So said Jesus, according to Mark. This is an edited version of a sermon for 11th October when this saying of Jesus will be read in churches.
Christians disagree about wealth. At one extreme there are monks and nuns who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The point of the poverty is to follow the way of Jesus, minimise your possessions and instead focus on serving other people.
At the other extreme some American churches exult in their wealth, and tell everyone that being rich means God is pleased with you and is blessing you.
So what did Jesus mean, and how should we relate to whatever wealth or poverty we have?
The context was that a man asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus referred him to the Ten Commandments. The man said he obeyed all those. So then Jesus said
You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
It wasn’t what he wanted to hear:
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
It was in response to this that Jesus said:
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.
Christianity began as part of the Jewish tradition. According to the Jewish scriptures, the Old Testament, the world has been created by God. God provides everything we need for a good life, but also gives us free will and allows us to be selfish. Some people take more than their share while others go without. The Bible has a lot of laws saying everybody must be provided for, and condemns people who accumulate excessive wealth.
In itself, then, wealth is a good thing, created by God so that we may all have what we need to flourish. When it becomes a bad thing is when some people have more than their share and others have to go without.
This means there is no point in being poor just for the sake of being poor, but there is a point in limiting your wealth. If you have more than you need, give it to people who don’t have enough. The ideal situation we should be aiming for is where nobody has to worry about the physical basics and we can all develop other dimensions of life.
It becomes easier to do this when we believe that everything we have is a gift from God. Indeed, the fact that we are alive at all is a gift. The temptation is to notice people who have more than us, and envy them while failing to notice the people who have less than us. So the first response should be gratitude: we give thanks for what we have got and celebrate it.
In keeping with this theology, for 1600 years Church leaders taught that when somebody has more money than they need, they had a moral duty to give the extra to the poor. Muslims still do, but in this country we’ve been heavily influenced by modern theories of economics with very different principles.
Until the 18th century economics was a branch of ethics: it was about what God wanted us to do. From then on it has been treated as a science, nothing to do with religion.
This takes God out of the picture. There is nobody to thank. All the things nature provides then get treated as just happening to be there by chance. Nothing has any purpose at all until somebody owns it, and then it is up to the owner to decide what purpose to give to it.
Thus owning things becomes an absolute principle. You become free to do what you like with what you own.
With God out of the picture there is no longer any reason to presuppose that nature provides for our needs. The aid agencies like Christian Aid tell us that even though there are more people in the world than ever before, there is still enough food to go round if only we shared it equally. On the other hand, the big economic decisions are made by people who have a house, a fridge, a freezer, a car, a computer, a television and lots more besides; and they can see that the world could not provide for everybody to have all those.
So instead of asking themselves whether they really need all those things, they perceive the world as a mean, insufficient provider. Human work must make up for what is lacking. Capitalists and socialists disagree about whose work counts most, but they both usually favour constant pressure to work harder and create more wealth. Life becomes a chore. Instead of being grateful for what we’ve got, and celebrating it, we are constantly striving for more.
Jesus lived before these modern theories had been invented. Still, there were plenty of rich people finding ways to justify their wealth while others starved.
They might tell themselves they were rich because God approved of them and blessed them. Today they often tell themselves that they have worked hard for their money and they deserve it. Whatever story they tell to justify their extra wealth, that story is preventing them from seeing the world the way Jesus saw it: that the wealth is given by God for a purpose, to make sure everybody’s needs are met and everybody lives a happy and fulfilled life. As long as some people are without, somebody is depriving them, and that’s what is wrong.
In this sense Jesus’ saying about camels and needles represents a theology of wealth which is deeply ingrained in the Bible, and I believe we need to hear it again today. Today there are only very few monks and nuns. Committing yourself to poverty is unpopular. The other extreme is very popular; rich celebrities get idolised.
The biblical attitude expressed by Jesus is better. It promotes more equality, health and happiness. None of us has a right to anything. Everything we have is gift, given by a god who provides for us generously but also makes us responsible for looking after each other.
May we all find pleasure in our daily receiving and giving. As we work to provide for others, may we remember to thank God who has given us bodies and minds able to contribute to the common good. As we receive from others and thank them, may we also remember to thank God from whom all things come.