Sunday, October 14, 2012

Heaven is as easy as passing through the eye of a needle

“What Must I do to Inherit Eternal Life?”

It is a fair question for anyone who takes his or her faith seriously. What do I have to do here to make my way to heaven? The young man in question in today’s gospel actually knelt down at Jesus feet when he asked the question. 

Jesus is quite plain spoken. First he reminded the suppliant, don’t call me good. Only God is good. That is a startling statement for those of us who name Jesus the Anointed One of God. Still, notice how he insists on humbling himself. There is an axiom in divine spirituality that seems to play on the theme that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and conversely those who humble themselves will be exalted. It is a theme Jesus comes back to time and again. In today's Gospel, for instance, he says that many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first. There is something axiomatic about spirituality that turns things upside down.

Jesus goes on by saying: “You know the commandments”. You know the difference between right and wrong. Don’t murder people, don’t break your marriage vows, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t defraud or cheat. Honor your mother and father. That sort of thing. Just do that and you’ll be fine." 

“Jesus I’ve done these things all my life”

Jesus did an interesting thing then. He looked at him and loved him. Notice that verb “love”. What he was about to say would be difficult but essential to the soul’s health and well being.

“You lack one thing. Go sell all that you have, give it to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven, and then come follow me.”

Jesus comes from a long prophetic tradition where the care of the poor is paramount and central to a sign of the presence of the kingdom. In today's First Lesson, the prophet Amos warns the rich about greed; "Alas for you that turn justice into wormwood and trample on the poor!"

Note, if you will, the order in which Jesus arranges his prescription for treasure in heaven. It is in the giving of earthly treasure that the treasure of heaven is to be found.

Only then do we really find it possible to follow Jesus. In a life that is marked by a generous spirit.

Here we go again! Another one of Jesus’ impossible standards. Last week there was the absolute over marriage. But then we also considered Jesus’ other moral absolutes for the woman caught in the act of adultery; the moral absolutes of forgiveness and compassion.

So now with the Parable of the Rich Young Man. Upon hearing that he must give away all that he had, he went away shocked and grieving because he had many possessions. At which point Jesus looked around and said; “How hard it will be for those who have great wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 

The disciples were also astounded and deeply perplexed! Who then can be saved?

Then Jesus said; “With mortals this is impossible, but no so with God, for with God all things shall be possible!”

Rabbinical thought has always sought to plumb the depths of the mind of God and of course always arrived at a dead end, for the mind of the mortal is always found wanting when looking into the mind of God.

In fact the aphorism; the “eye of the needle” is found in both the Babylonian Talmud and in the Midrash. The Talmud and the Midrash are  exhaustive commentaries and interpretative treatment of the holy writings and the rabbis studied them with great care in order that they, however humbly, could search the Mind of God.

Thus the metaphor appears specifically in the Midrash on the Song of Songs. It is used to speak of God’s willingness and ability beyond comparison to accomplish the salvation of a sinner; to quote the Midrash directly; “The Holy One said, ‘Open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and camels’”.

Isn’t it interesting that Rabbi Jesus knew how to use rabbinical thought and analytical metaphor.

Frankly, we are helpless without the help of God. Our marriages will fail without the help of God, and without the help of God we would not be able to begin again, when marriages fail. So will our business fail, in fact whole economies will fail without the help of God.

Without God there is only war, theft, lying, defrauding, cheating and greed. Is it any wonder that as a world takes to its own devices, so too it loses its moral compass.

It is not just that the world loses sight of God’s moral absolutes, it even loses sight of any moral reference point whatsoever.

Greed cannot be turned to generosity without the help of God. We cling to what we have for fear that God will not provide. We cling to and grasp our belongings so tightly that they fall through our hands like sand falls through a tightened fist. We fail again and again to see that it is only through the open hand of generosity that God gives to us out of the bounty of God's goodness.

Friday night, I was reading Steve Jobs biography. He was making money hand over fist of course with his work on the iPod and iTunes. He loved the music of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and U2 and so too many other classical rock and folk musicians but he also loved the music of Yo Yo Ma. He invited Mr Ma to play for his wedding but he was unable to attend. Some years later, he brought his 1733 Stradivarius cello to dinner and played Bach for Steve Jobs. Mr. Jobs teared up and said; “You playing Back on the cello is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human being alone can do this.” When Steve Jobs was struck by cancer, he made Ma promise to play at his funeral. (page 596, iPad edition)

Imagine; Bach, Stradivarius, Yo Yo Ma, Steve Jobs, and God. Yes they are all there. God is always there within the gifted ness of human hearts minds and hands.

But I must say this and I know this will irritate Steve Jobs enormously and may even incur his famous is Bill and Melinda Gates who have dedicated their later lives to philanthropy. The wealth of Steve Jobs? Remains largely private. Steve, I'm sorry but you got that one wrong. Still, God cannot help but love you!

It is said that the main gates to the Holy city Jerusalem are closed at night and the only way to get into the city is by way of the gate called the Eye of the Needle, called so because of its diminutive size. It was easier to defend that way. A man or woman can pass through and so could a camel, sort of. Everything a camel carries must be removed from the camel’s back and even then the animal’s efforts at squeezing through will leave bystanders convulsed in laughter. It is a persistent and delightful story even though most current scholars find no evidence for its reliability.

So too Jesus loved to make his hearer smile when he made a point. He loved using hyperbole, a literary device where outlandish exaggeration is used to make a point.

Yes our marriages, our loves, our families, our lives, our possessions, our businesses, our economies are not worth much unless we we open heaven’s gate within our own hearts.

“The Gospel is sharper than any two edged sword” we’re told in today’s Epistle. So then, it appears the Gospel cuts deeply within the human heart. There is where our treasure lies. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

No one here has as all that much wealth. If you do, you’re holding out! We are all doing the best we can to pay our bills, raise our families, and live, I’d say good honest and modest lives. Things have gotten tough for many around here too as jobs get sent overseas and manufacturing continues its demise in this part of the world.

But there is this, St. Gabriel’s is generous to its seniors, its children, its scouts, its recovery groups, and its poor. Organizing our congregation’s life around real human need is the ancient pattern for Christian and especially Celtic Spirituality. The conveyance to heaven rides on generosity not greed, and of that I am convinced.  The conveyance to heaven is within and the psalmist said as much;

So teach us to number our days
That we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
~Psalm 90:12

How shall I inherit the kingdom of heaven? Easy, pass through the eye of a needle!

Bless us one and all,
Fr. Paul

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