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I know it is a silly question. Everybody wants to go to heaven. But have you ever asked yourself why do you want to go to heaven? I always laughed whenever I remember this anecdote. There was one time a man passed away and arrived at the gate of heaven (as all other heavenly anecdote starts with). It turned out that St. Peter allowed him to go to heaven. But before he went in, Satan offered him a detour to hell. So out of curiosity, he asked St. Peter permission to go to hell for a while, he always wanted to see how hell looks like. And he went with Satan to hell. To his surprise, hell was not as bad as he thought. The place was so pleasant, and everyone looks happy. He could do what he wanted to do, and there he could find what he liked most on earth. They were so happy and that made him surprised. At the end of the detour, Satan asked whether he would change his mind. So after some thought, thinking how wonderful hell is, he decided to go to hell instead. Of course St. Peter was surprised and Satan was really happy. And the man followed Satan back to hell. When he arrived at hell, he was even more surprised, now everything changed. It was so terrible and horrifying that he couldn’t stand it. There was no longer joy but sorrow and weeping. And the man asked Satan, “Why now hell is different with the one you showed me previously?”. And Satan answered with a smile, “Oh, we were having a promotion month when you came that time.”
So why do you want to go to heaven? This question bothers me also for quite some time, but now I have found my answer. Many of us want to go to heaven simply because we do not want to go to hell. Hell is punishment, hell is fire, hell is horrible. And we are afraid to go to hell. And that is why many of us choose heaven. But fear is not the right reason for us to go to heaven. Others choose to go to heaven because they believe it is there they will find what they like most, they will find joy and happiness. I remember watching Ice Age 2, the animation movie from Dreamworks, and how the squirel who has been looking for its chestnut found the BIGGEST chestnut ever in heaven, and there were a lot of chestnuts there to his satisfaction. Don’t we imagine heaven like that. We imagine heaven is doing what we like most for eternity, either that is playing video games or soccer, or simply reading books in tranquility. Or maybe we imagine heaven is like having our chestnut which we have been dreaming for.
I used to have that images of heaven also in my life. But thank to God, he has changed my understanding, and now I want to go to heaven more than ever! My reason to go to heaven is not because I fear hell (of course I fear hell, but that’s not my reason to go to heaven), or because in heaven I will be able to do what I like most or have what I like most. No no. My reason to go to heaven is simply because my God is in heaven. He is not in hell. Everytime we pray the Our Father prayer, we always say, “Our Father who art in heaven”. The reason for me to desire heaven is because the person that I love is in heaven. And I want to go to heaven to be with him always and never lose sight of him.
If you recall again the anecdote which I shared in the begining, I would still choose heaven even though after the detour to hell I see people there joy and can do what they like to do. I would still choose heaven even though in hell I could find what I thought life is supposed to be. Yes, I would still choose heaven because the one I love is not in anywhere else but in heaven.
Desire to heaven must come from a desire to be with this Other person. And that other person is none other than God. I think it is rather an irony when we hear people want to go to heaven and yet they do not “know” that Other person whom they will spend their lives with.
We thought we can gain heaven by serving in ministries, by doing this and that, by attending church, and yet in the midst of all those things, sometime we still do not have a relationship with God. What God desire is to have a relationship with us. And maybe that is why in the Gospel, the word that came strongly to those who are denied is… “I do not know you.”
And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‚”Lord, lord, open to us.‚” But he answered, ‚”Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.‚” Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
In another passage, we read
“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‚”Lord, open to us,” then he will answer you, ‚”I do not know where you come from.‚” Then you will begin to say, ‚”We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.‚” But he will say, ‚”I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!‚” Luke 13:24-27
In the first passage it speaks about the foolish virgin who is waiting for the bridegroom to come for a marriage feast, and they were caught unaware in waiting and the lamp dies. While they were away to get the oil for the lamp, the bridegroom arrived and they pleaded to enter also, but the Lord of the house answered them, “I do not know you”. Could it be that we are like these foolish virgins who are serving here and there and even in the Church, but then caught unaware by the words, “truly, I say to you, I do not know you”. Or could we be like the second passage who thought we know the Lord, who eat and drink with the Lord, and hear to his teaching, and yet received an answer, “I tell, I do not know where you come from.”?
