Speaking to His disciples, Christ said, “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.” (Mk. 10:25) Doubtless, most modern Christians take comfort from the fact that they are not rich. Over the centuries, the eyes of needles seem to have grown, while camels have gotten thinner. At the time, the disciples were astonished at Christ’s saying and wondered, “Who, then, can be saved?” Christ told them that it was “impossible,” adding, “but with God, all things are possible.” Today, His saying astonishes no one. Somehow, centuries of explanations reassuring us that this saying is a hyperbole (and so on), have removed the scandal that Christ intended.
I will raise the bar, and suggest that today, the saying would be better translated as, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a middle-class man to enter the kingdom of God.” This is not based on any deflationary meaning of wealth. Instead, it is based on understanding the principle involved and what stands between us and that needle’s eye.
Both Old and New Testament have a theme running through them concerning the poor. It is not the product of some ancient Marxism (nor am I trying to sneak some modern Marxism into this article). However, it seems to be a matter close to the heart of God and utterly essential to the Christian faith:
Blessed is he who understands the poor; The LORD will deliver him in time of trouble. (Psa 41:1)
In the Psalms, it is almost always the case that the “wicked” is paired with an oppression of the poor. Given the nature of the laws of the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee, it is not at all surprising to see this concern. The great “right-setting” in Israel is seen precisely in the cancelation of debt, the setting free of those who are in bondage, and a redistribution (to a certain extent) of the wealth of the land. The only difference in the New Testament is that we see this “right-setting” raised to a cosmic level and equated with the coming of the Kingdom of God. The right-setting of the Jubilee has now become the pattern for every day and all times and should be interiorized as well. In the teaching of Christ, the “blessed” are those who are poor in spirit, weak, in mourning and marginalized. The practice of right-setting (“righteousness”) is the primary measure for our moral action. We are to lend without expecting in return (let alone charging interest). We are to be merciful and kind even to those who do not deserve it. We are to forgive our enemies – those who precisely “owe” us something.
These things, however, are not the mark of the middle-class life that we equate with the American Dream: they are its antithesis. We do not think in such a manner: it is foreign to us. It is for this reason that we will only enter the Kingdom of God with difficulty – an impossible entrance made possible only by mercy.
The world-view of modernity is merit-based, or, at least, maintains the fiction that the world is rightly ordered along the lines of merit. The modern narrative tells us that hard work and good choices are the keys to success – and refuses to acknowledge that class structures now strangle the culture. Modernity holds that class-structures and hierarchies were abolished in the establishment of the American experiment. Of course, the unacknowledged reality of our American aristocracy makes it difficult to address or treat it responsibly. 1
But it is not simply an aristocracy that represents the “rich” in the modern world. The nature of the middle-class is, in many ways, found in its mimicry of the mind of the rich regardless of its economic status.
I grew up in a small suburban neighborhood, built in the post-World War. Houses had two and three bedrooms and a single bath. They were built for the families of returning GI’s who were discovering the joy of owning property. The neighborhood was near an Air Force base and was largely filled with military families. Pay was low, but so were prices. The values of the neighborhood were largely middle-class, despite being “lower middle-class.” When I was 10, the base closed. The neighborhood changed in the course of a single year. It became a rental area, and thus fell off its middle-class rung of the ladder. My neighbors were no longer property owners: they were debtors.
It was a very personal education for me. I could not have articulated the change, except that I no longer found the neighborhood’s children desirable as friends and playmates. Fights became more common, as did domestic disputes carried out in public spaces. Crime increased. The culture shock going on around me was the experience of American class distinctions. Its lessons have never disappeared from my mind.
It is difficult to explain to the non-poor how different the world looks for them. The myriad of hidden rules that constitute middle-class behavior seem opaque. They do not know how to “behave.” Today’s loss of many societal norms has not actually altered this reality. It has, if anything, made it harder for the young, who have failed to master the opaque world of behavior, to get a job, much less a “position.”
It is, however, equally difficult for those in the middle-class to understand the reason Christ would have pointed to the poor (with their seeming lack of virtue) so approvingly. Why should the entrance into the Kingdom be easier for them? The question has certainly dogged me for many years. My conclusion is fairly straightforward: their virtue is their lack of virtue.
My mind goes to the speech of the drunkard, Marmeladov, in Crime and Punishment. He is a sad character whose daughter has been driven into prostitution to support the family that his alcoholic addiction has failed. He describes his vision of the end of the world, and declares that he knows that Christ will forgive his daughter’s sins. He adds:
And He [Christ] will judge and forgive all, the good and the wicked, the wise and the humble … And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, ‘You, too, come forth!’ He will say. ‘Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!’ And we will all come forth, without being ashamed, and stand there. And He will say, ‘Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!’ And the wise and the reasonable will say unto Him, ‘Lord, why do you receive such as these?’ And He will say, ‘I receive them, my wise and reasonable ones, forasmuch as not one of them considered himself worthy of this thing …’ And He will stretch out His arms to us, and we will fall at His feet … and weep … and understand everything!
There are echoes in his speech of the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom read in every parish across the world on the night of Pascha.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, echoed in Chrysostom’s homily, it is the older brother, the well-behaved and faithful son, who refuses to come to the feast. He thought his brother unworthy.
This is the eye of the needle: our competency and excellence. We are doing fairly well, on the whole, managing our lives in a responsible manner. If we are not worthy of the Kingdom of God, at least we are worthy of something, perhaps the American Dream.
The disciplines of the Christian life are not meant to make us “better persons.” The better persons will barely enter the Kingdom. A truly good discipline will reveal us as failures and without hope. In the Liturgy, Jesus is addressed as the “Hope of the hopeless.” But only the hopeless would know that.
And this is why our salvation is so truly difficult.