Enlightenment not entitlement; why camels can and we cant – Tuesday, 20th week in ordinary time- Matthew 19: 23- 30
The Gospel of today seems to take off from where the rich young man left, but in reality it must be seen as one composite text. At the heart of this text (19: 16- 30) lies the million dollar question of the rich young man. He wants to DO SOMETHING to enter into eternal life. He sought the one exclusive good work that would give him eternal life. Jesus’ answer, as we know, left him devastated for Jesus hits him where it hurts the most,”sell everything, give it to the poor and follow me”.
For the Jews, wealth was a sign of blessing from God. The mandate comes from the book of Proverbs 10:22 which says, “The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it”. Wealth was a clear sign of divine favour if one kept the commandments of the law, which the rich young man kept.
So what then is the problem? The rich young man desired salvation but he wished to ‘obtain it’. For him, salvation could be earned by doing something; that’s why he asks Jesus, “What must I do?”
For Jesus, the commandments had a vertical and horizontal dimension of love. It was not so much in the doing rather than in the being, that salvation could be obtained. Salvation is not obtained by performing a unique or special deed, nor is it a ‘claim’ made by virtue of religious appropriation. Salvation is a free gift! Here in lies the mistake of this rich young man.
The Pharisees had smugly come to believe that they would be saved by virtue that they were Jews or that they had religiously kept the law. They did things to obtain salvation; they failed to live it. It is this foolishness that Jesus highlights by the use of an oriental exaggeration; a colourful image for an insuperable difficulty and He borrows it from a prevalent thought. The Persians also had a similar exaggeration when they spoke of an ‘elephant passing through the eye of the needle.’ The people at the time of Jesus simply picked a more familiar animal to compliment this oriental exaggeration.
The point that Jesus makes by using an exaggeration of a camel passing through the eye of the needle is simply this; it is foolish to believe that one can DO something to win salvation, for salvation is a free gift of God. The rich young man wanted to do something to gain eternal life, a proposition juxtaposed with greater possibility of a camel entering into the eye of a needle.
Understand now the confusion and perplexity of the question posed by the disciples who ask Jesus, ‘who then will be saved’? If a rich man whose wealth was believed to be an indication of God’s blessing is not assured of salvation then who will? What then are the criteria for salvation?
Jesus challenged their Jewish mind-set, along with that of the rich young man. They would have to accept the concept of salvation as taught by Jesus; you can’t earn salvation with your money or deeds; and while such a thought seemed ‘impossible for mortals, it was not so for God’ (verse 26).
For two centuries, scholars have tried to provide different explanations to this text. It has been proposed that there actually existed gate called ‘needle gate’. Others have suggested a rock face, narrow enough for only a human and not a camel to pass. The message derived from such a thinking leads one to believe that the message of Christ is a call to a life, unencumbered by earthly baggage a letting go of riches. But that is not the case.
The question of the rich young man is clear, “what do I do to inherit eternal life.” The answer of Jesus is that it is not found in our doing but in being; for salvation cannot be bought and even our riches which were believed to be a blessing from God, are worthless. The impossibility of the situation, reflected by the disciples question, “who then will be saved?” is answered by Jesus. Hard as it may be for man to comprehend, God makes all things possible!
Fr Warner D’Souza
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