October 5, 2012


I had to go yesterday to a stranger's house, because of some PTA volunteering I'm doing. Which is its own annoying story, and is probably the last in a long line of annoying stories that mean I DON'T wonder anymore why the poor PTA can't find the volunteers it needs, and ANYWAY, I had to go yesterday to a stranger's house. And the guy there looked and acted just like a politician. He was wearing an expensive-looking shirt tucked into belted trousers, just for hanging around the house. His hair was combed back over his head. He had a small, yappy dog and a big carefully-decorated house in a set-aside-from-the-majority neighborhood.

He had a large sign on his wall that laid out his household's religious beliefs very firmly, and at some length. It wasn't the kind of decorative item where the font and frame are pretty; it was the kind of sign a church office would use to lay out their charter: that Jesus was the son of God, that everything Jesus said was the word of God, that the Bible was also the word of God, and so on. Right by the door, just so we're all clear from the start where this household stands.

You can take the girl out of the church but you can't take the church out of the girl, so standing there looking at him and his clothes and his huge house and his huge sign, what came unbidden to my mind from the permanently-embedded archives was the verse from the book of Matthew in the Bible: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God."

I kept thinking about that all evening. That's a verse that doesn't get cross-stitched much, I'm guessing. It says, right from Jesus's mouth, that if you are rich you're not welcome. Not in heaven, not in Christianity. You may not join. Zero camels have fit through the eye of a needle, and the number of rich people who get into heaven is fewer than that.

One issue with this verse is that while there's certainly a whole category of people we'd all (except for them, probably) agree were rich, richness is relative below that, and the verse doesn't give any specifics. I was feeling a certain level of raised eyebrows at this PTA guy, but if we go back to the world spectrum concept for a minute, I myself am dripping in riches. I have a computer IN MY OWN HOUSE; in fact, I have FOUR. I have TWO cars in good condition. I have a house with MULTIPLE ROOMS. It has heating AND air conditioning, just built right in. I have TWO bathrooms, with running water in BOTH. I have many appliances. I have enough money to go to Wendy's whenever I want to. I can support two animals who don't contribute eggs or milk or meat or labor. Even when we live paycheck-to-paycheck, even when we rented an apartment, even when we had to put Wendy's in a careful budget, even when we had one bathroom, we have still been on the far wealthy edge of the world spectrum.

I've noticed a common concept that if someone is well-off, what they have is a blessing from God. If God gave it to us, he must have meant us to have it. If he didn't give to others, he must not have meant them to have it. What can a person do? *hands raised helplessly* This is where we need the parable of the good steward: what we have is given to us to do good with, on behalf of Someone Else. It's not ours. In fact, it's a test: what will you do with what you've been given? You are being graded on this.

I don't have any particular point to this:  I'm not trying to get into the kingdom of God, which makes it difficult to tie things up with a sermon-type ending here. And it would be hard to turn it into a sermon anyway, if the person giving the sermon were still driving two cars and living in a multi-roomed house and making only financially-comfortable donations to charity, as I am: it's not a sermon that can be delivered by a camel.


Marie Green said...

My inlaws like to tout that being gay is a "lifestyle" of sin as opposed to the REST of our regular old sins. So therefore their sins- an entire LIFESTYLE of them- are worse. I always counter with this arguement with this argument in my head (and once out loud). Living a rich life, as you describe, is ALSO a "lifestyle" of sin. Do we have more food than we need while others go hungry? More clothing while others are cold? They don't see it that way though (an they are farmers, owning thousands of acres of land to grow food... FOR CATTLE.)

I don't think being gay is a sin. I hope that is obvious.)

Heather R said...

Swistle, I love you and so does my husband. You are hilarious. We especially love the part about Wendy's and having 2 animals that don't provide eggs, food, etc. (I am going on my third attempt at word verification. I can't ever figure out what it says!)

Anonymous said...

