Economics has been much in the news lately. To some degree this is a result of the ubiquity of our ongoing political campaign. But economic issues transcend politics. They might, as we will see, even reach all the way into the realm of religion, of Christianity itself.
As I look at the New Testament in general and the words of Jesus in particular it seems that there are a lot of harsh things said about money. Paul calls it, “a root of all kinds of evil,” (I Timothy 6:9). Jesus says it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23, 25). In saying this Jesus used one of his most hilarious, and most wilfully misunderstood, word pictures.
It seems that, back in the Middle Ages, a story developed about a curious gate in the wall of Jerusalem. According to the story this gate was called the “Needle’s Eye.” It was a double gate, an outer gate through which it was easy to pass, then an inner gate through which you had to worm your way carefully. Camels, it was said, had to pass through on their knees. You’ve probably heard at least one preacher tell the story of the “Needle’s Eye” gate in a sermon about Jesus’ meeting with the rich young man described in Matthew 19 and Mark 10.
Trouble is, there never was such a gate in the wall of Jerusalem. There may have been gates intended to be choke-points in the walls of some late Medieval towns, but the story of the “Needle’s Eye Gate” at Jerusalem is entirely untrue. No such gates existed in the ancient world. There is no evidence that there was ever one at Jerusalem. Indeed why build any kind of gate meant to limit traffic in the walls of a city which had several wide and spacious gates to admit anyone who wished to enter?
So why the myth of the Needle’s Eye? Put simply, it was fabricated as the church and its clergy grew wealthy during the Middle Ages. It was invented to show that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said about it being so hard for the rich to enter heaven. Jesus actually generalized the statement in Mark 10:25, leaving out the rich. He said it was hard for anybody to enter the Kingdom of God. Under the law (whose requirements form a large part of the context here) it was all but impossible to do everything required. It’s grown a lot easier since Calvary.
It is God who has made it easy, as Jesus reminds us in Mark 10:27; “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” No Needle’s Eye Gate was needed. God saves the rich, the middle class and the poor, and all on the same terms. He makes their salvation possible.
It is fashionable in some Christian circles these days to insist that rich Christians should divest themselves of their wealth by giving it to the poor. These folks insist that Jesus was issuing a command to every rich person to do what He called the rich young man of the story to do. But this isn’t true either. He made such a stern demand of the young man because He understood two things about him; first he was covetous (that’s why He doesn’t list the command not to covet in his list of the “second table of the Law” commands) and second because he did not use his money to honor his parents (that’s why He placed that command out of order in the list). Nowhere does the Bible command all the rich to impoverish themselves so they can be better Christians. Instead we have passages like I Timothy 6:17, 18; Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant or to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain. . . .Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”
I’ve probably mentioned at some point in my writing of this column a little old woman who used to travel the country preaching. Her name was Gert Bahanna and she had been a wealthy socialite who was, until her conversion at age 53, an alcoholic and a drug addict. She said this about money; “Money is a commodity like bricks. You can build a shrine out of bricks or you can slug someone to death with them. It is all a matter of what money does to us and of what we do or do not do with it.” She added, “Money is a very divisive thing, and anything that divides the children of God from the children of God is an evil.” That, it seems to me, is a very good perspective.
But why write about money for college students? After all, most college students don’t have a lot of money. Well, for two reasons. First, I know from personal experience that it is better to learn how to use money properly when you have little of it than to try and learn it when you have a lot of it. Perhaps if the rich young man had developed the habit of giving when he was young and still relatively poor he might not have had the problem with money he later did. If we don’t learn to give when we have only a little, chances are we won’t know how to give later when we might have a lot. So learn to give now.
Second, because one of these days some of you may have quite a bit of money and you will be subject to the same temptations that face the rich generally and the rich young man in particular. If you do I hope you will understand that the Church and other charitable organizations will make far better use of your money than the government will. It is far better to support Habitat for Humanity or your nearest women’s shelter, homeless shelter, food pantry, or your favorite mission group than it is to pay that money in income taxes because those groups are far more efficient at using their money than is good old Uncle Sam. As long as you can deduct such contributions from your income taxes, do that as much as you can. The $35,000-a-year pastor or feeding station administrator will make far better use of your money that the $150,000-a-year bureaucrat.