Do we really know the Lord? In the bible the word “knowing” is not just gaining an intellectual knowledge. Knowing is much deeper than that. In Genesis 4:1 (RSV translation), it is written that
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‚”I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.‚”
Now if Adam knew Even is just about some intellectual knowledge, she should have concieved a book rather than a man. But the word “know” is such a strong word in the bible. It expresses a personal encounter and experience with the other person that it would concieve a new life. That should be our “knowing” experience also with God. When we say we know God, it must not come from a class or a book, but rather from a personal encounter, from an ongoing encounter with the living God. And this encounter should result in a new life just as Eve conceive a new life when she knew Adam.
This knowing God is a relationship that last forever, and maybe that is why Jesus says that Eternal Life is this:
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3
And this is eternal life, it is not a life doing simply what we want to do or simply having what we want to have. Eternal life is about an encounter with the only true God, and Jesus Christ. It is a relationship with that Other person. Eternal life is not alone or in solitary. Eternal life is communion.
Now we all desire heaven. But sometime we desire heaven without God as our companion. And sometime also we have shown it in our life here on earth. We will do our religious obligations and yet we hope that God will not penetrate more than what we have reserved for him in our lives. We want him as our helper but not as our Lord. We want him as our consoler but not as our Master. We want to hear his promises of blessing but refuse to hear his correction for our wrong lifestyle. In short we have made God as a slave for our happiness, and we want heaven for our selves. How can we enter heaven with all this self-centeredness?
And yet the Lord never gives up on us, just as he has shown in my life. In this life, I believe God brings all things for the good of those who love him. And that good is to be able to find him and love him, to know him, to have eternal life. How can we be amazed with the design of God in this life that leads all man to him? Take for example a marriage life. As the two individuals prepares for marriage life, the couple learns to leave their self-centredness and start living for the other. In marriage life, they vow to live for the other. And as they live for the other, and give themselves, they will bear fruit of new life, and children will come as a blessing. And they learn as a couple to live not only for themselves but also to live for the children, to make sacrifices for them. How beautiful it is. We are being guided to give ourselves for the other and to love others. And it is in this loving of others we will encounter God. We begin to understand the love of God in our lives who gives himself for us. We learnt what it means to love by forgiving and sacrificing ourselves. We see that in our family life, but we also see that on the Cross. We experience grace by grace to live not for ourselves but for the other. That at the end of the day, we are ready to live for that ultimate Other which is God. And without realizing it, we have entered heaven here on earth.
Sometimes it makes me sad to hear people see marriage as a burden, or even children as a burden. And the world is trying to show that self-indulgence is like heaven. How irony it is. It is like the man in the anecdote who follow the promotion month of Satan :p But life does not consist in satisfying our selfishness. Life consists in giving it out for others, and that ultimate Other is God. So are we ready to enter heaven? Are we ready to live the life of God? Have we known this God whom we want to live with? This is heaven and that is to be with the one we love. That is why I want heaven, because the one I love is in heaven. And this is why I am confident of entering heaven, because the one I love will not leave me behind. The one I love will not be able to forget about me. I will still be in His mind forever. He will reach out to me when I fall, and He will rescue me from anything that keeps me away from Him. Yes, and His love is stronger than death. I will hear his voice on that day of the resurrection, because I know Him and he knows me. I will arise at sound of His voice and answer Him because I belong to Him, he who is Love himself. Ah, I want to know Him more, to hear His voice more, to love Him more, my Lord, my God, my everything.
But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. John 10:2-4
I love provocative questions. Can the rich enter the kingdom of God? The question pop up as I came across the scripture text Mark 10:17-30. It is a story of young rich man who came to Jesus and asked him, what must he do to inherit eternal life. We all know the story, Jesus told him the commandments and the young man replied that he has done all these since his youth. And then Jesus told him,
“There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
We all are familiar with the response of the rich young man. He was sad and went away. And as if it is not enough, Jesus went on saying to the disciples,
“How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”
If you were like me, you might wonder what it means. And it seems that this was what happened with the disciples, it was written there that
“The disciples were astounded by these words, but Jesus insisted, ‘ my children,’ he said to them, ‘how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Jerusalem Bible translation)
Jesus words does not seem to calm the storm, but as if he fueled the fire with more oil, and I am not surprised to hear the response of the disciples,
“In that case, who can be saved?”
These words really made me wonder. Can the rich then enter the kingdom of God? It seems impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. How can this be? It is difficult teaching indeed.
I became aware of these verses few years back. It is not that before then I never knew about it. It is just I believe my life changes. I started to work, I began to plan for marriage, and I began to realize living indeed requires money to some extent. And maybe this causes the topic about money and wealth become more loud in my ears. So is it difficult to enter the kingdom of God if I were rich? This question started my journey to seek more of His Word and His truth.
