Thursday, January 16, 2014

“Camels, Needles & Good Advice!!!” A Homily on Matthew 19:16-26

A Homily on Matthew 19:16-26
Reprinted from a Past Post
by Priest Benedict (Simpson) of the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension

This Gospel reading from Matthew is one that has provoked more controversy than any other one in current memory. We have two particularly difficult passages that challenge us in their directness.

We are given the occasion of a young man's encounter with the Lord and a question that he asked of Christ. The man asks quite simply the million dollar question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is a simple enough query. It is to the point, direct, and succinct in it's simplicity. It is not a question asked in a way to test Christ. Indeed, the exact term use in the man's query of Christ includes the title preface, “Good Teacher”. This is significant. The man does not address Christ as “Rabbi” or “Lord”. His words betray his opinion of Christ. He regards Jesus as simply a “Good Teacher”; one who teaches good things to the people but no more and no less.

The answer he receives is just as direct. Christ tells the man to follow the commandments. “Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”. To this, the man presses deeper and states, “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” Here is an interesting thing! The man is in all honesty genuinely seeking a necessary truth. Here is this man who we are told later in the narrative is wealthy and without earthly need. He lives a life of relative comfort has within him the knowledge of something of great worth that he needed but was lacking.

Christ now serves the man with the meat of the Gospel. This is a statement that cuts to the bone of the soul. Jesus answers the man by saying, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” Now I ask you... Which of these two tasks is the most difficult? Many would say the first task! It is hard to fathom selling all that one has and giving the proceeds to the poor! What a thing to demand!!! I NEED my stuff! How will I live without all of my stuff? What a quandary!

St. John Chrysostom actually tells us that this first requirement is actually the easiest of the two tasks given to the man. To physically sell all that one owns or to give it away is actually physically easy! One simply has to scoop it up and give it away. Certainly this is within anyone's capacity... if simply the mind and the heart would not get in the way. Christ knew this and was very clever in His response. He had discerned the man's heart rightly in that the man was “possessed by his possessions.” His message in saying this was not to say that all Christians had to be penniless and without possessions. His message was catered to this man whose grasping at material things made it impossible for him to perceive that which he needed most. In reality, it is the second of the two things that is the most difficult.

The second thing Christ tells him is to “Follow Him”. Sounds simple enough on the surface but if one takes a look at the nature and the mission of Christ, they will understand that it is indeed this second requirement that is the most extreme. To follow Christ is to deny the self and take up your Cross and “follow Him”. Christ's journey had always led to the Cross. It is the sole event that Christ's ultimate mission is centered upon. To follow Christ is to accept a sacrifice of all that one has been before and taking up Christ's Cross upon their own selves. To this, the man walked away, dejected and in sorrow, for he could not relinquish the grasp of that which he thought he needed but in reality, would weigh him down into hell, itself.

In the man's leaving, the opportunity had come for teaching the disciples and those gathered the reason all of the above had transpired. Christ turned and said,”Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Here is the enigmatic analogy that has really caused more confusion than it should. Some interpretations render the phrase as “rope” instead of camel due to the closeness in relation to the two root words for “camel” and “rope”. Still a nearly impossible task! However, the Peshitta (Aramaic translation) renders the phrase much more closely to an actual understandable idiom of the time that Christ lived. The phrase is thusly rendered, “camel through the eye of a gate...” Here lies a view that is supported by similar passages from the Torah regarding elephants and “eye”. The “eye of a gate” is the small opening whereby those who minded the main city gate might be able to open to allow passage of a very small person, item, or animal without having to open the main gates wide leaving the city vulnerable to attack. The main criteria for size would be to allow the passage, if just barely, of one camel after it has been divested or unloaded of all of its cargo and trappings. This last phrase is very telling! If the camel was still vested in all the cargo and freight that it had journeyed with, it would be unable to physically enter through this narrow gate. It is a truth that this fact should not be lost upon all of us who would seek after the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, what is it that you are carrying that you could not put down to follow Christ? Do we still yet cling to that which gives way to rust and decay whilst we forgo the true treasures of the Kingdom? Do we look upon that which the moth doth eat and the worm gnaws away instead of those imperishable things that are prepared for us already?

Let us be brilliant! Let us eschew that which is temporary, whatever it may be! We should not allow trivial things become stumbling blocks along the way that leads from here to Christ! The gate is narrow and the fit is tight enough without the baggage; but the reward of what lies beyond the gate is beyond imagination!

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