My mother had a whimsical streak, and I distinctly remember a time in her life when she was fond of exclaiming, “More pepper! Said the Duchess” or “Off with their heads” or solemnly intoning, “You are old, Mr. Williams, the young man said.” The English majors amongst you will instantly recognize this as seminal quotes from the classic book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland written by the Victorian clergyman, Lewis Carroll. The story starts when Alice notices a white rabbit running down a hole, looking at his watch and declaring that he is late. She is so intrigued that she follows him. At the bottom of the rabbit hole she finds a small door, about 15 inches high. Looking through it she saw “the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall and wander about those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head through the doorway; ‘and even if my head would go through,’ thought poor Alice, ‘it would be of very little use without my shoulders.’”
Alice noticed a small bottle labelled “DRINK ME” and since it did not say it was poison, she drank it and soon shrank until “she was now only ten inches high, and her face brightened at the thought that she was now the right size for going through the little door into that lovely garden…” Of course, things are rarely that easy and Alice found she couldn’t reach the key so then she ate a cake which made her enormous and so on… What I think Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel reading is that getting into the lovely garden which is the reign of God just isn’t that easy.
His image is that of a camel going through the eye of a needle which is of course quite ridiculous. We would laugh about it if we hadn’t heard it so often that we’ve forgotten it’s funny. There are some problems with the text, and the image he intended may have been that of an overloaded camel going through one of the city gates, or of a thick nautical rope being threaded through a needle. It doesn’t really matter because all the possible images work. Alice can’t get her head through the door, the camel can’t get through a narrow gate or a needle and neither can a thick rope.
And it isn’t just a question of unloading the camel. If all that Jesus is saying here is sell your possessions and get into heaven, then he wouldn’t add, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” It’s going to take a miracle. That camel can strain all he wants to get through the gate; his owner can take off all his panniers and push and push him, but he won’t make it through. Even if Alice’s head would go through the door it would be of little use without her shoulders.
It’s going to take some intervention from another plane. It’s going to take a little bottle marked “Drink Me” with magical powers. Or it’s going to take the grace of God.
The society in which Jesus lived was similar to ours. There were the poor and there were the rich. You were one or the other – there wasn’t much in between. And those who were wealthy had almost certainly gotten their wealth on the backs of the poor. Just as we in the industrialized nations have gotten our wealth at the expense of the poor because we have used so many of the world’s resources that there just isn’t enough to go round.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” That’s us. I know most of us don’t feel wealthy. But even those who are living on the edge here, are much, much better off than billions of people around the world. As the Pope has said, we have a debt to pay.
When Jesus recited the commandments to the wealthy young man, he did not mention covet but he did mention defraud. This is one of the big complaints of the Old Testament prophets like Amos – the way we exploit and defraud the poor of their rights to a peaceful life. I don’t know why Jesus brought it up here – was he implying that the young man’s wealth was inherited so he had not personally exploited anyone to get it? Or was he subtly pointing out that fraud was involved in getting rich?
All we can be sure of is that that unexpected twist in Jesus’ list makes us think a little. It’s going to take a miracle, it’s going to take an extraordinary injection of God’s grace for the industrialized nations to take responsibility for the effects of our lifestyle on the planet and on the poor.
It’s going to take a miracle, an injection of God’s grace, for us personally to be so unencumbered by our worldly lives that we too pass through the eye of the needle, through the 15 inch door into the loveliest of gardens, the reign of God.
We’ve been focusing on discipleship for many weeks now, and it doesn’t get better. Jesus is not encouraging. Being one of his followers is hard. It’s challenging. It will take work from us as well as grace from God.
When we dedicate ourselves to following Jesus and bringing the reign of God on earth, we are opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And the Holy Spirit asks us to let go of things that we are holding on to. Things which are not found in the reign of God. Things like worry, meanness, sarcasm, judgment, and things like ambition, pride and aggression. These are things which keep us separate from each other and from God. In the reign of God we will be in right relationship with God, with each other and with the environment, so anything which works against those things has to go.
And then there’s stuff. The wealthy young man had stuff. We are called, like St. Francis, to live simply. Unlike most of the people in the world, we have the privilege of voluntary simplicity. We can choose to reduce our consumption, and to reduce our carbon footprint. We can choose to recycle and reuse and not to buy things that can’t be recycled or reused. We can get rid of things that need to be cleaned and tidied and taken care of which get in the way of us living the full Christ-centered lives we are called to.
And then there’s the stuff that clutters our minds, that prevents us from being able to be still with God. The thoughts that keep us trapped in the past or focused on the future. When we are full of ourselves, there is little space for God. The Holy Spirit will help us to heal and to let go of those things that preoccupy our minds, if we but let him.
We know that Jesus, although he was God, emptied himself and became human. That is our example, he is the one we follow. We are also called to empty ourselves. I can’t tell you what exactly you need to empty out; only the Holy Spirit can do that. But in order to be filled up with the joy and the life and the beauty of the unconditional love of God we have to let go of everything that preoccupies us. If we are full of worry, we can’t be full of God. If we are full of thing to do, we can’t be full of the Holy Spirit.
We don’t have a magic bottle labelled “DRINK ME”, but we do have the cup which we share in the Eucharist. May that be the cup which enables us to enter into the fullness of life which God has for us.