Recently I found myself in a familiar story in Scripture. The story of the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18. It is one I know well.
A man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him, “Follow the commandments.” The man’s response, “Yep, got that down!” Then Jesus throws him a curve ball. “There is one more thing. Sell all you have and follow me.” The man is surprised. And his surprise turns to sadness. He has lots of money and wasn’t expecting that response from Jesus.
Then Jesus says these well-known words, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
Kind of a depressing story really, especially if you stop here. No real redemption. A harsh statement about wealth.
But as I read the story in the Message, it took on a new light for me.
When Jesus heard that, he said, “Then there’s only one thing left to do: Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor. You will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow me.” This was the last thing the official expected to hear. He was very rich and became terribly sad. He was holding on tight to a lot of things and not about to let them go.
It was this last line, verse 23, that grabbed me… “He was holding on tight to a lot of things and not about to let them go.” Maybe this story isn’t simply about how difficult salvation is for the wealthy, or the evils of wealth. Maybe it isn’t about wealth at all.
Maybe this story is about the continual conversation of the heart that Jesus constantly invites us to. Maybe it is about the things we hold most dear, the things we are holding on tight to, the things that we struggle to let go of, that Jesus wants to name in our lives. That I can relate to.
As I read verse 23, I thought, that is how I feel! Stuck! “Holding on tight to many things and not able to let go.” I feel particularly stuck on a few things in life right now I simply don’t know how to let go of. And it seems the deeper I go in my walk with Jesus, God surprises me with revealing parts of my heart that cling to expectations, aspects of the life I thought I would have, hopes, which God is saying… give me that too. Jesus knew what the rich man valued most, to the point that it held a competing alligiance to Jesus himself. And what Jesus wants is to have our hearts fully.
Just like the rich man, Jesus knows the things we hold on tight to… the things that have a grip on our heart. He knows what is getting between us and full surrender to him.
But here’s the thing, I don’t think, in saying to the rich man “Sell all your things,” Jesus was trying to shut him down. Nor was he sending the rich man off on his own to work on it. I think Jesus was inviting him to a deeper conversation, an honest one. Having laid his finger on the one thing between this rich man and his being able to follow Jesus fully, Jesus was inviting him to feel his sadness over this request for the one thing that mattered most to him, and then say, “I don’t know how to do it. Help me.”
You see, because Jesus makes it clear it is impossible for this man to do what Jesus has requested of him on his own.
Seeing his reaction, Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who have it all to enter God’s kingdom? I’d say it’s easier to thread a camel through a needle’s eye than get a rich person into God’s kingdom.”
The point is not that Jesus thinks we can try to thread a camel through a needle’s eye, that we can untangle our hearts from the things that hold a grip on them. The point of that metaphor is, we can’t do it!
His disciples get it, saying “Then who has any chance at all?”
And here is Jesus’ point:
“No chance at all,” Jesus said, “if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you trust God to do it.”
We have no chance at all to untangle our hearts from the things we hold most dear, from the things that feel so painful to let go of. You name it… regret, destructive patterns of thought that keep you in a cycle of self-condemnation and depression, addiction, security, a vision of your life you have held more deeply than you realized, maybe it is wealth. You see at some point, Jesus is going to ask for the things most dear to you, not because he is mean but because he wants nothing between you and him. He wants all of you.
But here is the hope of this passage… he doesn’t expect you to do it. You have no chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself! But we have every chance in the world if we trust God to do it!
What Jesus is inviting us to here is a radical trust, a leaning in to the God who is able to do it for us. What Jesus is pointing us to is God’s willingness and ability beyond comparison to help us surrender more fully to himself. God’s willingness, not our will. God’s ability, not our effort.
So what do we do when Jesus says, “There is one thing left to do…” and he points to the thing in our hearts that feels impossible to let go of? We say, “Lord, I can’t give you that… on my own. Help me. Do in me what I cannot do on my own.”
It is then that Jesus begins to do the impossible… he begins to thread a camel through a needle’s eye, right before our eyes.