Ten Thousand Camels

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If you had a mischievous spirit about you, and you thought you detected a spirit of envy among some of your North American companions, you might ask them—at a nice restaurant over dinner, say, and with an innocent expression on your face—if they thought the government should confiscate half the income of the top one percent, in order to redistribute that money to the underprivileged.

The chances are pretty good that you might well get some takers—provided you were not raising the question at a dinner sponsored by some libertarians or something. These takers would be thinking that it would be entirely just to make these one percenters “pay their fair share.” And “about time” would be the general sentiment.

But according to recent comments from Jordan Peterson, the global line that sets apart the 1% is an annual income of $32K. If you make more than that, you are in the top percentage point. Taking away half of that would be $16K, and I am quite sure the globally impoverished would be very grateful for your contribution.

However, the chances are also good that your companions went white in the face upon discovering that they were in the 1%. This is because global justice feels a lot more wholesome when you are ransacking the billionaires, instead of the sensations you experience when you are being ransacked.

And so this means that we need to have a meaningful discussion of what it means to have wealth. What is it? It is not money, because money is simply a measuring stick for something else. You can’t eat your money, and it won’t keep the rain off. You might be like that marooned pirate Ben Gunn from Treasure Island, and have all the gold coins you could ever dream of, and still not be wealthy.

To do this right, we must carefully distinguish absolute poverty from relative poverty. Absolute poverty refers to the condition of someone living in a cardboard box under a train trestle, and who is going to die later this week because he has no food, or perhaps no medicine.

Relative poverty is different. Someone is relatively poor when they have everything they need, but it is not as nice, or as big, or as fast, or as shiny, as what the swells on the other side of town have. He has two cars, but they are both five years old. He owns his own house, but it doesn’t have as many square feet as he would like. His wife shops at CostCo, and feels like she has to clip coupons for other places, and they sometimes have to raid their savings account to pay their taxes. This person’s financial hardships are relative. They make sense when you compare them to the people who have no such troubles. They haven’t upgraded their smart phones in years.

So actual wealth is a function of your standard of living. This refers to the quantity and quality of your food, the availability and quality of your health care, and so on. What this means is that the class we earlier called the absolute poor is a class that would better be called simply poor. And the relatively poor are actually on a sliding scale of wealth. They are not as wealthy as some others, but they are not poor. They are not poor because they have food, they have medicine, they have transportation, and so on—but it is just not as nice as what some others have. What they don’t have is vacations in Cancun.

I mention all these things because I believe it is a framework that Jesus assumes in a very famous passage. And quite remarkably, it is a famous passage that very few connect to the passage that immediately follows it.

“And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! 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. And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible. Then Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee. And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last first.”

Mark 10:23–31 (KJV)

Jesus had just disappointed the rich young ruler, who went away sad. Not to get distracted from our point or anything, but I believe that this rich young ruler to have been John Mark, the author of this particular gospel. Mark’s gospel is the only one that adds the detail that Jesus looked at him and loved him. We know that Mark was wealthy from the fact that the disciples were able to gather at his house in Jerusalem, which had to be big enough to house them, and a house slave named Rhoda was the one who went to the gate to respond to Peter’s knocking. I could also mention that I think he was the young man who fled naked from the scene of the Lord’s arrest (Mark 14:52), but if I brought that up, then we really would be getting distracted. The point is that the Lord had given him a high challenge that he could not meet, that of giving away his wealth, and so he went away grieved and despondent.

This introduces a most interesting stretch of the Lord’s teaching, one that we unfortunately interrupt part way through. Jesus looked around and said how difficult it was for people with riches to enter the kingdom of God (v. 23). The disciples were astonished at this (v. 24) because the Pharisaical movement was made up of merchants who had made their pile, and who could consequently retire to a life of religious devotion. The rigors that their sect required were a luxury that few working Israelites could afford to do, and if you assumed that their practices were true devotion and most necessary, then if they could not be saved . . . who could be? In response to their astonishment, the Lord simply repeated Himself, but with a slight variation. The first time He had said that it was really difficult for those who have riches to enter the kingdom. This second time He said how hard it was for those who trust in their riches to enter the kingdom. Keep your eye on that.

He then uses His famous illustration. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven (v. 25). This simply stupefied the disciples. Who then can be saved (v. 26)? The Lord answers them that while this is impossible for men, it is not impossible for God. God is so powerful that He can even save a rich man (v. 27). Whoa.

Now this, unfortunately, is where we all close the door on a challenging and edifying pericope, resolving to be less attached to our worldly possessions. And this can be edifying, as far as it goes, but the passage continues merrily on.

The rich young ruler was told to give it all away. Zaccheus had salvation come to his house, and he only gave half away (Luke 19:8). It is apparent that we are dealing with human hearts here, and not simply doing math. In this place, Peter points out that they, the disciples, had done exactly what Jesus had just told the rich young ruler to do (v. 28). They had given up everything in order to follow Him.

So watch this closely. Jesus therefore assures them that everyone who has left behind houses, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, children, or lands for the sake of Christ and the gospel is going to receive a blessing (v. 29). What kind of blessing? The Lord begins by saying that it is going to be a hundredfold blessing, and a hundredfold blessing in kind. The Lord says that such disciples are going to receive in this life . . . what? Houses, and lands, and children, and mothers, along with the addition of persecutions (v. 30). He also says that these believers will receive eternal life in the world to come (v. 30).

This second time through He doesn’t mention fathers, and He doesn’t mention wives, but I don’t take this as excluding them the second time around. Rather it is the Lord giving us a representative sampling both times. For example, neither list mentions rental properties, but there is no reason to leave them out if we are trusting the Lord in the midst of a persecution that is attacking our rental properties. He then concludes the whole thing by saying that the first will be last, and the last first (v. 31).

Now Mark tells us that the Lord’s disciples were astonished “out of measure” when they heard His teaching, which is something that also describes me somewhat when I first realized what the Lord was actually promising here.

When the Lord says here that the Lord can do the impossible and even save a rich man, we naturally (deep down in our parsimonious souls) assume that the Lord will undoubtedly do this great miracle every seventh leap year during the blue moon. He can do the marvelous thing, but of course He always wants to save His energy.

But what the Lord promises to do here is create a caravan of camels to parade through the needle’s eye. How many camels? Ten thousand camels, laden with gold, silver, spices, fabrics, and other treasures from the land of Ophir. Whatever riches Peter had are to be multipled a hundred fold. Say that when Peter first followed the Lord, he was walking away from one camel load. So a hundred camels for Peter. On to Andrew.

And also on to the millions who have believed in accordance with the gospel. There must be a repentance—unto death—that demonstrates that we not trusting in our riches, and when that happens, the Lord in His goodness reveals what He can do with camels and needles. More than that, He shows what He can do with ten thousand camels and one needle. Just watch.

You say that this teaching reminds you of those health and wealth guys? Not a bit of it. This is not blab it/grab it. These are Deuteronomic blessings. Not health and wealth at all. This is death and wealth.