One of the most intriguing words are the analogy of the eye of a needle. In my journey to understand these words, I have come across different interpretation, different school of thoughts as one might say it. Both seems to be from the biblical scholars. And yet, since I am no biblical scholar, I will not claim which of these are more correct. I guess the Catholic Church allows different interpretations as long as they do not contradict the teaching of the Church. At the end of the day, the Magisterium will have the last word for interpreting the scripture. In this article, I will simply share how I came to understand the meaning of this scripture text, especially on what the eye of a needle is all about.
Now, let me share a little bit of two school of thoughts that I am aware with. The first school of thought would simply say it is just impossible to enter the kingdom of God. It is hard as Jesus said, there is no ambiguity in these words. Hard to believe, and yet this is what is meant by Jesus. Full stop. The other school of thought gave an interesting, plausible alternative interpretation. Some scholars believe that there is this narrow gate in Jerusalem called the eye of a needle. And as camels were used for transportation and carrying loads, they might pass through this narrow gate called the eye of a needle. And yet it would be impossible for them to pass through unless they unload everything they carry. In this light, the text is telling us to unload all of our attachments so that we may enter the kingdom of God. In the next, few paragraphs, however, I will share my difficulties in accepting this second interpretation. Beautiful as it is, and yet, I found it more beautiful and astounding when we take Jesus word as it is, that it is simply impossible.
My first difficulty lies in the text of the Gospel itself. Which part you might ask? It is in the response of the disciples after Jesus said it. After Jesus said that “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”, the disciples were astounded by these words. And as if it is not enough, the Jerusalem Bible translates what Jesus did afterwards as “…but Jesus insisted”. In Revised Standard Version it is simply said, “But Jesus said to them again”, while in New American Bible says, “So Jesus again said to them in reply”. And what did Jesus say to emphasize his previous words?
“How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
And these how the disciples reacted,
“They were more astonished than ever. “ (Jerusalem Bible)
“And they were exceedingly astonished,…” (Revised Standard Version)
“They were exceedingly astonished …” (New American Bible)
I found it difficult to understand the reaction of the disciples if what Jesus referring to the eye of a needle was simply a narrow gate in Jerusalem. It just does not make sense. And Jesus would not need to repeat and emphasize the same words again. He can simply explain it what he meant, in fact this is what he did when the disciples misunderstood him when he talked about Lazarus,
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” The disciples said to him, ‘”Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead;” (John 11:11-14)
So it is with the text of the rich young man. It does not make sense then when Jesus repeat to clarify what he said, he even said it with stronger words, that is with the analogy of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. And to be frank, when I heard the interpretation that the eye of a needle is just a narrow gate, my response was “Oh, that is what it meant”, no astonishment at all. But this was not the response of the disciples. Their response was exceedingly astonished.
After sometime, I found another interesting reference to the eye of a needle. And this one is from the Harper’s Bible Dictionary. If you flip to find the word “Needle’s eye”, you will read this:
a hyperbolic reference(Mark 10:25 and parallels) in a saying of Jesus on the difficulty of a rich man entering the Kingdom of God. There is no evidence for the view that it referred to a narrow gate in the walls of Jerusalem.
Wow! That’s like hitting me very hard. There is no evidence for the view that it actually just a narrow gate? In my mind, first it implies that the scholars writing or editing this Bible Dictionary are aware of the view that the eye of the needle might refer to a narrow gate. But it seems for them, there is no archaeological or historical evidence to support this view.
Let’s take a breath for a while. I recall that few years back I started to love the Bible, not just for reading and meditating it, but also studying it. I started to look for Catholic Bible studies. One bible study that I bought was on the Gospel of Mark published by Ignatius Press, titled Ignatius Bible Study (what else can you guess?). The Bible Study was written by Dr. Scott Hahn, a professor of theology from the Fransiscan University of Steubenville. Interestingly, there is a reference for this camel issues that we are dealing with. This is what it says
10:25 easier for a camel: A parable that depicts wealth as a formidable obstacle to entering God’s kingdom (1 Tim6:9-10; Heb 13:5). This difficulty is sorely demonstrated by the young man’s refusal to part with his riches and embrace the gospel (10:22) See note on Mt. 19:24
But what caught my eyes was actually the notes after that. It speaks about the “impossible” and what it means.
