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?