The Antidote to Arrogance

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Today’s scripture passage is a famous one, and not everyone’s favourite. Jesus appears to be telling the rich that they will have a very hard time getting eternal life, as hard as it is for a camel to get through the eye of a sewing needle. The rich man goes away disappointed, and many other rich people in the centuries since have gone away frustrated by this passage, too. Society sees wealthy people as the pinnacle of human achievement, how can Jesus see them as doomed?  

That idea led many early Christians to believe that wealth was something to be discarded at all costs. And they told stories about it to push the point home. One of them involved the apostle, Thomas. He’s the one who famously stuck his fingers into the side of the resurrected Jesus. Legend has it that Thomas moved to India a few years later. Here he earned a reputation for being a master builder and architect. One day, a king asked him to build him a new palace. Thomas named his price to build the new castle and asked for the money upfront. Then he wandered off and spent it. But the king soon began to hear rumours that Thomas wasn’t hiring work men or buying stones and mortar. Instead, he was giving away the entire budget to the poor. Incensed, the King sent orders for Thomas to return to the king. So, Thomas appears and is asked why he is giving the money away to the poor. Doesn’t he know that he was supposed to spend the money on building the king’s palace?    

Thomas replies that he has been building the king’s palace. With every poor person the king’s money has helped, another brick has been placed in a palace in heaven where the generous king will live after he dies. As you can imagine, the king is incensed, and he orders Thomas to be killed. But just before the execution can take place, the king’s brother dies. He goes to heaven, and he sees all the marvels there, including the king’s palace which Thomas has been building. He asks the angels if he can live there. They tell him it must sit empty until the king buys it, for he has lost access to it when he ordered the death of Thomas. The brother asks for permission to go back to Earth to warn the king. The angels allow this. The brother’s body comes back to life, and tells the king that Thomas was telling the truth. The king is astounded and repents. He rescinds the order against Thomas and converts to Christianity. He will be allowed into his heavenly palace after all.[1]  

Now, this, of course, is a legend. But, in real life, many early Christians were convinced that keeping one’s wealth could endanger a person’s eternal soul. In the 300s, when Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman empire, it suddenly became fashionable to become a Christian. A way to climb the social ladder. This disgusted many pious Christians, so they sold everything they had and became hermits and monks in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. They lived with very few possessions and spent most of their time praying. These people are remembered as the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  

But they soon have problems. Many of these men and women owned little more than the clothes on their backs, a mat to lie on, and a few utensils. But the urge to possess things and take pride in them persisted. The monks would argue over who had the best comb, or whose Bible was nicer. They realized that the problem was not the stuff, but how we feel about the things we own. Greed, pride, and arrogance could all be found even in a desert hut with virtually no possessions at all. What mattered most was not what lay inside your hut, but what lay inside your heart. [2]  

So, Let’s go back to Christ’s dialogue with the rich man. He shows up, and the first sentence out of his mouth is “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone.”  The New Testament chooses its words very carefully. Its wisdom is concentrated, more like a good glass of port, than of wine. So, each word has been picked with care. The rich man asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. When we speak about inheriting wealth, we usually mean wealth which we are already entitled to. The person begging for change on the street does not expect to inherit the wealth of the rich family living on the Bridle Path. We inherit wealth that we are already in line for, usually through family ties. So, when the rich man asks how can he inherit eternal life, he is saying, how do I get what I am already expecting to receive? He doesn’t ask how I earn eternal life, or how do I find eternal life. Instead, he asks, how do I inherit it.  

There’s a degree of arrogant presumption there. That arrogance is underlined by how he reacts when he is told he should sell all his wealth to follow Jesus. He doesn’t react with joy. And he should, since he has been told how to receive the greatest prize of all, eternal life. There isn’t any investment advice better than this. He could be killed by a disease next month, and what good would his wealth do him then? Eternal life is the greatest prize of all. But, when Jesus tells him to sell it all, he leaves disappointed. Disappointed over what? That he could get eternal life? No, it appears he is disappointed because he cannot get eternal life on his own terms. He assumed he was already going there, and he doesn’t want to change his life.  

Jesus can see right through this guy. The first thing he says to Jesus is “Good Teacher”, and Jesus corrects him right away. Why do you call me good? No one is good but God. Lesson one: humility. If Jesus can be humble before God the Father, this wealthy man needs some humility too. But he doesn’t get it. When Jesus lists the commandments, he should be obeying, the man says he’s been doing all of these since he was young. Hmm. How many of you can claim you have behaved perfectly since you were young? Kids often break rules just to prove they can – shoplifting on a dare, lies big and small to parents so you can go somewhere you shouldn’t. A concert, or a bar. Honouring our parents consistently is a pretty tall order, too. How many of us get all the way through our teenage years without ever saying something to our parents we know was disrespectful? In the Hebrew Scriptures, which this Jewish man would have known, there are several psalms where people ask for forgiveness for the sins of our impetuous youth. [3] The psalms also ask for forgiveness for sins committed unknowingly[4] – things you said you thought were true, but which were false, things you took you thought were yours, but weren’t. No one is a perfect judge of their own actions. The pious life comes with a degree of uncertainty, humility is needed because none of us can see ourselves objectively.  

