Friday, May 02, 2014

The Camel through the Eye of a Needle

Paul Piff, social psychologist has studied how wealth affects attitudes and behaviour. His empirical studies has uncovered that the wealthy are more prone to corruption and very poor in giving. They tend to be more likely to be law-breakers than those who are poorer than them! However, he says that these can be improved, though he doesn’t tell us how. There are exceptions to this rule certainly. The exceptions comes to us in the form of Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates and Narayana Murthi (Infosys) and many others who though rich are engaged in commendable service to humanity and liberal in their giving.
I think Paul Piff, has provided a modern scientific commentary to what Jesus said in the first century: ‘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’ (Mark 10:25). He meant ‘eye of the needle’ literally. It is not a small gate in the city of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time as some interpreters think. There was no such gate! ‘Eye of the needle’ is a hyperbole used to illustrate the near impossibility of the rich making progress in their spiritual progress.
The story of the rich man who approached Jesus is a good illustration. This man (young and rich) approached Jesus to find out how to enter ‘eternal life’ (Mark 10:17-31). This man obviously had the hunger to grow spiritually. He knew that there is something more than what he know and he practice to spirituality. It is this realization of lack that made him come to Jesus ‘running’ and ‘kneel’ before him. In addressing Jesus as ‘good teacher’ he also expressed his confidence that Jesus has the right advice and he is eager to know it.
The conversation  between him and Jesus reveals that he has achieved good spiritual progress already. Jesus prescribed to him six out of the ten commandments that has to do with human relationships and wealth (Mark 10:19). However, Jesus slightly modified one which originally said, ‘do not covet’ to ‘do not defraud.’ Defrauding goes a step further than covetousness or that is where covetousness leads a person to. In response to Jesus he claimed that he has been following these ‘from his youth’ (Mark 10:20). That means ever since he became morally responsible for his actions. (A Jewish male is considered to be morally responsible for his actions when he turns sixteen. He is then accountable to God and the society for his actions.) Jesus was very impressed by his spirituality, that is why Jesus ‘looked at him and loved him’ (Mark 10:21).
He is indeed a righteous rich person by the standards of his society and the religion he followed. By declaring that he has been observing all these rules, he claims that he has become wealthy in the right way. He hasn’t become rich at the expense of others. This is almost equivalent to any claim religious people make our days too. They haven’t accepted or given bribes to become rich, they haven’t exploited anyone, or have never made through illegal means. All that they have is made through right and justifiable means.
But Jesus’ response to him was shocking: ‘you lack one thing!’ (Mark 10:21). What is that one thing that the rich lack? Jesus did not make it clear when he said: ‘go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.’ Jesus was not asking to make a donation or to be regular with his tithes. His demand was to give away all that he has. It is shocking because Jesus was not against wealth or the wealthy. Jesus did not demand anyone other than this man to sell all that he had. If they left anything that was on their own, not because Jesus forced them to. The disciples left their nets, boats, taxbooths at their own will. Zachaeus offered to give away the wealth that he gathered through illegal means and share his legitimate wealth with the poor without any insistence from Jesus. Jesus certainly had many rich friends and disciples. Some of them were so rich to throw parties and Jesus accepted their hospitality to be labelled ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Mat 11:19) by his opponents. This peculiar demand was to illustrate to his disciples that the wealthy preferred their wealth if they had to make a choice between wealth and spirituality. As he expected, the rich man walked away: ‘Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions’ (Mark 10:22).
Jesus made two powerful statements through this confrontation with the rich man. First, even the  most perfect man by any standards have still room to grow spiritually. Second, wealth is the most important thing for the rich people. It is so important for them that even higher goals of life like growing spiritually takes a backseat. That means it is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than expecting the rich to make spiritual progress.
What is wrong with money then? Does this mean that one has to become poor in order to grow spiritually? Not at all! We have already seen that Jesus did not demand asceticism from his followers. The danger of wealth is that it demands worship from us. That is why Jesus qualified wealth as ‘mamon’ the name of an Aramaic deity. That is why Jesus said that noone can ‘serve’ God and ‘mamon’ at the same time (Matthew 6:24). ‘Serve’ means to worship. It competes with God for its place in human life and we are prone to yield to wealth than to God when a choice has to be made.
Paul Piff’s research tells us that the problem with the wealthy is the sense of entitlement that they have. ‘Entitlement’ is that notion or belief that all that one has belong to him (her) and he (she) has right to it. He has found out that even those who didn’t make their wealth but got it through inheritance could have this sense of ‘entitlement.’ This makes them poor givers because they want to hold on to what they are ‘entitled’ to. This also make them make more money any way they could. Paul Piff through his scientific studies which the great Teacher had already stated and proved through the conversation with this rich man: ‘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’ (Mark 10:25).

God is still good when things are bad

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