Bigger Needles-Smaller Camels

by Mick Stevens for the New Yorker

by Mick Stevens for the New Yorker

The scene is a simple one: two men are sitting in comfortable club chairs.  Both men are be-spectacled.  They are seated in the corner of the gracious room, chairs at 90-degree angles to allow for easy conversation, a small round table between them.  Both have drinks: I am assuming Scotch.  Behind one is a tall built-in bookcase.  Behind the other is a large, plate-glass window through which can be seen the skyscrapers beyond. It appears to be raining, but it hardly matters.  They could be in any big city, but I am quite sure they are in New York.  Both wear suits and ties.  They are pleased with themselves, although they would never wish to suggest that they are.  One of them is speaking, but from the image you cannot tell who is speaking to whom.  It doesn’t matter, for in reality, what they have to say, they both have to say to one another.  They do not wish for us to overhear them, but the artist, Mick Stevens, has ensured that what they have to say to one another is clearly the most important thing about this image.

One well-dressed, be-spectacled, Scotch-sipping man commenting to another, as they relax in their comfort, well above the worries of the world; they say to each other, “We need either bigger needles or smaller camels.”  The cartoon appeared in the New Yorker about four years ago, but it is timeless.

It feels like a fool’s errand to preach on Mark 10:25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  Most people have already decided which side of that bargain they are comfortable with, and most of us are on the same (that is, the wrong) side.  And if this is the way Jesus is going to talk to us, then, well, we are either going to need bigger needles or smaller camels.  We are not going to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.  Period.  Find me a bigger needle or a smaller camel.  Otherwise we can move on to the next chapter, please.

I strongly suspect that the two men in the cartoon are Episcopalians.  They are well dressed, and they are enjoying a drink before sundown.  They also appear to take the Scriptures seriously, in their own way.  And they are employing the traditional approach to this unpleasant teaching of Jesus: they are trying to find their way around it, without seeming as though they don’t care about what Jesus said.  It’s as if they want to be able to go to church in good conscience.  Having heard about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, they know they must now apply themselves to this challenge, so they do!

I am sure there exist parishes in which these two men could be co-chairs of the Stewardship Committee.  They would run terrific stewardship campaigns, in two consecutive years (trading leadership so each one had a year at the helm).  One year the theme of the campaign would be, “Bigger Needles!”  The next, the theme would be, “Smaller Camels!”

During the “Bigger Needles” year, they would have charts and graphs that show how you can maximize your tax benefits by giving more to the church.  During the “Smaller Camels” year they would teach, among other things, about the value of down-sizing for empty-nesters, and they would show that once you have finished paying your kids’ tuition, you can increase your pledge to the church without ever noticing, and still maximize your contributions to your 401(k)!

A seminary somewhere would pick up on the success of this stewardship outlook, and start to run a two-part seminar called Stewardship in a New Golden Age - Part I: Bigger Needles; Part II: Smaller Camels.  And a small religious publishing house would produce a little manual about stewardship for the well-to-do, written by our co-chairs, entitled, predictably enough, “Bigger Needles, Smaller Camels.”  For a few years, parishes all over the country would adopt this model.  The proceeds from the sale of the book would go to the diocesan offices; such is the generosity of the two authors.

Part of the beauty of the approach is how biblical it is!  It is based directly our Lord’s own teaching!  It’s not like this is some sort of “prosperity Gospel” which enriches the church and her clergy at the expense of the people of God.  No, our two stewardship chairmen made their money the old-fashioned way (whatever that is).  And they think you should be able to do the same, and still find a way to give something to the church.  And all you need are bigger needles and smaller camels if you want to do so with a clear conscience!

Two thoughts interrupt my reverie about the gentleman co-chairs of the Bigger Needles-Smaller Camels stewardship campaign.

The first is to notice that the only reason to be concerned with bigger needles and smaller camels is because somehow our two friends have decided that they are still interested in the kingdom of God.  Otherwise, why worry?

