Today’s reading comes from Matthew’s Gospel. Here’s the first part (Mt 19:23-25):
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich
to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Again I say to you,
it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said,
“Who then can be saved?”
The Hard Sayings
The eye-of-the-needle analogy is an example of Jesus’ common tactic of throwing rhetorical curve balls at his disciples. One can see the disciple’s surprise… who then can be saved?? Jesus likes to challenging his audience with observations like this. Consider Jesus’s deadpan response to a disciple who asks first attend to family affairs before following him: Let the dead bury their own dead! (Mt 8:22)
The Gospels have their own term for this rhetorical device: “hard sayings” [Jn 6:60]. These blunt and occasionally insensitive phrases, parables or pericopes are supposed to challenge the hearer to re-consider commonly accepted assumptions. Their purpose is to provoke thought, and to force a disciple to choose between doing things the easy way, or doing things the right way. The statement, It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God is a “hard saying.”
Here is another example of a hard saying, from Matthew 19:16-21:
Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, ” ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?”
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
The response of Jesus – If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor – is a second example of a “hard saying” from Matthew, directed towards those who have accumulate material wealth. And we might ask a fair question – Why is is Jesus singling out the rich – does Jesus dislike wealthy people? The answer to that question is “No.” God’s love for us is not a function of our material wealth.
Matthew’s Gospel is written for a Jewish audience. Matthew witnessed the life of Jesus through the eyes of a practicing Jew who observed Jesus challenge the “conventional wisdom” of Jesus’ time. Matthew understood the Good News to be a call to radical conversion by Jesus. And Jesus had the authority to challenge the disciples to radical conversion, since he was not just a prophet, but the Messiah and the Son of God.
As is often the case in the Gospels, Jesus answers his own question as to why wealth is of no importance, and why we should not worry about accumulating it. Here, from Matthew 6:19, is the reasoning Jesus proposes for avoiding the accumulation of wealth:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
OK, enough about the wealthy. Here is a real zinger of a hard saying, from Matthew 26: 7-13:
A woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.”
But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Just when you thought you had Jesus all figured out…