I love your blog! Your thoughts are so relatable.
For me the point of the verse about a rich person is that when we have everything we need (and want) and are surrounded by comfort as Americans ARE (relative to many places), there is a tendency to feel self-sufficient and thus not rely on God for our needs. This feeling of self-sufficiency is a trap and a falsehood. And I think you are right on the money (pun intended) with it being all about how we respond to having all this comfort and material stuff. It is all about our attitudes. Do we make it a point to serve and bless others as we have been blessed? It is as hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom as it is for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle but nothing is impossible with God. Evi D

Alyson said...

I think the really interesting part of that is that so many are ready and willing to believe the first part (If I have good stuff, luck, etc then I am a good person because the "universe" gave it to me) but quickly forget about the 2nd part - which is the graded bit.

I think that's a lot of what I don't like about one political party - they all have reams of stories about how they "overcame" and yet are unwilling to let others overcome. Are, in fact, happy to blame the poor for being poor as it marks them as less deserving.

I too am not trying to get into the kingdom of heaven but I do try very hard to think of others, help them when I can and create an atmosphere where the less fortunate (because that is all they are, less fortunate - not bad, not layabouts, not deserving of their suffering - although wouldn't it be fun if they were all rich as Midas in former lives and jackasses and this is their Buddhist-esque punishment??) can get assistance and help. Yet so many are willing - when they have totally wasteful lives of sin - to judge and not assist and they're trying to get into the kingdom of god.

Brigid Keely said...

TRUFAX: A whole lot of rich people have argued that the "eye of the needle" was ACTUALLY a mountain pass that's just difficult to get through, not an actual literal needle, and since they would have hired the BEST camel drivers, they're all good.

ALSO: the Bible advises selling every single thing you own, giving it all to the poor, and going to live in a commune while waiting for the world to end.

Di said...

Right here, you've summed up my opinions about organized religion pretty much perfectly. Love it.

Sarah said...

I'm still stuck on the sign in the hallway. (Though the rest of the post was wonderful, too!) I always flinch when I see stuff like that. It's just so hard for me to understand believing that many things that adamantly that I am immediately suspicious of denial and/or flat out hypocrisy when I hear others claim to.
One of my favorite authors is Phillip Yancy; I remember him saying once that when he was asked to sign a pledge for Christian Living magazine stating that he "unequivocally believed" in all the tenets of the magazine, he had to go them and say, "Look, I can barely sign my own name unequivocally, so..."

The Gori Wife said...

I am very religious and have a sign at my front door too, though it's a script-edy and pretty wood carving in Arabic, so I hope it's not alienating any non-Arabic reading non-Muslims who come to my house. Even being religious, and even thinking the whole camel through the needle thing is just a metaphor, that there are rich people who can squeeze their camels just so, and even though I am trying to get into the Kingdom of God, I still wholeheartedly agree with you here. But even then, even when I think that all the wealth afforded to me is a test, a trust in my hands to give in charity to those who need it, even then I know that I am failing the test. I have significantly more than 4 computers in my house. I travel for leisure. I eat in restaurants when I want when lentils and potatoes at home would certainly do and would be a far greater meal than most people in the world would get for dinner that day. It's so easy to think that just because you are giving a significant amount in charity that you're doing it right, that you're passing the test. Maybe the only way to pass the test IS to sell everything and eat lentils day in, day out.

Mrs. Irritation said...

Having that big, stern sign right by the front door makes me wonder who the guy is trying to convince. I would understand it more if it were placed in a prominent, frequently inhabited part of the house, like say the family room. That way the family could often gaze upon the sign and reaffirm the way they believe in a private "YES!" moment every time they read it. I may be wrong, but I am going to assume the family probably does not spend a lot of time hanging out in the entryway by the front door. To me that says the guy is trying to convince others of his virtue more than anything else and makes me think his "beliefs" are rather false.

Jenny said...

There's a whole vein of thinking in the Bible that goes along with the "if we are wealthy, we've been blessed, and if others are poor, they aren't blessed," sort of logic. (Proverbs especially.) Then there is another line of thinking, also in the Bible, that goes directly contrary to that (Job, but also the gospels), that says that wealth has nothing to do with virtue and can indeed be a hindrance to virtue. The Bible often argues with itself, which is a long tradition, and part of why I love it.

