may be found in other forms: Afraid to lose our jobs, because that is who we think we are; Afraid to lose our parents, our partners or our children, for of course our sense of identity is closely tied to them; Afraid to lose old forms of prayer; Afraid to lose vicars; Afraid to lose our lives. Our consumerist accumulation of many things is perhaps in the end a protection against the anxiety of death itself; a reality that our society as a whole does not like to nor acknowledge yet alone address.

Our entire passage today reminds us that we cannot earn God’s love by having more things or doing more stuff. That way lies the anxiety of the rich man in the story. Rather today’s gospel sees everything the other way around. God loves us just as we are. And God expects us simply love God and trust in God’s grace. God wants us to find our identity, our sense of self, not in possession, not in outward religious actions, but simply in his Son Jesus Christ and in following him.

Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him. Today in baptism God looks on Ottilie and loves her as indeed God loves us all. God loves her not because of what she has, or what she may become, but simply because she is a child of God, a bright spark in God’s creation. God loves Ottilie even though she has nothing and God loves us in just the same way too. God’s love is a free gift of grace. It’s that free gift of grace that we rejoice in, in Ottilie’s baptism today. It is that free gift of grace that is ours in our baptism too. It’s that grace that alleviates all our anxiety as we find our truest selves in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Holland Park Benefice