10:27 it is impossible: We are completely incapable of reaching salvation on our own. The human family descended from Adam suffers from a wounded nature and is unable to obey God completely or consistently without divine assistance (Rom 7:21-25). Only by cooperating with God and his grace can we fulfill the righteous requirement of his Law (Rom 8:4). By ourselves we can do nothing (Jn 15:5), but with the Lord’s help all things are possible (Jer 32:17; Lk 1:37; CCC 2082)
This note really helped me to see something that I never saw before. And it a kind of solving my problem for the eye of a needle. Like many people, I was stuck on the “rich”. I was wondering whether the rich can enter the kingdom of God or not and this thing occupies my mind. But that made me unable to see what Jesus actually meant.
When Jesus said it is impossible, he said it in answer to the disciples questions,
“In that case, who can be saved?”
If you notice the answer that it is impossible is not just for the rich, but for all men. The disciples were wondering if the rich found it very hard to enter the kingdom of heaven just like a camel has to pass through the eye of a needle, how about the rest? Who can be saved? In the Old Testament, the idea of earthly wealth as one of the blessings for the righteous are not uncommon. The Book of Job, of course, started to question this. Job, being a righteous man, also suffered. But the idea seems to be common for the people in that age. And now Jesus is telling what seems to be shocking to them. That the rich young man who has done all those commandment from his youth found it difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven? If those who tried to live righteously, and from it flows God’s blessing of earthly wealth, found it hard to enter the kingdom of God, how can the rest be saved? The disciples simply could not understand.
But note how Jesus answer this,
“For men it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.”
The issues actually is not about whether the person is rich or not. The issue is simply that it is impossible for ALL to enter the kingdom of God. We cannot gain eternal life! None of us can.
If you read again the question that the rich young man ask Jesus, everything would become clear.
“ Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The rich young man thought that he can gain eternal life by what he does. He thought that it is his effort that will save him. And yet, at the end of the conversation, he looked down to the earth and sad, he realized that he is simply unable to inherit the eternal life.
The phrase of the eye of a needle to me is not just a narrow gate. It is simply impossible. I cannot be holy on my own. I cannot reach God with my own strength. Everything is a gift, and even my faith is a gift. God’s grace saves me. I am drawn by God. God is the main subject. And that is why Jesus changed the subject from man who is simply impossible to God who is all possible.
Aren’t we also sometimes try to inherit eternal life by what we do? We thought that by going to church every Sunday, by serving in ministry, by doing this and that, we will gain heaven. We forgot that to look to the one who calls us first, who pours out his graces upon us abundantly. We forgot why we want to go to heaven. We tend to think of gaining heaven for ourself. We forgot that to enter the kingdom of God is to meet the King. We want the prize, but we forgot the prize giver. We want our heaven for our sake, and yet we forgot God.
I recall one day I asked my self what is eternal life. Have you ever asked the same question? Dr. Scott Hahn gave a beautiful answer. He said that the only thing that is eternal is God, and Eternal Life is simply God’s Life. So What is God’s life? Looking at the Trinity, we realize that God’s life is a life shared for the Other. Jesus lives for the Father, and the Father loves Jesus abundantly. And that bond of love is the new Life that we all receive in the Holy Spirit. This sharing of love is what Eternal Life is all about. It is for this reason why Jesus asked the rich young man to “go, sell what you have, and give to the poor”. To enter into this Life of sharing love, one is called to share and imitate the Holy Trinity. This is what made it difficult for the rich young man to enter the kingdom of God. He find it difficult to share.
Obeying the commandment is not about getting to heaven. Obeying the commandment is about sharing Life with God and with others. Just as Jesus obeyed His Father giving himself for us even to the Cross, so too we are called share our life for others out of Love for God. And the more you try it, I can assure you, that more you will realize how impossible it is. And this is exactly the Good News that we all need to hear: that for God, nothing is impossible. His love saves us. His love will enable us to enter the Kingdom of God. His love is stronger than death and who can separate us from the Love of Christ? Love conquers all. It is only when we open to God’s love, we can truly love others. Practically, how does this happen? How does God help us and save us to enter Heaven? This would require another article, I believe. Yet at this moment, it is suffices to say that in the Church and through the sacraments that God truly saves us. This is what Jesus left us with on earth. The Hebrew name of Jesus means “God saves”. The question is do you believe in Him? Do you have faith?
This is what came to my mind after I hear the Gospel reading. I decided to share it with you all simply because I have received the Good News. And it is just difficult not to share the Good News of God’s love that sets us free and rejoice. Yes we all can enter the kingdom of heaven, not because it is possible for us, but simply because for God nothing is impossible. Let us rejoice and be glad!
“ Fill us with your love that we may rejoice” (Psalm 89 v 14)
Pope John Paul II explains the meaning of Christmas tree.