Selected Sunday Scriptures- #25

The first passage today is inspired by my post, Incoming Question, and some of the commentary that followed it. From the Gospel of Mark:

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” 21 And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.”

(Mark 10:17-28)

This passage, and its companions in Matthew and Luke, is one that has been misinterpreted quite a lot since the time of Christ. Many Christians have interpreted it as meaning that riches are incompatible with attaining heaven. Along with that, they have adopted a binary mode of thinking and conclude that poverty is essential to Christian piety. This is simply not supported in Scripture or Tradition, but it is one of those constant heresies (which is what it is) that pops up every now and then. To understand what Jesus is saying, look again at what he tells the rich man to do. Jesus gives him two commands: the first is to sell his possessions, and the second is to give the proceeds to the poor.

The first part is later explained by Jesus: riches make it difficult for us enter heaven. How so? Well, the eye of a needle was a type of narrow gate/entryway in the city walls at the time of Jesus. Camels were the common transport animal used by merchants in that part of the world for long distance caravans, thanks to their ability to carry a lot of goods and to sustain themselves on only small amounts of water. In caravans, they were loaded up with goods, so that they ended up quite bulky. As a result, a camel would have a very difficult time indeed to pass through one, thanks to all of the possessions, or baggage, piled up on them. What Jesus was saying to his disciples is that riches are often baggage that pile up on us during our life, and keep us from entering the narrow gate that leads to the path to heaven. The more possessions we have, the more worldly distractions we have to keep us from focusing on God and entering the gate. If we want to enter through that gate, we need to cast away the baggage that we have piled up on us.

For some of us, we don’t have to cast a lot away. For others, we have to cast most or all of it away. For the rich man, his worldly possession were blocking him from entering the kingdom; he needed to give them all away. While he didn’t go out and do wrong to others, as he explained, they were keeping him from putting God at the center of his life. They were an impediment to him, and so he needed to get a rid of them.

There is another component as well, namely that of giving the proceeds of his possessions to the poor. The rich man had indicated he kept the commands, he didn’t do wrong to others. But he never expressed that he was going out and affirmatively doing right, either. Alms-giving was something he didn’t mention. So it seems as thought he was refraining from evil, but that is not the same thing as actively doing good. Jesus was encouraging charity in him, which is one of the essential virtues of Christian faith. In other words, Jesus was trying to get the rich man to think of others, and not merely himself. One result of this would be to also help the rich man think of God more as well.

The subject of alms-giving is one that the Old Testament touches on as well. Here is what the Archangel Raphael had to say on the subject from the Book of Tobit:

Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life; 10 but those who commit sin are the enemies of their own lives.

(Tobit 12:8-10)

The Book of Sirach also had this to say:

30 Water extinguishes a blazing fire:
    so almsgiving atones for sin.
31 Whoever requites favors gives thought to the future;
    at the moment of his falling he will find support.

(Sirach 4:30-31)

Help a poor man for the commandment’s sake,
    and because of his need do not send him away empty.
10 Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend,
    and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost.
11 Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High,
    and it will profit you more than gold.
12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury,
    and it will rescue you from all affliction;
13 more than a mighty shield and more than a heavy spear,
    it will fight on your behalf against your enemy.

(Sirach 29:9-13)

I find the language on alms-giving helping you to escape death to be especially powerful. As Christians, we can understand this in a way that the writers of Tobit and Sirach could not- it is not simply that charity helps one to escape death, but helps us to achieve life, and lasting life at that.

Another thing that I found interesting is how Jesus’ warning against wealth builds upon earlier scripture. The Book of Sirach contained a similar admonition, along with praise for those who use wealth well:

He who loves gold will not be justified,
    and he who pursues money will be led astray by it.
Many have come to ruin because of gold,
    and their destruction has met them face to face.
It is a stumbling block to those who are devoted to it,
    and every fool will be taken captive by it.
Blessed is the rich man who is found blameless,
    and who does not go after gold.
Who is he? And we will call him blessed,
    for he has done wonderful things among his people.
10 Who has been tested by it and been found perfect?
    Let it be for him a ground for boasting.
Who has had the power to transgress and did not transgress,
    and to do evil and did not do it?
11 His prosperity will be established,
    and the assembly will relate his acts of charity.

(Sirach 31:5-11)

Being rich and serving God are not impossible, as all things are possible with God. Money is not evil in and of itself, but it is a constant source of temptation. So we always need to be careful that we don’t acquire money for the sake of having it.  Instead, money needs to be a tool for us to achieve good in the world, and to carry out the works of God. Let us keep in mind these words of our Savior:

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

(Matthew 25:40)

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12 Comments

Filed under Selected Sunday Scriptures

12 responses to “Selected Sunday Scriptures- #25

  1. femininebutnotfeminist

    Oh I didn’t know the backstory about the eye of a needle / camel thing, that’s cool! I thought it was a metaphor for a camel trying to pass through a sewing needle, which would, obviously, be impossible. A narrow doorway would make better sense, haha.