The camel/ needle thing, in my extremely humble opinion, is about grace. You're not getting any camels through the eyes of any needles without a lot of lube, sister. And rich people -- who, at the time, seemed like the obvious people to be *first* in line for heaven, not last like we take for granted now -- aren't getting in at all without a lot of grace, and neither is anyone else.

M.Amanda said...

I'm with Mrs. Irritation here. If you feel like you have to declare your beliefs so loudly to every person who steps one foot inside your home (rather than allowing it to come up in conversation or in response to a direct question), I have to wonder why. If you truly, deeply believe those things, isn't it enough that you know and live it?

(I swear the number in my verification is the house number from the picture posted a while back. I'm still not sure what it is...)

Anonymous said...

This is Halyn...work computer doesn't let me sign in.

Ok, so I'm very, very NOT RELIGIOUS, like, at all. I call myself an agnostic only because people tend to assume I'm a pinehole when I call myself an atheist. But, I was raised in the church, just like you, Swistle, and although memory is a bit foggy, I think you've got that verse wrong. As I recall (again, FOGGY, so foggy) the verse is "for the love of money is the root of all evil. It is easier for a rich man...yada yada, eye of the needle." The point being that it's not so much that the rich are unwelcome, as it is the rich who love money more than Jesus are unwelcome. Anyway, just a nitpick--I'm not even sure why I'm making this comment, being neither christian nor rich.
Huh. Maybe I AM a pinehole.

liz said...

Loving this post and the comments.

Surely said...

Along that same thought, we also enjoy when a sports figure thanks God for helping them win. Because God likes that guy better than that other guy.


So, like you, I find myself gritting my teeth in situations like that.

No matter our station in life, someone will always always always be poorer or richer than us.

And I would have "accidentally" bumped that sign off the wall if possible. (:-D

Swistle said...

Halyn- The verse I'm referring to is from Matthew. A man approaches Jesus and says he wants to join up. Jesus tells him, "Great, we'd love to have you, but give away your money first." The man decides not to join after all. Then Jesus turns to his disciples and explains how unlikely it is for rich men to get into heaven.

The verse you're referring to is from 1 Timothy.

I've had great success typing verse fragments into search engines to double-check them in online copies of the Bible: a pastor's agnostic daughter would want to make sure she had her references right before she used them to make a point about religion.

artemisia said...

I have never been able to put my finger on the insiduous connection between American evangelical Christians and wealth, that they go hand in hand (supposedly).

That God WANTS you to be REWARDED with WEALTH.

What is this? Does anyone else ever get this vibe? It feels very, very icky to me. Very icky, indeed.

Betsy said...

One day my husband was walking next to our former neighbor's car and saw a book laying on the back seat. The title? "God Wants You To Be Rich". Seriously.


So, yeah, the 99%? God must not want them to be rich. Blech.

G said...

As someone who is religious and does have a sign on my wall (although it's just the Joshua quote about serving the Lord and it is in the eating area where we personally see it a lot)....

I love this post.

We are all camels, aren't we? I kind of think that's the point behind that passage--we all have something we don't want to give up to follow God's call.....

missris said...

Being a non-religiouso who wasn't raised religious and has never had it as a part of my life, that kind of thing creeps me out a little bit. I know that might be incendiary, but it does feel to me a bit like "what are you trying to prove, dude?" I also hate the implication that if you're not religious, you're automatically a terrible person/heathen who doesn't care about anything but themselves. Maybe non-religious people are MORE altruistic because they're not doing something because it'll get them in good with the guy upstairs, or because they feel like they have to in order to get into the party. Maybe they just realize that the world would be a better place if the people who had more helped out the people who had less.

Laura Diniwilk said...