In this regard, our friends are notable, because it seems to me that many of us often lose sight of the kingdom of God - even those of us in the church, (maybe especially those of us in the church).  We get so caught up in the cares and occupations of the church and the world, that we forget that we are meant to be headed somewhere, toward a better country, a newer life, and a restoration of all that has been broken, warped, lost, or forgotten.  Call it redemption - this is the purpose of our fellowship with Christ - or more precisely, it is the purpose of Christ’s fellowship with us.  And the fulfillment of redemption leads us, we are promised, toward the kingdom of God.

The Christian life is always a pilgrimage.  Jesus is nearly always telling us to “go” and do something.  Salvation is always a process.  And no, we are not there yet.  Merely being interested in the journey to the kingdom of God is a distinction worthy of attention these days, I’d say.  And our two friends in the club chairs, comfortable though they may be, have not lost sight, it would seem, of the kingdom of God.  Good for them.

The second thing is the standard reminder, when approaching this little episode, that St. Mark provides an invaluable piece of information in relating this story to us, about why Jesus tells the rich man to sell what he has, give the money to the poor, and follow him.  We are told that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  It’s important to remember that the impossible advice that Jesus gives to the rich man is given to him in love.  The implication of this piece of information is that Jesus’ advice to the rich man is both good advice and profoundly true, since it is offered out of love.  Perhaps Jesus made a mistake when he gave such bold and clear direction to the man.  Unable to keep his love in check, did Jesus simply blurt out the truth, which would end up being advice that he should have known the man would never be able to accept?

The other followers who left everything behind to follow Jesus, appear not to have had much to leave anyway.  It was easier for them to drop their nets, I guess, because they didn’t have much to lose in the first place.  And the nets probably belonged to their fathers, anyway, not to them.

St. Mark tells us that the rich man “went away grieving.”  I assume that this emotional detail is an indication that the man understood that he was making a choice that might very well be the wrong one, but that it was a chance he simply could not allow himself to take - that following Jesus might be better than keeping all his possessions.  I guess I know how he feels; maybe you do too.

St. Mark does not tell us how Jesus felt when the rich man went away grieving.  But we can imagine that Jesus was hurt, and felt at least a little rejected, having spoken, as he did, out of love, without reservation or caution.  Maybe he felt foolish himself, for having reached out in love, only to see the man turn away in sadness and disappointment.  It would not be the last time Jesus found his love un-welcomed.

It is of course part and parcel of the message of this passage that for God all things are possible.  And so it would not be in the spirit of the text to suggest that bigger needles and smaller camels might not be the answer for some who are called to make their way to the kingdom of God.  It is possible that our two gentlemen are onto something.  But the clear implication of the passage is that most of us will be stuck with standard-sized needles, and inconveniently large camels, and that the progress of the rich toward the kingdom of God can be reasonably said to be impeded by all that we have in our possession.

There are parts of this city in which such an injunction about the rich would be silly in the extreme.  But we do not inhabit such a district.  And many of us, myself included, must be counted among the rich, even if we’re only moderately well to do.  If you doubt me on this, you need to get out more.

Reviewing the image of the two men in their comfy chairs, with their Scotch, I sense that Jesus sees them there.  And I believe, on the basis of the Scriptures, that looking at them, Jesus loves them (as he loves us too).  And although I had imagined that they would be the villains of this sermon, in the end, it turns out that our two friends are not villains; not least because of Jesus’ love for them.  But also because by the very nature of their conversation it is clear that they have not forgotten about the kingdom of God, have not given up on it, and have not finished scheming about ways to get there.  That’s a far cry from going away grieving.  And I imagine that looking at them, and loving them as he does, Jesus might well say something, like, “Keep trying, boys, keep trying.”

It’s what I hope he’s saying to me when I find it hard to do what I know he wants me to do; and when I find it hard to give what I know I want to give, but I want even more to keep for myself: “Keep trying, Sean, keep trying.”  

It’s what I hope is the message for all of us when we are tempted to think that what we really need is bigger needles or smaller camels, in order to work around the clear message of our Lord that what we really need to do is give more away.

Help us keep trying, Lord; help us keep trying.  Help us not to turn away grieving.  Help us not to try so hard to be first, if that means that we will be last in your kingdom.  And help us to give what we think we cannot give.  For us it mostly seems impossible, and maybe it is.  But not for you Lord; for God all things are possible.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
14 October 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 15, 2018 .