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The Eye of the Needle


Picking up where we left off yesterday...

Jesus uses his encounter with the rich young ruler as an object lesson for his disciples. He tells them that 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.

Some commentators have said that “the eye of the needle” was a small gate which would require the unpacking of a camel before it could be pushed through the gate. Others have suggested that Jesus was referring to a “kamilos”, a ship’s rope, instead of a “kamelos”, or camel.

But I think the traditional understanding of this passage is to be preferred. This is one of Jesus’ many hyperboles. It is an exaggerated picture drawn to make a point, with a dose of humor thrown in. A camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle is a funny picture indeed.

The disciples get the point. If that’s how hard it is for a rich person to be saved then they ask: who can be saved? And to this Jesus responds: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

It is not just a question of our having to unpack a few extra burdens from our lives, a few sins here and there, in order to squeeze through the gate into Jesus’ kingdom. It’s not as though it is merely difficult for us to receive the life of the ages, comparable to pushing a rope through the eye of a needle.

Of course it is not impossible for rich people to be saved. Zacchaeus was a rich man who gave his life to Christ. Joseph of Arimathea was another rich man who followed our Lord. What Jesus is saying is that it is impossible for us to save ourselves. Only God can do it.

We all have something we are holding on to which makes it impossible for us to give ourselves to God with total abandon. We may not be like the monkey holding on to a piece of fruit. We may not be like the rich young ruler holding on to his wealth. But we are all holding on to something. And only God can enable us to let go and let him take control of our lives.

Peter must have been rather impatient as he was listening to Jesus’ discourse on riches. All he could think about was how he and the other disciples had already given up everything to follow Jesus. They had already done what Jesus asked the rich young ruler to do. So Peter asks in effect: “So what are we going to get out of following you?”

Jesus could have easily dismissed such a crass, materialistic sort of question. But he didn’t. Jesus was not afraid of a cost/benefit analysis being applied to the enterprise of following him. And so Jesus assured Peter that at “the renewal of all things” (that is when Jesus comes again to judge the world and establish his eternal kingdom) the disciples will sit with him to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up family or possessions to follow Jesus will inherit a hundred times as much and eternal life. But many who are first (like the rich young ruler) will be last, while many who are last (like the disciples) will be first.

N. T. Wright tells the story of watching a fox hunt when he was a boy....
Down the hillside they came: in the front were the leaders, in red hunting uniform, on splendid horses. They were blowing horns, close behind the hounds, looking like what they were—the local gentry, landowners, the rich and well known. Behind them were other fine riders on good-quality horses, wearing brown and black hunting clothes. Behind them again, less orderly, on various types and sizes of horse, and without any real uniform except their ordinary country clothes, came a raggle-taggle group of riders, enjoying themselves but not such a fine sight. 
But then with typical cunning, the fox they were all pursuing hid in a thicket, and doubled back up the next field so that it suddenly reappeared near the top of the hill it had come from in the first place. One of the riders near the back of the pack spotted it, and blew a horn. And the whole company of riders had to turn around and go back the way they’d come. 
Leading the way, this time, were the raggle-taggle group of riders on whichever old horses they had managed to find. In the middle were the riders in brown and black. And right at the back, having got to the bottom of the long hill only to find they must turn round and go back, were the red-coated brigade, looking decidedly out of sorts and embarrassed at bringing up the rear, something they weren’t used to doing either in hunting or in society. 
Those at the back, said Jesus, will find themselves at the front, and those at the front will find themselves at the back. There will be astonishment, embarrassment, delight and dismay. God is going to stand everything on its head. In the long human hunt for truth, wisdom, justice and salvation, the divine fox has doubled back, and is reappearing where we least expected him. This time, the nobodies are in the lead, and the great and good are in the rear.
That’s the way Jesus says it is going to be in his kingdom. The values in “the life of the age to come” are the exact opposite to the values of this life here and now.

I think Jesus would say to us today that we shouldn’t get distracted by the wealthy, the famous, the celebrities, of this world. They have their ladder leaning against the wrong wall. The wealth of this world is not worth pursuing because one day it will all come to an end. Why not let go of it? Why not let go of whatever is keeping you from following Christ wholeheartedly? For after all, he is the only one worth pursuing for all eternity.

At age 44 a man named Bob Buford found himself at the top of what the world defines as the success ladder. Buford had developed a modest cable television business into a virtual empire. He was driving a Jaguar, had several beautiful houses, and he could travel anywhere he wanted, whenever he wanted. But like many others before him, Bob was wondering why his life still felt so empty.

In order to sort through his life and figure out what was going on, Bob Buford invited a well known management consultant to help him. The consultant was a guy named Mike Kami, who had worked for a brilliant list of corporate giants. During his first meeting with Bob Buford, Kami asked him one all important question, “What’s in the box?”

Buford had no clue what Kami was getting at so he said, “What are you talking about?”

Kami told Buford about consulting with a group of Coca-Cola executives. He’d asked the Coke execs the same question: “What’s in the box for you? What is the mainspring of your business, the driving force, the ruling consideration for you?” The Coke people thought about Kami’s question for a while and then gave their answer: “Great taste. That’s what’s in the box for us.”

From there, the Coca-Cola execs developed a new formula they thought tasted even better than the original Coke. They introduced “New Coke” a short time later and, as you probably remember, it flopped. Now the Coke execs were desperate. They called Kami back into their office and Kami said, “You must have put the wrong word in the box.”

The Coke guys tried again and realized that changing Coke was like tampering with motherhood or apple pie. They came out of their discussion with something different to put in the box. It was the phrase, “Classic Coke”. From there Coca-Cola marched into a much brighter future.

After letting that story sink into Bob Buford’s brain Mike Kami said to him, “Bob, I’ve been listening to you for a couple of hours. You’ve told me a lot about your interests and passions. I’m going to tell you what’s in the box for you. I can tell that for you, it’s either money or Jesus Christ. If you can tell me which it is, I can tell you the strategic implications of that choice. If you can’t tell me, you’re going to oscillate between those two values and be confused.”

Pretty amazing advice coming from an atheist, management consultant! After a few moments of thought Bob Buford knew who he needed to have "in his box".

So who or what is in your box? Who or what is in my box? To whom or to what do we devote our primary loyalty? Is it money, or fame, or power, or prestige, or family, or possessions . . . or is it Jesus? Our answer to the question “What’s in the box?” will determine whether or not we experience “the life of the ages”.

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