You just dusted the cobwebs out of the religion corner of my brain. 12 years of Catholic school here, and I actually specifically remember the priest telling us that the eye of the needle was a gate into the city of Jerusalem that camels had to get down on their knees or whatever to squeeze through...not impossible, just really, really hard. But google tells me that a lot of people think there is no historical basis for that interpretation, or the other one where camel means cable in Greek or rope in Aramaic. I find this stuff really interesting, in a detached, "how cool is this 2000 year old game of telephone" sort of way.

G said...

Oh, and artemisia?

There's a type of evangelical that proclaim something called "prosperity gospel", which is explicitly that -- the basic tenet is that if you're doing what God wants, He'll shower you with material wealth and if you don't have wealth, you must not be doing what he wants.

It makes me twitchy.

Sarah said...

This post got me all kinds of thinking. Which, Swistle, really? On a Friday? :)

I am an atheist and I pride myself on being nonjudgmental - two guys want to get married? You bet! Aren't ready to be a mom and want to have an abortion? Go for it. But this post reminds me that even as an atheist who doesn't believe in any kind of end game reward, I still judge those who do by their own sticks, so to speak. Which is the antithesis of what I want to do.

I get so very tired of those who are religious who hold everyone else accountable for their mistakes and shortcomings, but when they fall short of fulfilling every passage in the Bible or reinterpret it to serve only themselves it's fine, because they're HUMAN and TRYING.

I think that religious, spiritual, or nonbeliever, we're all trying to be better people and we all fall short every single day. If you want to be rich and hoard all your dollars, own it. Live the life you want to live. But for goodness sake, don't prance around pointing out the sins of others. Your sins are not lesser because they're yours and your virtues are not greater because they're yours. All of our sins and all of our virtues are accompanied by the back story of who we are. And the same hold true for every single person on this planet.

I wouldn't have the slightest clue on how to get into heaven, and I'm certainly not invited. But I'm not sure I want to spend my eternity with those who claim they're going. Because it looks a lot like the mean girls table in a high school cafeteria.

So the long and short of it is that I loved this - this is the Atheist's Sermon. The notion, that I must walk the walk, too. I can't pull Bible passages to prove how terrible Christians sometimes act until I reflect on my life and ask myself, am I any better?

Joanne said...

How funny, our priest was just talking about that verse and the eye of the camel thing. I am a religious nut but don't have any verses on my walls, probably because I am Catholic, but if I DID, it would be in my kids' rooms, or in the hallway outside the kids' rooms and it would say JESUS WEPT! Ha!

This post is fantastic. I personally feel like it's all from God, the good and the bad, and it drives me ca-razy when people talk about how 'blessed' they are to have this or that. My mother has a habit of saying "with the help of God, ________" and it drove me crazy when my son was little and didn't sleep for one year. She'd call every morning and ask how it went and I'd say crappy and she'd say well, with the help of God, he'll sleep tonight and I finally said well, let's just leave God out of it all right? Sheesh!

H said...

This is a post that draws me back over and over again because the topic is so interesting and I love reading the comments. Thank you for another thoughtful post.

Erin said...

Swistle, I love you! I started reading your baby name blog a few months ago, with which I am officially obsessed! Seriously, it is wonderful! I am working my way through the archives.

Then last week, I noticed that you also have your own blog aside from the baby name business. I'm loving this, as well!

Anyways, I just wanted to comment and tell you how much I enjoy reading BOTH of your blogs. This post was particularly real and funny and and thought-provoking. And that is special stuff right there!

shin ae said...

I want to be in the kingdom of God. I am a Christian. I have spent lots of time meditating on the story you reference here. I just want to say a couple things:

I love that you were thinking about all this, and I think it's a great post.

I think it's such irony that as a Christian whose entire set of beliefs center around Jesus, his teachings are the ones that have been the most challenging for me to understand what to do with.

The longer I am a Christian, the more strongly I believe that the only way to approach Jesus' teachings is through him.

Oh, this is all so close to my heart,and I don't want to dump it all here, but that prosperity gospel others have mentioned? I hope we see the end of it soon. It breaks me.