But not for this rich man. He expects to inherit eternal life. He’s certain he’s been obedient his entire life. So, Jesus, seeing that his attachment to his wealth has made him arrogant, decides to do him a favour. With love, He says that if you really want eternal life, Jesus says, go sell all your goods and follow me. But that is a step this arrogant, proud man does not want to take. He’s attached to his wealth and his sense of entitlement, and he doesn’t want to give them up. So, he walks away, disappointed.  

Many people have heard this story and feared that it means that no rich people can be granted eternal life. That seems unlikely. There are lots of rich people associated with the Jesus during his ministry. Many are women. The woman who has been haemorrhaging for 12 years has spent her money on doctors[5], who are not cheap; Mary, sister of Lazarus, brings expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet; Judas criticizes her for spending so much money which could have been given to the poor. Yet, Jesus defends her. [6] One follower is Joanna, the wife of King Herold’s business manager[7]. Jesus doesn’t tell any of these people to sell their goods.  

So, what does Jesus mean when He says that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for the rich to get into heaven? Jesus is pointing out that wealth often leads to arrogance. People assume they can buy their way into heaven. When the disciples hear this, they are shocked. They assumed, like everyone else, that being wealthy meant having God’s favour. Who can be saved if not the rich? Jesus replies that for humans it is impossible, but nothing is impossible for God.   That begs the question - what’s the impossible thing God can do? Help rich people get into heaven, to get through that eye of the needle. But they can’t fit as long as they are arrogant. They need an antidote. They need to stop thinking they can get eternal life by what they do. Instead, they need to have a change of mind, and realize that it’s not what they do that counts, but what God does.  

This reading falls on Thanksgiving weekend. A time when we are all supposed to feel grateful. As I explained during children’s time, thanksgiving used to bounce around the calendar. A day of thanksgiving would be declared in reaction to the end of a war, or the end of an epidemic. Maybe we should declare one next year when the pandemic ends. That approach of spontaneous thanksgiving days made a lot of sense. You can’t really plan to be genuinely grateful. It’s like being told to fall in love on time. If you are genuinely thankful that God has given you something, you are grateful at that moment, you don’t want to put it off for later.   

Gratitude is the antidote to arrogance. Arrogance assumes that we know what we are owed, we know what we should inherit. We know what we are worth, and we can take credit for that. But gratitude is based on the humble realization that we have received gifts that we do not deserve. Gratitude is related to mindfulness, where you simply appreciate things for what they are, and take no credit for them. When people are asked what they are grateful for, they usually list family, friends, pets, and their health. We can do things to maintain our relationships, but ultimately, the friends and family who matter are the ones who love us even when we can’t always measure up. They love us faults and all, not because we have engineered a perfect façade.  

It’s interesting that when Jesus acknowledges that his disciples have given up everything for him, he tells them that they are now rich in relationships. He tells them that they will have far more friends and houses by following Jesus than they would have had if they stayed home. He doesn’t mean that they will get materially rich. Instead, he predicts that they will be welcome in homes all over the land, and that they will have friends, new brothers, and sisters in faith, everywhere, and that came true. Their worldly wealth will be measured in love and hospitality. It is when they give up on arrogance and pride and embrace gratitude and humility that doors open.  

The spiritual life is like winning an academy award. When we consider how we got to this moment, we should be like one of those actors who pulls out a piece of crumpled paper and starts thanking everyone who helped them get the award. They know that didn’t do this on their own. They thank their agent, their production company, the studio, their parents, sometimes a teacher who inspired them in high school. They often cry thinking of all the people who helped them get to this moment. Every day is our time at that podium. Gratitude is the antidote to arrogance. Giving thanks is a way of humbly acknowledging an inheritance that we do not deserve, but which we receive from God anyway. Friends and family who love us despite our faults. A roof over our heads, food on the table when many people lack both.  

If we can realize daily that we have inherited so much, then arrogance will melt away, and with it, we will shrink small enough to fit through that eye of the needle. For with God, all things are possible.  


[1]   [2] John Cassian The Conferences, First Conference VI:1; fourth Conference 21:4. [3] Psalm 25. [4] Psalm 19 [5] Mark 5:24-26. [6] John 12:1-8. [7]Luke 8: 1-3