How to Fit Through the Eye of a Needle
This weekend is when I led the retreat for the undergraduate course I teach at the University of Indianapolis.
Last year it was kind of a big flop.
I have been a church nerd my entire life, and I often forget that not everyone else is.
“Go away in the woods and think about God in silence for two days? Sounds awesome!” I say.
That’s not what the undergrads said last year.
So the course I’m teaching is called Monasticism, New Monasticism, and Rule of Life.
For the retreat, I decided to have them live a day in the life of a monastic, praying the monastic offices in community, etc., according to the rule of St. Benedict that they had studied.
You can imagine the reaction of these college students when I told them they were going to be monks and nuns for a weekend.
Although they had read Benedict’s rule, they were really struggling to picture monastic life, to understand why anyone would want to live under this spiritual discipline, how on earth this would actually enrich anyone’s life and connection with God.
So I had them watch a movie. It’s called Into Great Silence, by German filmmaker Philip Gröning.
In 1984 he wrote to a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps, asking if he could film their daily life.
They said, “Give us some time to think about it, we’ll get back to you.”
In 2002 they wrote back and said, “Okay, we’re ready, come and film.”
These monks in addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, also take a vow of silence. Aside from prayers in chapel and a break once a week to talk to each other for an hour, they do not speak aloud at all.
The film is an artistic masterpiece, like being immersed into a great painting or a great symphony.
It washes over you and the spirit of the monastery and the peace and humility of these monks draws you in so you really feel like you’re taking part in their devotion.
At least that’s how I feel about it.
Last year my undergrads were severely underwhelmed, so this year I prepared the students quite differently.
I told them that this was going to feel strange and different probably from other church experiences that they’ve had. We weren’t going to have guitars and s’mores by the fire like high school church camp.
This is going to be challenging, I told them. Just be patient and open yourselves up and see if you can feel God at work in you.
The group this year completely shocked me.
They totally got into it.
They told me it felt strange at first to pray these offices and watch these monks go about their contemplative lives, but the experience started to strip away the trappings of the outside world and their busy college lives from them.
It was so endearing to me to see them concentrate so hard and try and wrap their heads around living a monastic existence.
They reminded me very much of the young man in our gospel story today.
“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”
This young man is so earnest.
He runs to Jesus to learn more about holiness and throws himself on the ground before him. He’s so eager to understand how to please God, how to live a good and virtuous life.
So Jesus reminds him of the Ten Commandments, and the young man bursts out, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
This guy is the total goody-two shoes of this community, and you can practically feel the disciples rolling their eyes.
But in one of my favorite verses in the Bible, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him.
This man represents that eager, even desperate drive within all of us to please God, and that yearning to earn God’s favor that almost always takes the form of trying to tick every box of a moral checklist of virtues and accomplishments.
We feel very businesslike and adult as we mentally punish ourselves for our sins and pat ourselves on the backs for our good deeds and hard-won kindness towards others.
It’s just human nature to want a concrete sets of tasks, goals and accomplishments that will in turn create a predictable return and reward: eternal life.
After all, that’s how the rest of the world works, and it’s a model we’ve been trained in from our very earliest years.
Clean up your room and you get a cookie at dinner time.
Get ten out of ten on your spelling test and you get a gold star.
Pile up enough extracurricular activities and honor roll appearances and you get a scholarship to college.
Earn enough positive performance reviews and you get a promotion.
Well, when we conduct our spiritual lives like that, Jesus looks at us and loves us.
Although we think we’re big important adult Christians, when we bring our list of accomplishments to him, we’re like the child handing his mother the lopsided, buggy handful of dandelion weeds, believing we’re presenting a beautiful bouquet.
Jesus looks at us and loves us in our moral exertions.
We’re not even doing the wrong thing by trying to live virtuous lives and treat others well.
After all, Jesus’ first instruction to the young man is to quote the Ten Commandments to him, and interestingly, he only quotes the commandments that have to do with treating others well.
He does care about the concrete actions we take in relationship to our neighbors.
He does love that dandelion bouquet.
But Mr. Goody Two Shoes rich young man claims to have got all that righteous moral conduct stuff figured out.
And again, Jesus does not say, “You have got to be kidding, telling me you have observed the commandments perfectly since your youth.”
Jesus looks at him and loves him.
And Jesus looks at us and loves us, whether we insist we’re keeping the commandments perfectly or we are very in touch with the fact that we probably can’t even recite the Ten Commandments accurately, much less obey them.
And then Jesus tells the young man and us something very difficult.
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Ouch. That hurts.
God, did he really mean it?
Did he really mean literally to sell everything, to give up everything and leave it behind to follow him?
We are more than likely going to end up in the same boat as our earnest young man when we hear that: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Jesus is actually calling us to something harder than the Ten Commandments!
How can he expect us to do this?
Notice what he is really asking of this man.
This man is known for being rich and having many possessions, and by selling everything he has and giving the money to the poor, he will no longer be able to claim that identity.
Jesus is asking us to commit to him so comprehensively that our only identity is that of being his follower.
Anything with which we identify ourselves—I am wealthy or I am poor, I am a Democrat or I am a Republican, I am a teacher or a priest or a mother or an athlete—we have to let all of these fade away and become secondary to and subservient to our identity and our call as Christ-followers.
Then Jesus says something even more intimidating: “’How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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 God.’”
Well, now we’re in real trouble, we middle class predominantly white Americans most of all.
We’re filthy rich compared to 90% of the rest of the world, and Jesus just told us a camel has a better chance of getting through the eye of a needle than we have of entering the Kingdom of God.
This is a situation that we colloquially refer to as “up a creek without a paddle.”
But look at this: we’re still evaluating Jesus’ words from our old standpoint, from that moral achievement calculus that is all about effort and earning our reward.
We’re still trying to do it ourselves.
We’re still placing a measuring stick next to our lives, wondering how on earth we will measure up, and lamenting the truth that we really never will measure up.
But what if Jesus means something different?
Maybe he’s not saying, “It’s so hard to enter the Kingdom of God, that no matter how you try, you’re never going to make it.”
Maybe he’s saying instead, “You’re all going to enter the Kingdom of God. But I’m telling you right now that it’s going to be hard on you. I’m telling you right now that everything you think you know and everything you think you are is going to be stripped down and stripped away. When you enter the Kingdom,” –not if, but when—“When you enter the Kingdom, my challenges and my love will have so transformed you that you won’t even recognize yourself. Everything about the old you will be gone, and you will be a new creation, broken down to your elemental form and raised up again to new life as a disciple, healed and redeemed.”
What if that’s what Jesus means?
I saw this happening in microcosm with my undergrads this weekend.
Slowly but surely, all their concerns from their lives in the outside world were stripped away—homework, boyfriends and girlfriends, conflicts with roommates or parents, exams—all of it slowly was taken away and laid aside in the simple rhythms of community, prayer, scripture, and God’s creation surrounding them.
They didn’t think they could fit through the eye of the needle of understanding and living monastic life—it seemed impossible to them.
But living the life itself lifted so many burdens from them, it made them small and humble and free until they fit through the eye of that needle and entered a new state of love and grace.
The same can be true for us on a broader scale.
We can fit through the eye of that needle, but only if we become light and small, humble and free, stripped down and unburdened of all our wealth, possessions, control, and ideas about how life should go.
We’re never going to be able to do it ourselves.
But Jesus tells us it will happen.
“For mortals it is impossible,” Jesus says. “But not for God; for God all things are possible.”
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