Kristin H said...

Thoughtful post *and* thoughtful comments. I love that the crazies aren't part of this conversation.

Gigi said...

I love this thought provoking post (and the comments!).

From my Catholic school upbringing we were taught that we weren't supposed to about proclaiming "Look at me! I'm doing good works! Look at me! I'm atoning for my sins! Look at me! I'm praying so hard."

And that sign in the entryway pretty much screams "Look at me and how pious I am!"

But the rest of the post touched me because, if the truth be told, I've been feeling pretty sorry for myself (hubby unemployed for a long time)lately. And this post gave me the much needed reminder that we ARE rich - maybe not in wealth but we currently have a roof over our heads and food to eat and there are so many who do not.

Scottish Twins said...

I am a Christian and I have a sign by my door. It's actually eye-level and the first thing you see directly in front of you when you enter my house (it quotes Joshua 24:15). It is a declaration about my faith and I'm proud of it. Many times, it's a reminder to ME when I enter my house.

And honestly, people do it with a lot of things. Some people put an art piece they like or a large picture of their family where my religious plaque is. People display their family picture because they are proud or because obviously seeing it every day and putting it in view of others makes them happy. Some people like those cutesy signs that say things like "Home is where the heart is". It's just a message you like to have on your wall. I'm just wondering why it's odd for someone to put a religious quote by their front door or in their family room and it's not to put a picture of your family or a Picasso print. People like to be surrounded by things that they find beautiful and make them happy. Scripture does that for some.

As far as the wealth comments. I also disagree with the prosperity gospel. I do feel like the LOVE of money is sinful, but that money itself isn't inherently bad or wrong.

The point is that it is nearly impossible for a person who LOVES money to enter the kingdom of Heaven, not that a person that HAS money can't. Matthew 6:24 tells us you can't serve two masters and a Christian is called to serve God. If you're serving money, you're not serving God. But just because someone has earthly wealth doesn't mean they are a slave to it and wouldn't be willing to give it all away to someone in need when and if God ever calls them to. We have to be careful judging because rich is a very subjective term.

Lippy said...

Love this whole thing! If everyone was more like the folks commenting here, the world would be a much nicer place. Two running cars is one of my signs of success.

MamaK said...

when I was reading your post, Swistle, I kept thinking about this:


I have a lot of fun putting in various numbers sometimes, as in: oh, I'm going to be a sahm now? Okay, we just dropped 10% in the global rich list! Ack! we have no money!

and then I realize I'm still in the top 15% anyways, and it's all good. Perspective is amazing.

Also loving all the comments, and wondering if Sarah will write out an actual "atheist's sermon" b/c the comment was pretty awesome. I go by the "some sins are more visible than others" mantra to try and keep my own judgmental tendencies at bay :)

lucidkim said...

I am mostly just wondering why you were there at all - what sort of PTA volunteer work needs to be done for mr-sit-around-with-shirt-tucked-in guy. And your comment made me laugh out loud "I DON'T wonder anymore why the poor PTA can't find the volunteers it needs."

Anonymous said...

What Scottish Twins said! It might just be a reminder to that person.

Also, I like when people acknowledge that they are blessed. I interpret blessed = lucky and vice versa, it just depends whether you are religious or not. Regardless, I almost always interpret statements of 'I'm blessed/lucky' as a humble acknowledgement that all the good in one's life is not all their own doing. In my case sometimes it's also a reminder to myself that it's not necessarily permanent. womp womp.

velocibadgergirl said...

I can't remember if it was my religion teacher (Catholic school) or a professor in college, but I was told that some scholars think the camel through the eye of the needle thing was an idiom that has been lost through time.

There was apparently a gate into Jerusalem nicknamed the "Eye of the Needle" because it was so small and camels had to have all their baggage unloaded before they could fit through. So basically Jesus wasn't saying rich men CAN'T go to heaven, just that a lot of them have to work hard to unload a lot of metaphorical riches-related baggage before they can get there. Who knows if it's true, but if not it's still an interpretation I like.

velocibadgergirl said...

