The Eye Of The Needle by George Merrill


Confucius, the story goes, once dreamt he was visiting the damned who’d been consigned to Hell. But Hell was a beautiful banquet room, with all the damned sitting around a table piled high with delectable foods. These poor souls were allowed to eat anything they liked, but they had to use chopsticks, and the chopsticks were five-feet long. The damned were starving, staring despondently at the uneaten food before them knowing that even with all eternity in which to solve the problem, it could not be done.

Then, Confucius was taken to Heaven to see those accommodations. It was an identical banquet hall, with a table full of delicious food. The people seated around the table, however, were happy and well fed, but they, too, had to obey the same rule. The food could only be eaten with chopsticks that are five-feet long. The blest were blessed because they had learned to use the same chopsticks, not to feed themselves, but to feed one another.

For many years we have been close friends with two Roman Catholic missionaries. They are, a nun and priest, who belong to a missionary order known as the Maryknolls. They have traveled extensively serving the needs of many disenfranchised people in the third world. They were witnesses to the countries living with poverty and political oppression. The level of deprivation in which many inhabitants in those countries lived was heart rending.

Our friends would tell us story after story about how the indigenous people invited them into their squalid shacks to offer them shelter, food and water, all of which the natives had little to spare. But it was how they offered hospitality that was so moving. They gave no evidence that they were doing this begrudgingly and even though they gave from their scarcity, you’d never know it. They gave willingly and with lots of warmth and laughter. My missionary friends had repeatedly been the recipients of one of the most ancient virtues in the history of the human race, the virtue of hospitality. As the poor extended their hospitality to their guests, it was apparent they were having fun doing it. It’s an odd thing that by surrendering what little they had, the act of giving away satisfied some primal need. It’s a timeless truth, but it seems that it’s harder for some privileged individuals to experience this joy in giving. Many seem mostly invested in protecting their assets and making sure they increase.

Jesus spoke about the mire that the wealthy and privileged get caught in: “Again I say to 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 heaven.”

Does amassing great wealth necessarily poison the soul of its beneficiary? It depends on the character of the beneficiary. I do think that there are millionaire men and women of character who see their wealth an opportunity to do for others, no, maybe even more than that; they see their wealth as an obligation to do for others. I suspect the character of the successful millionaire is more the issue than the amount of the wealth he or she has accrued. I would imagine Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates, would probably be as gracious if they had only little as they are with plenty.

I find Confucius’ Heaven and Hell allegory instructive, specifically in how it speaks to question of how we regard our responsibility to others. In the allegory, I notice Hell is not defined by how much food is available for its inhabitants, or by how little; it’s defined by the way inhabitants in each realm think of and use the resources they have in relationship to each other. In Hell, the residents are concerned mostly about how to feed themselves with no apparent interest in the needs of any others around the table. In Heaven, everyone is engaged in taking care of each other and not only are they well fed, they are happy.

Is it then, more blessed to give than to receive? Our pastor, just before the offertory, invites us to say those words with him. Most everyone joins in, but who knows who may feel that way. It’s hard to tell how anyone deals with such paradoxical issues from the outside looking in, especially where one’s economic worth is one the table. Putting money where the mouth is, has always been be a defining issue of character.

Apparently, in Biblical times, in Damascus and in Jerusalem, there were gates known as The Eye of the Needle. Because they had narrow passages and the rocky paths, getting a camel through the portals loaded with goods was challenging, if not impossible.

One interpretation of the Jesus saying is that the merchant would have to unload all the goods first for the camel to make passage to the other side of the gate. Would that mean that if the man was able to get the unencumbered camel through the gate, on the other side could he then reload the camel with the goods, like at the airport when we get our carryon back after going through security?

Personally, I believe that Jesus was playing hardball on this one. I also say that because as almost everyone knows, you may leave what’s left of your bundle to the kids but there’s no way you’re taking any of it with you.

I do not know if this is a fact, but I’ve wondered whether as we get older, we’re more aware that we’re not taking anything where we’re going and so we become more charitable with our resources than we might have been in our youth. There’s an optimum time in life when shedding our acquisitions feels even better than the excitement we had when we first acquired them.

“As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all peoples,” as Paul writes in Galatians.

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. I look forward to reading Mr. Merrill’s articles.

  2. George, how you are consistently able to write words of wisdom and deep thought that inspire and mark our lives amazes and blesses me.
    Thank you!

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