Impossible, But True: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”
Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”
Let me say at the very outset, in this dialogue between Our Lord and the rich young ruler, my sympathies are very much with the rich young man. After all, he was simply a conscientious member of the religious community, probably pledging a sizable amount to the local synagogue, who had come to ask this new teacher a perfectly sensible question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ It seems, however, that the young man is in hot water from the very beginning. He calls Jesus “good teacher’ and is instantly reproved for doing so. The young man is abruptly examined as to his keeping of the commandments – all rather personal questions, I might add, asking about his sex life, his business practices and even how the young man got on with his father and his mother. By this point, I probably would have already walked away, most likely mumbling something about the lack of conversational manners of these religious types. But no, our young man stays. Not only that, but he claims, in front of a number of people who knew him well, that he has behaved properly in all of these areas since his youth. Additionally, we may note that no one, not even Our Lord, disputes his claim. I doubt if most of us could do as well. I’m certain that I could not.
Moreover, to be rich and virtuous in first century Palestine was no small feat. A backwater province of the Roman Empire with few natural resources, the administrators sent to govern the unruly population were usually those in disfavor at court or people who, although they possessed few talents, had adequate connections to land jobs in distant places which others did not want. Their salaries, so-called, came from the amount of money which they could extract from the population over and above that which was sent into the coffers of the state. Owing to this fact, the administrators taxed everything in, or out of, sight. Often this resulted in tax rates of 80-95% for the populace and an invitation to corruption for those who wishes to maintain their wealth. A document from the first century informs us that when a delegation of landowners from Palestine complained to an official of increasing taxation, he replied, ‘If I had my way, I would tax the air that you breathe!” Our young ruler, therefore, being both wealthy and free from corruption, seems to be a notable exception to the rule of the day.
With both wealth and virtue intact, however, the young man was confronted with the final and, so it seems to modern readers, the most unreasonable demand of all – ‘Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, so you can have treasure in heaven. Then come, take up your cross and follow me.’ Although this event is recorded in three of the Gospels, only St. Mark reports that before this statement was made, Our Lord looked upon the young man and loved him. In the face of such a divine, albeit demanding, love, we watch the young man, his once bright visage now marred by grief and tears, turn and walk away. Our Lord provides the commentary on the incident. He informs the disciples that, although wealth may encumber entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, trust in the security of riches will bar the way altogether. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for someone trusting in his or her wealth to enter the kingdom of God.
The disciples recognized, as did Shakespeare’s Richard II, that all of us, whether we possess little or much, may fall under the spell of wanting to ‘take it with us’ or at least ‘using it’ to help get us there. That means we’re all in danger. Try as we might to transform the camel into a hair rope, or the needle’s eye into a small city gate which you pass through on your knees (a good try, but no cigar) the statement is an invitation to the impossible – a camel, four feet, long neck, one hump, through the eye of a sewing needle. Yet, as Lady Marchmain observed in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the Gospels and the lives of the saints are a collection of impossible events made possible by God. As Our Lord says, with God all things are possible – even camels through the eyes of needles.
You see, the question isn’t one of wealth. Most of us here, even if we exist below the poverty line, are wealthy compared to seven-eighths of the world’s population. The question is one of salvation which, much of the time, appears impossible for many of us. The Gospel, however, is, as my old friend Madeleine L’Engle writes, that of the ‘Glorious Impossible’, that which cannot be, but nevertheless is true. John the Baptist born to Elizabeth in old age – impossible, but true. Our Lord, born of the Blessed Virgin – impossible, but true. Crucified, dead and buried, yet rising from the tomb in three days – impossible, but true.
But what of the rich young man? Unfortunately we do not know what became of him. His tragedy, it seems to me, was that of missing a special and particular call to his own impossible, but glorious, adventure in Christ’s service. What might he have become? Perhaps a precursor and an example to those later saints who would take up Christ’s call to him as their own. Might he have shown the way to St. Antony of Egypt, or St. Francis of Assisi? Might he have been an inspiration to St. Elizabeth of Hungary or Mother Theresa of Calcutta? As the lion Aslan says to the children in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, ‘We never know the things that might have been, we only know the things that are.‘ A unique opportunity missed, no question. Yet, perhaps many of us have missed such opportunities, to our cost and regret. Yet, in my heart, I hope that I might see that rich young man in another place – four footed and humped like the rest of us, squeezing through the needle’s eye.
If so, it might be true.