Note: These weekly blogs, based on scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, are prepared as sermons for North Baptist Church, Port Chester, N.Y. The writer is a Baptist layman, a life long journalist, and a communicator for church denominational and ecumenical organizations. Additional sermon-blogs and essays can be found at http://www.thelittlescroll.blogspot.com/
Jesus was one rabbi who knew how to get a congregation’s attention.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said, “than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23-24)
A camel passing through the eye of a needle! Jesus, you’re killin’ me! The image is vivid and unforgettable.
It’s also funny. Few notice the humor because no one expects Jesus to be a stand-up comedian. I try to imagine Jesus’ disappointment the first time he used the metaphor:
Jesus: “But seriously, folks, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Disciples: Silence. Puzzled expressions.
Jesus: Get it? Camels are huge!
Jesus: And needles are … tiny, right?
Jesus: (Clears throat) So … of course no camel could …
Jesus: (Walks away) OMG. What a tough room.
Dr. Elton Trueblood, the Quaker writer and theologian, thought anyone who missed the fact that Jesus sprinkled his sermons with witticisms - that on some occasions he was, as Mort Saul would put it, apocryphal of wry - is missing an important dimension of Christian theology.
God knows many of us missed that dimension. Some of us grew up in congregations where a sober frown was regarded as the appropriate mask of faith and where the giggles of children were sternly shushed.
That’s a shame, because there is so much funny stuff in church lexicology that goes undetected. How can one keep a straight face, for example, when reading local press accounts of church high school football rivalries: VIRGIN CREAMS PIUS XII.
Trueblood writes in The Humor of Christ (Harper & Row, 1964) that the scriptures offer ample evidence that Jesus loved to laugh. His sermons and parables were generously sprinkled with irony, hyperbole and droll scorn.
Actually, Jesus' scorn could be quite piercing. His reference to the Pharisees as “you snakes, you brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33a) is harsher than the more genteel “sons of bitches.”
Jesus’ love of laughter and the good life was used by his enemies to criticize him. “For John came neither eating nor drinking,” Jesus said, referring to his cousin, the ascetic baptizer, “and they say, ‘he has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Matthew 11:24)
It’s hard to imagine eating and drinking without jokes and laughter, so it’s no theological leap to conclude Jesus was a joke teller and a laugher.
The camel and the needle is not the only time Jesus uses gross exaggeration to get his point across. It’s an entertaining spiritual exercise to leaf through the Gospels to identify the times Jesus was just kidding and did not intend his words to be taken literally.
In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus uses hyperbolic images to drive home the point that everyone sins.
Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart”(Matthew 5:28)
This is a dismaying revelation to all us guys whose eyes stray toward well turned ankles in a crowd, telling ourselves it can’t hurt to look. It is especially challenging today as we are assaulted by mass media that offer images of hundreds of beautiful women and men for instant ogling and free-based fantasizing.
But wait, there’s more.
“If your right eye causes you to sin,” Jesus continued, “tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Point made, but Jesus was not advocating mass blindness on an Oedipal scale. If vicarious lust required wandering eyes to be cast out, the whole world would bump blindly into another Jesus story: “If one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14b). Slapstick humor.
And if that isn’t clear enough, Jesus is not above sardonic scatology: “Do you see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” (Matthew 15:17-18) Again, the point is made and the mental image - even if it doesn’t elicit a giggle or two - is unforgettable.
Also unforgettable is Jesus’ send-up of the scribes and Pharisees as he explains in quick-fire Rodney Dangerfield staccato why they should get no respect:
“They do all their deeds to be seen by others, for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (referring to the more visible sartorial symbols of pharisaic piety, Matthew 23:5). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” he said, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27). Jesus! Lighten up!
“Or,” Jesus said to the crowd gathering on the mount, “how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:4-5)
But as hard as it is to imagine a log in someone’s eye, the camel passing through the eye of the needle is the hyperbolic tour de force.
It’s also one of those biblical images we’ve heard so often that its rhetorical power may be waning. To get a better measure of how delightfully surprising the camel-needle image can be, tell it to a nursery class – checking, of course, that they know what camels and needles are. Children who encounter it for the first time recognize a riotous Sesame Street image when they hear one.
When Jesus uses humor to grab the attention of his congregation, it’s usually to call attention to a very serious point. For many, the point he was making in the camel reference is too heavy to bear.
“Jesus said to (a rich young man), ‘if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:21-22).
The rich young man is never cited as an exemplary biblical role model, which is ironic. Most of us follow his lead anyway. There are many who tithe to the church, and many whose charitable contributions are substantial and generous. But few of us are inclined to sell all our possessions for the benefit of the poor, and those who do run the risk of being committed to mental health facilities for psychosis or dementia.
But Jesus knew very well how difficult it is for the saner among us to give away all we have.
“Truly I tell you,” he told his disciples – he may have been smiling wryly, but that was never recorded – “it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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 heaven.” Da Dum. (Matthew 19:23-24)
The gross exaggeration challenges the imagination and has inspired hundreds of internet cartoonists. (Search “camel through eye of needle” on your computer to see some diverting examples.)
The hyperbole is so strained, in fact, that it’s tempting to hope Jesus was overstating his advice to the rich young man as well. “Jesus was kidding, right?” prosperous persons ask their spiritual advisors. “We don’t really have to give away everything we have to the poor?”
But Jesus does not appear to be kidding. And his use of the camel-needle metaphor does not mean we can dismiss the whole idea with a wink. On the contrary, the allegorical leap is Jesus’ way of saying he knows full well how hard it would be to give away all we have.
The disciples did not laugh at the far-fetched simile. They were, scripture tells us, astounded. “Then who,” they asked, “can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them reassuringly, perhaps winking, perhaps smiling. “For mortals it is impossible,” he said, “but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26).
Jesus used a silly simile to guide us toward several profound truths. Among them:
During our earthly life spans, it makes no sense to acquire more possessions than we need to live comfortably and support our families. Stored up treasures become the love of your life. (Matthew 6:21)
God has a particular love for the poor that is expressed in hundreds of scripture verses throughout the New Testament and Hebrew scriptures. If our pursuit of possessions causes us to be indifferent to the poor, we will be indifferent to God.
During our earthly life spans, our primary task is to love God and love our neighbors. When our neighbors are struggling amid poverty and injustice, God expects us to intervene in their suffering and do all that we can to help.
The meaning of life is discoverable in our love of God and our love for the human beings with whom we live. If we are distracted by the pursuit of riches, we will fall far short of God’s intention for our lives.
Getting our lives on track means setting aside the pursuit of riches, putting mere possessions in their proper perspective, and re-dedicating our lives to God’s love.
Accomplishing that is difficult beyond belief ; in fact, as Jesus observed with a grin, it’s virtually impossible. Like getting a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
But with God, all things are possible. And camels pass easily through the eyes of needles for the amusement of all and for the glory of the God of love.