Having written about my race and entitling it “and the first shall be last”, I enjoyed the fact that I stumbled across that quote in its original context the very next day. Here is how:
If you look at “If I were a rich man deedle eedle eedle…” and “Money Money Money”, the lyrics give us some suggestions as to how a rich person’s life would be. The common line between the songs is “I wouldn’t have to work hard” and “I wouldn’t have to work at all” respectively.
Perhaps one of these people who “wouldn’t have to work at all” was a rich man who appears in a bible story where he asks Jesus a question. The story includes the famous simile about the camel and the needle.
The man comes to Jesus and asks “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Jesus’ responses in the rest of the passage unpick some assumptions inherent in the question and perhaps give an insight into what wealth can do to our worldview and attitude.
“…what good thing must I do…?”
The rich young man thinks that it’s down to him. He has probably worked hard. He is successful. He has managed to get rich. He has seen action and reaction and knows that there are ways to get what you want.
In this context, what he wants is eternal life and he is looking for answers – probably hoping to discover that he is already on track.
And indeed, he is doing … well…? He hasn’t killed anyone (phew!) He hasn’t run off with anyone else’s wife (I should hope not!) He hasn’t stolen anything (what a guy!) and doesn’t lie (whoop!). He also loves his neighbour as himself. (Nice.)
He is, therefore, in fact, living a life of basic decency – the kind of life that we would all hope is a bottom line of morality of some sort. (Of course, it is possible to argue that no human being makes it through adult life without falling short in some way on these basics of human decency.) But you can perhaps see why the rich young man figured that this kind of upright existence wasn’t somehow “enough” to “get eternal life”. So he asks:
“… what do I still lack…?”
Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Then the man goes away sad “because he had great wealth”.
The point is made that the man himself couldn’t “get eternal life”. He couldn’t do it. (Not that it couldn’t be done.)
We have this famous image then, when Jesus says:
“…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.”
For sure, it would be easier to get a needle through a camel than a camel through a needle.
But the point, I think, is this:
The rich man can’t enter the kingdom of heaven. He does not have it within himself to “be perfect”. That isn’t how it is done. (That’s not to say it can’t be done.)
As Jesus goes on to say: “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.”
The rich man can’t enter the kingdom of heaven, but God can reach out and bring him there. A camel can’t go through the eye of a needle – but God could bring a camel through the eye of a needle – “with God, all things are possible” – which is a tautology – if God is God, then all things are possible for him, of course.
What does this tell us about the rich man, or indeed wealthy people?
The rich man thinks that he is in charge of his own destiny. The rich man thinks that he does not have to depend on God. The rich man thinks he is an upright human being and that that counts for something. The rich man is pleased with his own independence, his own prowess, his own success.
The passage concludes with Jesus declaring that “But many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first”. The way things look isn’t the way things are. Success and failure, those two “imposters”, “Triumph” and “Disaster” are only the way we see things from our perspectives.
The rich man, perhaps, instead of leaving in sadness, should have taken heart from the fact that there was nothing he could do in terms of effort or work or giving or trying to get eternal life or peace about his future.
I am reminded of these word from a hymn:
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
The rich man “wouldn’t have to work at all”, in terms of his search for eternal life. He could have had all his “strivings cease”. But, there are many things in life that are outwith our control, and for a rich man, that can be hard to take.
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”