A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Quaker Camels

The Bible is full of passages that hurt. One very natural response to such painful words is to dull their sharp edges with a smoother interpretation. This makes the reader feel better but runs the risk of missing the point.

Curiously, the Bible itself contains evidence of this human reaction to its own messages. Many stories are told more than once within the Bible and the way the story changes in the retelling tells us much about who we are. Scholars tell us that the first account of Jesus’ ministry was the gospel of Mark. Luke and Matthew then took the gospel of Mark and added new material to create their own longer gospels. But they also deleted some passages and what they chose to cut is often interesting.

For example in Mark the rich man runs up to Jesus kneels before him and asks “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In good rabbinical fashion Jesus answers the question with a question. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Matthew tells the story a different way. The man doesn’t run up to Jesus in enthusiasm and doesn’t kneel before him in a sign of respect. And he asks a different question “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And Jesus response is a little different too. “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” Then Jesus gives an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments but oddly inserts a fictitious commandment “you shall not defraud.” When the rich man says, with a promptness that suggests a pretty high degree of self-satisfaction, that he has obeyed the commandments Jesus looks at him with love and tells him he must do one more thing: sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. The man is shocked and walks away.

We know the end of this story. Jesus says that the rich man is a camel who cannot pass through the needle’s eye and enter the kingdom of heaven. Despite his enthusiasm he hasn’t the strength to obey Jesus’ command. Matthew deletes the sharp edges from the story. The elements in Mark that make us sympathize and identify with him are gone: his running, his kneeling, and Jesus’ love for him. The shocking things Jesus’ says are also blunted. The clear implication that he is not God and Jesus’ insertion of the fictitious commandment are gone too. Matthew's story is less shocking than the original on which it is based.

Many Friends will fail to identify with the protagonist of the story because he is rich and we are not. Jesus is sticking it to those greedy rich folks; he’s not talking to me. Don’t be too sure. Jesus' attention was always directed to spiritual realities not to physical externals. What did Jesus see in the man that was holding him back from the kingdom of heaven? Was it really his bank account? I do not believe so. More likely it was the sense of superiority his money gave him. To pass through the needle’s eye his inflated sense of self would have to grow much, much smaller. Do modern Friends with their progressive views display a similar sense of self-satisfaction? Are we as proud of our education and sophistication as the wealthy are of their money? Would we fit through the needle’s eye in the condition we are in?


Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I think Christ said exactly what he meant -- that the bank account had to go. If he had meant instead that the rich young man needed to learn humility, he would have talked about humility, not about the bank account.

Money in the bank is money taken but not given. To take more than we give is not heavenly. Or so it seems to me.

5:40 PM  
Blogger david said...

My bible study looked at this story a few weeks back. People are VERY resistant to here material poverty and material wealth in this story. They go out of their way to spiritualize the message -- to turn this into a story about the rich young man's self-satisfaction or pride. Not about the gold weighing him down. Not about what separates him from the zealots and sicarii plotting the overthrow of the Empire.

Now my interest is process more than content. I'm not rich -- but neiother do I livein the poverty of the poor of Jesus' day. I'm open to the diea the underlying message here is about pride or some other personal sin -- but I can't start there. I must start with the story and its instruction and let it cut me a bit -- am I poor enough? How poor is poor enough? What is being poor important?

Its not enough to get to the right place. You also have to get there by the right road.

4:59 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


I don't think one goes out of one's way to spiritualize Jesus' teaching. I think that's the correct way to view Jesus. But you are right to worry that people will try to interpret the text in a way that avoids reading it as relevant to themselves. Just as there are many kinds of people in the world there are many ways in which people will resist challenging messages in the Bible.

The "pray and grow rich" interpretation of Jesus really doesn't like to read this literally as about material wealth. They have even invented a little myth to go along with their interpretation. They say that the "eye of the needle" refers to the smallest of the twelve gates to Jesusalem and that this gate was designed for foot traffic so that a traveler riding a camel would have to make the camel crawl on its knees to get through. So the literally rich man must get on his knees to get into heaven! Cute story. Unfortunately there is absolutely no evidence that any gate to Jesusalem was ever called "the needle's eye." In other words it's pure fabrication.

Those who are into wealth and think that being a Christian will lead God to shower you with money have got to "spiritualize" this story out of existence. Yes, Jesus is talking to a literally rich man and says of literally rich people that it is practically impossible for them to enter the kingdom of heaven. So we should start reading this story as about literal wealth as a spiritual hazard. But the thrust of Jesus' message is about what is going on inside a person not about their outsides. Note that Jesus says that this man should sell all he has and give it to the poor. He does not give this advice to everyone he meets. As I read the gospels when Jesus speaks to an individual he sees into the depths of their soul and relates directly to them (compare the woman at the well).

So does taking this story to be really about pride and only indirectly about money (a major source of pride) tend to blunt the cutting edge or not? For a person who identified with the rich, it would blunt that message. They would tend to think "I'm OK because I'm a humble Christian though rich or desperately want to be rich." But your average Quaker, while richer than a poor person in Jesus day or our own, does not identify with the wealthy. Most have chosen professions that are service oriented and not money oriented. Teachers and social workers are common among Friends. Investment bankers and real estate tycoons are pretty unusual. Quakers don't identify with the wealthy but they are often very proud of their education and sophistication. So interpreting this story as about literal wealth is a way of blunting its cutting edge for this particular audience.

11:23 AM  

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