Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:23-26 (Parallel versions appear in Mark 10:24-27, and Luke 18:24-27.) The saying was a response to a young rich man who had asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, to which the man stated he had done. Jesus responded, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me.” The young man became sad and was unwilling to do this. Jesus then spoke this response, leaving his disciples astonished.
The “eye of the needle” has been claimed to be a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. This story has been put forth since at least the 15th century, and possibly as far back as the 9th century. However, there is no evidence for the existence of such a gate This quotation has always fascinated me and the above snippet from Wikipedia also illustrates the tendency to take such maxims literally –wondering if such a gate actually existed. Eckhart makes clear that the “kingdom of heaven” in this story is the peace to be found “beyond all understanding” when one’s ego is seen as a separate, fleeting and illusory entity –the eternal life sought by the young rich boy is always present in the “no thing” that life represents. This concept has been immensely helpful to me as I’ve attempted to “make my way in the world” and have fallen victim to various levels of conditioning –not the least of which is a fear of how harsh life can be without personal resources. Such a fear can lead to debilitating anxiety, and below I want to dig further into how it can be consciously addressed. We have all had our struggles with money and perhaps more importantly, the desire for wealth. For me, one of the great treatises on this topic is Jacob Needleman’s Money and the Meaning of Life. Needleman’s perspective is that money is the “key” to mastery of the external world –it literally represents the value of survival as it can be exchanged for food, clothing, water and all of the essentials but it cannot replace them –you cannot eat money.
Therefore its value is established anthropomorphically by the human mind and agreement among man and women as to its value. If you take a dollar to the Amazon the natives will not give you anything for it; gold would be another story because its “value” is more genetically programmed and perhaps even intrinsic —but all of these aspects relate to what is material and external. Going back to the apocryphal story above, I have noticed in self-observation how much stronger my “sense of self” can become with more money or around issues of money. For example, in an upscale restaurant where I am paying for a good meal, I will expect better service and a certain amount of deference –my own importance becomes somehow solidified in my mind. Referring to Eckhart’s story –of the person who is served cold soup and complains vociferously “how dare you serve me cold soup” –this is far more likely to occur in a fine restaurant than if one is a guest or is given a free bowl of soup in a soup kitchen. Similarly in matters of finance, I have noticed that both the matters themselves and my requirement that my needs be treated as matters of grave importance even though a bank, for example, will have many customers aside from me. And the world responds.
The more money one has, the more one can demand better service, better medical care, better food, and so on. My father used to say “whatever can be fixed with money is of no real significance.” But this points in two directions. First, for most people it is a clear indication that having sufficient money to meet the exigencies of life is important. For example, if you break down on the road you want enough to fix your car –if you need to stay overnight you may need a hotel. Having insufficient means in such circumstances makes life more difficult.
The other thing my father always alluded to however, was that the really important things cannot be “fixed” with money. Your relationships with loved ones and oneself –these take one inward to a far deeper level beyond the external material dimension into what Eckhart calls “presence.” And such a movement invariably requires an openness and space between ones’ “self” and the world and a diminution of the egoic voice of self importance –the same voice that money makes stronger if it is the main motivation in life. This is obviously the point of the parable. Needleman puts this well in his work: “What is most necessary for man and what is given to him in abundance are experiences, especially experiences of the forces within him. This is his most essential food, his most essential wealth. If man consciously receives all of this abundance, the universe will pour into him what is called life in Judaism, spirit in Christianity, light in Islam, power in Taoism.” To me, the key word here is “consciously” — to “consciously receive” does not mean to hungrily seek and acquire (or to covet material wealth) — but rather to accept what IS with gratitude and awe. In Needleman’s terms this is the true meaning of conscience, to maintain attention in both the outer and inner worlds —in deference to the struggle between them. What has helped me immensely in this area is the realization that sufficient means to live well is a worthy goal –part of human experience is to be able to deal effectively with the material world –that is indeed our “school” here on earth. And this is also a worthy goal in science –understanding the material to the greatest extent to help and safeguard others. But when the mind takes over –and there is never enough and no sense of reverence and awe for all that IS –that is when the “kingdom of heaven” or peace on earth can no longer be attained; when acquisition and mastery are ends in themselves, then the ego has subverted the reality that Eckhart has brought out so eloquently when he says: “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.” ― Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose This is also Needleman’s point when he writes that “one needs money to live and survive in the outer world, to fulfill one’s obligations to the community and to nature, but that above and beyond this, the role of money is to serve as the instrument for getting understanding.” Notice again that within this context, there is nothing wrong with acquiring and using money consciously –in the outer world it can be wondrously helpful and provide even inner riches. However it is always the inner understanding that provides real wealth in the most significant dimension –the often overlooked inner world of consciousness. In our time the entire notion of wealth is distorted and completely separated from the inner dimension. We can see this with money — which began as a means of exchange of material goods of real value — grain, animals, clothing, and even, unfortunately, people and women — and represented the product of actual labor — now it is merely blips or pixels on the screen. It is created and exchanged electronically and can be created by mere thought. Money and wealth has become an illusion with no actual connection to the outer or inner world. And like the sirens to draw sailors to the rocks, the pursuit of money or wealth for its own sake can doom the inner journey by strengthening the part of man that seeks to master the outer world at the expense of the inner –his chattering mind that wants MORE –the Ego. So that the next time your distorted view of “wealth” leads you to puff yourself up and ask someone, “do you know who I am?” You stop and deeply ask yourself the same question. .
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