One of my favorite images is a tree of life. I’ve seen it depicted in many ways and as many trees. The tree of life on my arm actually looks a bit like a willow tree with over hanging leaves and a long root structure. The thing about the Tree of Life though, and why a willow tree worked for me in my tattoo, is that the root system is generally as important as the leaves and the trunk.
The leaves and the trunk get all the attention, but the roots are the foundation. And they are always right there, just under the surface, just as strong and important as the leaves and the roots.
As I thought about this Gospel, Mark 10:17-31, the tree of life kept coming back to me. To me this Gospel is an example of what I call a tree life Scripture: there’s what we see, and there’s what’s under the surface.
I know I’ve said it before, and I know I’ll say it going forward, and I’ll say it today too: there’s more to Scripture than the literal translation of words into English that we read today.
This is so for many reasons. Some words are just really difficult to translate. And a lot of meaning is lost when we go from a spoken language, Aramaic, to a written language, Greek, and then translate those words again into Latin, and then ultimately English. Some languages are more complex than others, and many languages, including the 3 I’ve mentioned today, include meanings, gender, tone, and tenses in each word.
One sentence in this Gospel is particularly difficult to translate:
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kindom of God!”
Part of the issue is that in Aramaic the words for Camel and Rope are written the same but said differently. In Greek, the words are said the same and written almost identically. Neither Greek nor Aramaic were written using punctuation, which is where the differences could be seen. Camel and rope are clearly different in both spoken and written Latin and English.
But what this means is that when the words went from spoken Aramaic to written Aramaic, then to spoken and written Greek, then to written Latin, then to written English, there were interpretation decisions made all along the way, along with a few best guesses, and a couple of absolute guesses.
Someone, at some point, who didn’t hear Jesus talk about this directly, or even indirectly, decided that the word was camel instead of rope. Which is perfectly reasonable.
And then, somewhere between the 9th and the 15th Century, a Catholic priest decided that the eye of the needle was a physical place, a gate in the wall of Jerusalem.
Now, this isn’t an unreasonable thing because a lot of Ancient cities had special gates that only opened at night. These gates were very small. Allowing a person to easily pass though, but not baggage and not a large animal loaded down with goods. In order to pass through one of these gates a person would have to go in without carrying their baggage. And, if they were traveling with a loaded down camel, they would have to unburden the camel and push it through the gate.
This was possible. But not particularly easy.
However, and this is important, there is no archeological or historical evidence to suggest that Jerusalem had such a gate. Could be that Jesus said these words to people living in a different city, Bethlehem and Bethany where very close by to Jerusalem, and Jesus is known to have traveled around the region. Maybe one of those places had a small gate, which are rumored to have been sometimes known as the eye of a needle. But if Jesus were talking about Jerusalem, there was no gate there.
Maybe Jesus was talking about a physical camel and an actual needle, as is the common and modern literal approach. This is of course not possible, to shove a 1,000 pound animal through a sewing needle – and to make sure sewing needles weren’t dramatically larger in the 1st century, I looked; sewing needles were a bit longer back then, 3-5 inches, they were certainly not big enough to get a camel through.
Though those needles did have eyes.
Or maybe Jesus was talking about a rope. Passing a rope through the eye of a needle. The stripping down of the rope would be similar to what was necessary to unladen a camel to get through a small gate.
Or, maybe Jesus was discussing a thick nautical rope being passed through what was called an eye of a needle, but was really a rock with a big hole in it that was used to tie up boats. The rocks were very sturdy, but if the weather was rough, threading the rope through the eye of the needle was a very difficult thing to do. This was commonly known at the time and would’ve been well known to the fishermen who followed Jesus.
It seems to me that all of these different possibilities, they’re all like leaves on that tree of life. And much like the moral of the simile that Jesus is using, it’s not what is most easily visible that’s most important.
What matters most here, what matters most with much of what Jesus said, what matters most when looking at any of these ancient texts when the thing being described no longer exists or has totally changed, is the core teaching. The core teaching is the rope stripped down to a thread, or the camel unburdened to get through the gate.
Here that core teaching, to me, based on my many years of study and experience, is to love ourselves and one another as God loved us. And before that, to love the lord our God above all else.
I believe that Jesus is telling this man, who we are told is wealthy, that he must love God above everything else. More than his accumulated wealth and possessions. More than continuing to acquire wealth and possessions.
In society at the time, and even today to some extent, there was a belief that having a lot of goods, of money, of enslaved people, was a sign of God’s favor. In one sentence, Jesus tells this man that having a lot of things, of money, of property, of owned humans, those things don’t matter to God.
Where your heart is pointed is what matters to God. Is your heart pointed towards God? That’s what Christ says is necessary to enter the kindom of God, and everything else is a distraction.
It is, quite honestly, difficult to preach this text in an Episcopal Church, where there are people who are quite wealthy. And people who are poor. And people who are wealthy by world standards, but not by United States standards.
The message to us is very different than the message Jesus preached to the poor, the sick, the outcasts, the enslaved people.
We are far more likely to be the person Jesus tells to sell everything.
I’ve heard the eye of the needle sermon preached where the takeaway is to be really intentional about our money and what we do with it. Are we accumulating, or sharing?
I like that message. It resonated and I’ve tried to live accordingly.
But honestly, I don’t think it’s enough. It lets us off the hook for what we did to accumulate that wealth.
By this logic, the Episcopal Church is let off the hook for it’s role in slavery and racism without any repercussions because we donate to charity now.
By this logic America is let off the hook for becoming a wealthy superpower nation on the backs of enslaved humans.
By this logic, a person can accumulate wealth by exploiting other humans, putting their own needs above the basic livelihood of the people who work or are impacted by whatever they do to accumulate wealth.
This is not enough. It’s buying your way in to eternal life.
What we do with our wealth matters, but so does how we accumulate wealth in the first place, and if we have our hearts pointed towards God all along.
And, what we do with ourselves and our wealth once we realize that we weren’t pointed at God, or weren’t as God centered as we thought we were.
This weekend we celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. A day that is also set aside to honor a man who committed genocide in the pursuit of wealth and was lauded as a hero because of it.
Each of us sit on land that was stolen from people who already lived here.
Each of us were taught in school that this land is ours.
But it’s not.
We were taught a lie. We know that now. It hurts and it’s scary.
And until we take an honest look at what we as individuals have done, and we as a society have done, we will not be living into the commands of Christ.
We will be trying to force a 1,000 pound camel through the eye of a sewing needle.
With our eyes and hearts pointed towards God, we can do this hard work.
It starts with us.
It starts with us taking an intentional look at the roots of our own trees of life. To see what it is that supports us, nourishes us, and holds us up.
Our homework this week is to take an honest look at any wealth we have accumulated and ask ourselves, how did we accumulate this, how did the company we work for accumulate this, what can we do to make this right now? How do we live into this commandment of God to love God above all other things? Including money.
I’m here if anyone wants or needs help. I won’t judge. Just listen and walk with you as your sort this out.