Oh, and I snorted so hard at Joanne and her JESUS WEPT sign. :D

Just Vegas said...

OH SO TIRED of this idea that wealth = virtue.
Also, here's why the wall sign skeeves me out. I grew up in a very patriarchal, authoritarian home so that is what colors my perception here. It's the "me and my house" or the "what WE believe" portion. It says that this is what I believe and you best know that any wife and/or child of mine will believe the same.
Maybe not the intent of many religious folk but that's what I see for whatever that matters.

Abbe said...

Swistle, I love this blog and your baby name blog. Reading them both has given me a lot of pleasure. I hope you'll keep that in mind because I'm going to jump, lovingly and kindly, down your throat. Are you serious? You say this man was a stranger to you, so all you know is what you observed on a single, brief visit. What was his sin, exactly? Having a nicer house than yours? Dressing nicely inside his house, and combing his hair in a way you disapprove of? Having the nerve (the nerve!) to display a statement of his beliefs inside his own home? (I've been hearing a lot of talk lately about how religious people shouldn't mix their beliefs with politics, but this is the first I've heard anyone say it's offensive for people to express their beliefs in their homes.) And from these observations, you've made a judgment about his character and condemned him as some kind of hypocrite. Is that fair? You don't know what he does with his money or his time. Does he volunteer to serve others? Does he give money away? You don't know. I think the world would be a better place, and all of us would be happier, if we assumed the best about each other until we know otherwise.

Thank you for allowing me to rant. Please feel free to ignore me at your leisure.

Swistle said...

Abbe- His set-up led my mind to a thought process about a Bible verse, a verse I'm noticing gets ignored quite a bit, considering how important it seems to be. The particulars of his situation are not presumed to fit the thoughts they provoked, and after mentioning the visuals that led to my unbidden thought process, I never mention him again. The only person specifically criticized in the post is myself, and it's in the clear context of "What right would I have to say anything about anyone?"

I agree: we should assume the best of each other until we know otherwise. You didn't assume the best of me, just now. The things you're accusing me of thinking and saying are not things I wrote in this post, and you didn't say them kindly, either.

Abbe said...

Swistle, I apologize that my emotions led me to express myself unkindly. That was wrong of me. Also, I should have read more closely to recognize that you didn't condemn this man in particular. Thank you for pointing this out more kindly than I wrote.

Swistle said...

Abbe- This makes me kind of teary. I'm glad we worked it out.

Abbe said...

Swistle, I've been sitting all day with a knot in my stomach, feeling ashamed of myself. Your kind words have made me feel so much better. Thank you.

Belle said...

My mum is seriously in love with your blog, and I'm starting to think I'll have to start following seeing as I enjoy every post she forwards on to me (I'm slow, okay?). This one has finally forced me to comment, because it's something I've been thinking about so recently too (and blogged about here: http://theelbowsofbelle.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/the-journey-part-two.html).

I should say that I'm a Christian (no signs, though - given the previous comments, it seems that's an extra category I need to make clear!), but I wholeheartedly agree with this: "This is where we need the parable of the good steward: what we have is given to us to do good with, on behalf of Someone Else. It's not ours. In fact, it's a test: what will you do with what you've been given? You are being graded on this."

I kinda like what Rob Bell says (and I'm paraphrasing to fit with your next paragraph), that for Christians the point of loving others and sharing what we have isn't to try to get people into the kingdom of God, but to bring the kingdom of God here.

Anywho, I'm off to add your blog to my reader, but promise not to leave such verbose comments in future. :)

Heather R said...

Hi Swistle! I just finished reading Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo and started his next book, Lunch with Buddha. I LOVED the first book and am liking the second so far. A few of the things talked about in the book made me think of this post and I thought you might like the book as well. It's not a preachy religious book. It's fictional and funny and sort of takes ideas from all religions to make you think. If you haven't already read the books, I highly recommend:)

Swistle said...

Heather R- I'll add it to my library list! Thanks!