Today from the book of Job we hear of the rich man, Job’s lament as he sits in pain, having lost everything he ever held dear in his life . . his family, his home, his wealth and his health and finally, his God in whom he trusts . . . all of them gone because of a test between God and Satan to see if Job would give up on God and curse him to his face if faced with hardship and loss. And finally Job laments the loss of fellowship with God in whom he trusted saying . . .
“If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!”
How different these verses are compared to the verses given to us in St. Patrick’s Breastplate of a man so enveloped by God’s mercy that he cannot contain himself as we read . . .
Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
And so in these two writings we see in one, the rich man Job, at his very lowest point in his life when he feels abandoned by God and then we see another man, Patrick at the very high point of his life when he feels the utter envelopment of God in Christ round about him.
These two men, both believers, show us how important it is to stay the course in terrible adversity. We all know the story of Job of course . . . a rich and blessed man tested by Satan to lose everything only to be eventually restored tenfold on a dare that God himself designs for him. But what about Saint Patrick? What’s his story? We know about the snakes in Ireland, but do we really know the story of the man Patrick?
Several months ago we celebrated Saint Patrick in our monthly newsletter. At the time I may have mentioned that Patrick was born in Roman Britain. Calpurnius, his father, was a deacon, his grandfather Potitus a priest. Patrick, however, like many ‘PKs’ (priest kids) was not an active believer. According to the Confession of St. Patrick, at the age of just sixteen Patrick was captured by a group of Irish pirates. The raiders brought Patrick to Ireland where he was enslaved and held captive for six years. Patrick wrote in his Confession that the time he spent in captivity was actually critical to his spiritual development. He explained that the Lord had mercy on his youth and his ignorance, and afforded him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and he converted to Christianity. While in captivity as a slave, Saint Patrick worked as a shepherd and strengthened his relationship with God through prayer, eventually leading him to convert to Christianity.
After six years of captivity he heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home, and then that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he traveled to a port, two hundred miles away, where he found a ship and with some difficulty persuaded the captain to take him. After three days sailing they landed, in Britain, and apparently all left the ship, walking for 28 days in a “wilderness”, becoming faint from hunger before encountering a herd of wild boar; since this was shortly after Patrick had urged the men with him to put their faith in God, the men became quite impressed that this God whom Patrick proclaimed would save them from starvation in such a miraculous way..
Acting on another vision, Patrick returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary. Tradition has it that St Patrick was not welcomed by the locals and was forced to leave to seek a more welcoming landing place. Patrick eventually became a deacon in the church, then a priest and finally was made the Bishop of Ireland. Here was a man, a slave, who started with less than nothing, overcame all obstacles and was rewarded with everything because God was with him.
Then there is Psalm 22 which may seem familiar to you because we say it every Good Friday. It is the prayer and prophetic vision of a man dying on a cross. A man somehow abandoned by God and a man who has lost everything for the sake of those who stand taunting and mocking him all around him. It is of course the prophetic vision of Jesus, a king who came to earth willingly . . . leaving his glory behind him to become the slave and servant of all . . . and for what reason you might ask? Jesus came to set men free from the slavery of sin in which they find themselves. By giving up his glory, Jesus shows us what we must also do in order to inherit eternal life – that is by giving up ourselves to his service and by walking in holiness all the days of our lives – by picking up our own cross and following him.
And although Pslam 22 begins with a man’s utter abandonment of God, it ends in a song of victory – for it ends like this . . .
I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you[f] I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
So here in this Psalm is a story of one who losses everything only to be paid back for his faith not just ten fold, or a hundred fold but a thousand -thousand fold for what he has done for the Father in faith.
So it is within the backdrop of these stories that our Gospel is proclaimed to us today of a rich young ruler who is decidedly welcomed in the eyes of Jesus because he has done everything according to the law and is innocent in his eyes . . . but Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
The meaning of this saying by Jesus . . . about a camel going through the eye needle, has over the years, been taught in many different ways. For several hundred years there has been an accepted teaching that there was in Jerusalem a man gate called the eye of a needle, a gate where a camel could not pass through fully loaded with goods . . . but this may or may not be true since it was written in a book and accepted as fact only from the 9th century.
It is far more believable that Jesus here was using an exaggeration, an hyperbole, to make a point . . . a way of talking that many Hebrew scholars used in those days using certain sayings popular at the time.
Ancient Jewish writings use the “eye of the needle” as a picture of a very small place as in the saying “A needle’s eye is not too narrow for two friends, but the world is not wide enough for two enemies.” The ludicrous contrast between the small size of the needle’s eye and the largest indigenous animal in Israel is truly meant by Jesus to illustrate its very improbability.
Jesus’ hearers believed that wealth and prosperity were a sign of God’s blessing (cf. Leviticus and Deuteronomy). So their incredulity is more along the lines that, “if the rich, who must be seen as righteous by God by dint of their evident blessing, can’t be saved, then who can be?” Later, Christians turned this around to portray wealth as a hindrance to salvation . . . which it can be – but no more so than many other things, when the message is actually that salvation is in fact, impossible for all men (rich or poor) for it comes from God alone. But, Jesus goes on to say that things beyond the impossible are truly possible with God for, elsewhere, a Jewish midrash records:
“The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and camels”
In other words God only needs a sinner to open up just a crack for him and God will come pouring in and set up room for an oasis. God only needs a ‘foot in the door’, so to speak or faith the grain of a mustard seed to grow . . . and that is really the message that Jesus was trying to impart.
All of us, whether rich or poor, young or old, good or bad have fallen short of the glory of God. None of us are saved by good works or by what we have done or have not done in this life. Salvation comes to us all only as a gift . . a free gift that is bestowed on the undeserving through faith in the blood that Jesus sacrificed for us all on the cross at Calvary. You and I are made whole only through faith in that sacrifice and in our acceptance that everything we have is not really ours at all, but belongs to the God who saved us. When you eventually come to realize that you are only the caretakers of the things you have . . . whether it be your house, your job, your family, your body or your life you will have grown into the full knowledge of what God means for you in this life and willingly and with gladness be able, to give up any of these things to become one with God as the Lord of your life. Amen