Detachment and the Eye of the Needle
Sermon preached on Sunday, November 24, 2013 by Fr. Antony Hughes
Transcript of Given Sermon:
Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory Forever!
Jesus replies to the rich man's greeting, "Why do you call me good? Only God is good." The Father is good. It's a complex reply. Jesus is right of course. Only God the Father is good because He is the source of all goodness. That's the point. All goodness is from God. But Jesus shares in His goodness, does he not? because he is the Son of God. So Jesus is also good by His essence.
We who were created by God share in his goodness too, because we were made in His image. So we too are good by the act of creation. God is the source of all goodness, and everything that is created shared in His goodness. It's all called good by him in Genesis on the sixth day of creation when He created men and women, He called it very good!
So Jesus must have something else in mind when he said this, and i think it is this. Not just that God the father was the source of all goodness, but that the rich man unfortunately thought he might be the source of goodness. He was a righteous man, you know, righteous people get to be prideful people, and he's very prideful. Not only is he rich but he's prideful: he said he has kept all the commandments. So he thinks in himself that he also is good. Jesus wants him to know that that's not the way it works.
God is good and if we're good it's because we share in His goodness. And goodness is characterized by certain things one of them is humility which the rich man evidently does not have. God has it in spades. God is the humblest of all. Jesus is the humblest of all. If we don't look deeper into the scripture, into the Lord's words, we will miss the point.
But why does he begin his provocative dialogue with Jesus this way? It is to wake this man up, to make him rethink his presuppositions and by extension to wake us up too to make us re-think our presuppositions to take us all deeper into the mystery. "It is the ultimate purpose of God," Meister Eckhart writes, "for his son to be born in us and everything that Jesus does and everything that happens in life by the grace and goodness of God happens in order to bring the Son of God to birth in us." Everything!
Jesus is the door and he's opening the door today for the rich man. He is the light, and he's shining light on the darkness. He is the truth, and he's telling him the truth and he wants to be born in his life. He wants to wake him up. The Lord's teaching through parables and metaphors is his how he does it. It is how he awakens the true self in us. The soul, the heart. He does not lay down the law like Moses.
He is the bringer of grace and truth. He invites us to share in his compassion. He invites us to explore our deepest selves. He invites us to become new. He inspires, he enlightens, he awakens. He asks us to turn our gaze from what is outside of us to what is inside of us. He does not force the issue. There is no coercion in God. How do we know this?
At the end of the reading, Jesus lets him go. Love lets come and lets lets go. That is perfect love. The beginning of love, Thomas Merton writes, is to let those we love to be perfectly themselves and not to twist them to fit our own image, otherwise, he continues, we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them. Jesus does not try to change or manipulate the rich man. He invites him to change his mind. Absolute freedom characterizes all truly loving encounters. It is the essence of true love and the true lover. These are the characteristics: openness, humility, vulnerability, emptiness, and courage, and the Lord Jesus is all those things.
So the rich man is free to walk in, and to walk out. But the Lord continues to contribute to our enlightenment with the use of another metaphor. Riches was the first metaphor. Riches is anything we attach ourselves to and believe gives us security in life.
The other metaphor is this one: the eye of the needle. People like to explain this one a thousand different ways, but I think they got it wrong. The eye of the needle is detachment. How could the rich man enter the Kingdom of Heaven by detaching from his attachment to himself and to his riches.
Where your heart is, Jesus says, there is your treasure his heart was in his wealth. It was his idol, the thing to which he felt inextricably attached. What do you feel inextricably attached to? That's your idol. That's what you have to let go of to go through the eye of the needle. That's what you have to detach from to enter the kingdom of heaven. The metaphor of the eye of the needle represents the door to the kingdom within.
Saint Teresa of Avila writes that it is foolish to think we will ever enter heaven without first entering into ourselves because the rich man is wholly consumed and focus on things outside himself he could not enter heaven. He could not have passed through the eye of a needle if he could even have found it because he was blinded to his own needs. Blind to his attachments. Blind to his need for God. Only the humble, the vulnerable, and the brokenhearted can see the eye of the needle and pass through it.
Jesus tried to tease him away from this outward gaze to an inward gaze so he could find the eye of the needle. Jesus did not fully succeed, as you see. The rich man was not ready for this message. He went away sad, so the message found its mark. Jesus found a chink in his armor.
Unfortunately, like him we are so often so well defended and we don't see the chink in our own armor. Jesus was inviting the rich man to empty himself of himself. That is what we must do if we are to progress towards the kingdom within. It is not an easy task. It is painful most of the time but absolutely necessary, and God, be sure, will contribute everything he can to help us do this difficult thing.
The source of life, my brothers and sisters, is not in our attachments or in our self definitions. Life, just like goodness, comes only from God. Our identity, like goodness, comes only from God. The door is not outside of us; it is inside of us. The very place where the treasure - the real treasure - is hidden, we have been taught not to look. We too must pass through the eye of the needle to find it.
So the rich man walks away, and most of the time, we do too when we're invited by the Lord to detach from all our worldly cares. The eye of the needle is a risky path. It takes extreme courage because what we leave behind when we enter it must be left behind as we exit it. It cannot be dragged through with us or behind us. To enter the eye of the needle is to become something new, something different, something true. It is to be reborn, and rewired. It is to become selfless and therefore truly human. It is freedom from attachments. It is emptiness.
It is to be like God.
So, first we must admit we're not who we think we are. We are certainly not who we have made ourselves appear to be. We are something far greater than that.
In the name of the father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.