Of rich men, and the eye of a needle

In this period of Lent, I was invited by a minister to speak at a Lenten service that took place in the home of a congregant where the Reverend Phil Jacobs displayed his progressive, whimsical side. 

Within the copy of the text of the reading we chose, he had enclosed a cartoon from that day’s paper that showed St. Peter up in heaven with a book on a podium and some camels behind him.  A man in suit stood before Peter. A sign on the front of the podium read, “Corporate Entrance Exam … Step 1: Select Camel and Proceed to Needle. St. Peter was holding a small rod with a small “eye,” or opening, at its head.  The rich man commented, “Oh, I always thought it was just an allegory.”

Hmm. Perhaps too bad for him.  The cartoon refers to the passage in the Gospel of Matthew that reads, “It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.”

That brought to mind what happened when I was 10 and first heard that Biblical passage. I felt that I had discovered something important and wonderful. I went to my mother and asked her if she knew this sentence was in the Bible. “Yes,” she said. “Do the rich people know about this?” I asked. She said she thought they might, so I said, “What if we went out and told all the rich people that it says this in the Bible and then they’ll give up all their riches to the poor and the world would be a better place?”  She said something about it not being so easy and some people thought the eye of a needle was a narrow arch, not a real small needle. I was very, very disappointed.

I guess I wasn’t completely demoralized since I’ve spent my adult life working for social justice. However, it would have been a lot easier along the way when I encountered rich absentee landlords or rich bankers or rich businessman whom we were dealing with on community issues if I had been able to pull out that Bible, read that passage, and have them get silent and change their ways.

One of the lay people at the Lenten service spoke up after I shared that story and noted that Jesus says two verses later, “but with God, all things are possible.” He meant that the rich probably can get into heaven.  I believe that the Lord cares about how you made your money and how you treated people both in your work life and your family life.  It certainly is possible to become rich without hurting others by working for a company that makes a lot of sales or by investing the money and getting big returns. However, there are rich people who do take advantage of others as the way to get their money.

In November, I saw the movie “Inside Job,” an Academy Award-winning documentary about the causes of the financial crisis that shows how large Wall Street investment companies and large banks found new speculative methods to make gobs of money while the federal government refused to rein them in with regulation.

Big players like then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, then Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers, and current Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner worked together to stop another government official from regulating the credit default swaps speculation instrument that was a big cause of the financial crisis. Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of the big Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs, claimed, “I’m doing God’s work.” Later, he said it was a joke and apologized for “things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret” in his company’s role in causing the financial crisis.

I hope God is hearing this, and that St. Peter at the gate to heaven has the camels and small eye of the needle handy.

We were headed the next day to a meeting with Timothy Geithner to argue for stronger policies aimed at to preventing foreclosures.  At the meeting, Geithner listened and said these were serious problems but he decided not to do anything new to help the millions facing foreclosure.  The same man was pictured in the movie with then Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers acting to prevent the kind of regulation that might have prevented this recession.

Let’s remember what this recession caused all of us: 15 million unemployed. Loss of value of pensions.  Less in taxes paid to government because people are unemployed and many businesses had declining sales. The decline in taxes paid has meant budget cuts over the last two years at the state and local level, and this year at all levels of government. Millions of homeowners going through foreclosures and deteriorated foreclosed homes are lowering property values.

We all have things in our lives that we should reflect about during this season of Lent and Passover. We should remember this passage about the camel and the eye of the needle as we see the rich behaving badly. Not enough justice happens on this earth, but we are thankful for all we do get.
Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.