  2. @ FBNF

    Well, to be honest there are some scholars who dispute that interpretation. But I think those who argue for it have the better claim. It fits the cultural context of the time of Jesus, for one. And if Jesus was being literal when it came to the eye of a needle, why a camel? Donkeys and horses had far more biblical history, and there are larger animals if you want to make a point. Plus Jesus was always using metaphors in his teachings- so why would he depart from that in this single, specific instance?

  3. I should also add that it would be a much stronger and more impacting image in the minds of those listening to him if Jesus was directing them to think of overburdened camels trying to get through a narrow gate. It is something they would be able to relate to easily, and make his point in a clear fashion. Not to mention it would be far and away more consistent with his constant use of gate and gateway metaphors when the Kingdom of Heaven was concerned.

  4. mdavid

    But I think those who argue for it have the better claim.

    I’ve always wondered about that interpretation. If so, why were the Apostles so astonished? As you pointed out, the OT has warnings about wealth (your Sirach passage is a good one) so I wouldn’t think they would exclaim, “Who then can be saved?” when Jesus was saying one should not be burdened by wealth (most of the Apostles were not wealthy I think). I’m agnostic on that passage, I’m not educated enough on it to have one, but I’m curious to your reasoning.

    Love that Sirach: Many have come to ruin because of gold…every fool will be taken captive by it. Not may, but “will”. Ouch.

  5. mdavid

    Your post reminded me of Wittgenstein I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.. Mangan recently quoted it, and got me thinking: wow, if even Wittgenstein gets it while I dally, I’m in sorry shape…

  6. @ mdavid

    They were astonished because in the OT God promised material success to those who kept his commandments. The Israelites interpreted this to mean that being rich was a sign of favor with God, therefore, there was no problem with being rich and coming to the resurrection at the End of Days. They took it to mean that the richer you were, the more God favored you. The “prosperity gospel” is not a new thing at all- its origins are found in pre-Christian Judaic thought. Jesus turns this upside down by separating the link between wealth and God’s favor.

    The Israelites failed to understand the nature of what was promised, and what was expected of those who received it. Sirach explains it best: wealth is a good thing… but it is NOT to be hoarded. Instead, wealth is to be used towards positive ends. Accumulating wealth for the sake of wealth leads to sin and death. Instead, we are to use wealth to advance God’s will, to glorify him, and to benefit our fellow men. Scripture explains that those who follow this plan will reap further rewards, and in the NT in particular Jesus explains it will sow the seeds for treasure in heaven.

    Sirach made it very clear that fools would end their lives poorly no matter what. Whether it was win, women or wealth, when a fool was involved it always, invariably ended in ruin.

  7. femininebutnotfeminist

    @ Donal,

    I think you’re right, this is a better interpretation, considering that’s something his disciples would have understood because of an actual thing from their culture. I bet the more a person knows about the culture, geography, customs, etc that were involved when/where Scripture was written, the more certain verses (like this one for example) would come alive in whole new ways. (A good excuse to take a trip to the Holy Land, I think)

  8. mdavid

    DG, thanks for your interpretation. It explains astonishment for sure; I’m less than sure “needle as gate metaphor” justifies the lament, “Then who can be saved?” which merely requires proper use of wealth. I’ll have to study it sometime.

    I do find it ironic that the US is the wealthiest culture in the history of humanity…and the results are pretty spiritually interesting. God has indeed done as promised and “sent the rich away empty”.

  9. @ mdavid

    It makes sense when you realize that the apostles didn’t get it at the time. Their response was based on their belief- when they made it- that riches were a sign of favor. As far as they were concerned, what Jesus said was astonishing. After all, if a rich person, someone whom God favored, would have an exceedingly difficult time entering the Kingdom of God, then well… “who can be saved?”

    Remember, it wasn’t until after the resurrection that Jesus explained everything to them.

  10. mdavid

    DG, Thanks again. I confess I’m biased towards literal interpretation.

    Regarding, Remember, it wasn’t until after the resurrection that Jesus explained everything to them. I would mention Jesus spoke about the dangers of wealth often, and I doubt the disciples misinterpreted them all. For example Lk 16: “…You cannot serve God and mammon.” The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed…The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment….

  11. @ mdavid

    Well, you can prefer the literal approach if you like. It doesn’t really change much besides the level of difficulty.

    And yes, Jesus did spend a lot of time talking about the dangers of wealth. The story of Lazarus the Leper is another good one. Its an interesting passage, one I may talk about later.

  12. Great blog. I realize age doesn’t matter in the manosphere. Your teachers can be younger or older or very different from you. Will continue to read this excellent blog. – Prov

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