There is a story told in northern India about an impossible occurrence. In the times following the collapse of the Mogul empire there was chaos, and in fleeing for their lives and being arrested many of the rich buried their treasures and jewels in fields and under houses, hoping to retrieve them in better times. But many never returned and their secrets went with them. And it so happened that a very poor husband and wife, planting in their backyard, came upon a jewel. It was obviously worth a great deal, but what could they do? If word got around of their find, then the man and woman who were in charge of their village in these hard times would claim it as their own. They would have to wait until they could go into the city—a trip that only occurred once or twice a year—and then they could ask their relatives and friends to help them, for one was a jeweler.
But they had a young son, about 4 years old, and he was with them when they dug it up. There was no way they could keep him quiet about their discovery. He had picked up on their elation and surprise and would tell his friends as soon as he could.
Now, in many teaching situations, the teller stops here. What would you do? How do you ponder and reflect on what appears to be an impossible situation? Remember that you must both conceal the real and yet not harm your child. The folk wisdom strikes us as humorous but can also teach us much about God’s ways among us.
That night the child was kept indoors. The mother told her husband that she had an idea but they must work quickly. First she had been saving honey and cinnamon to make special cakes and took that out and then sent him off to a neighbor’s to borrow an oven to make the cakes. She worked through the night and made as many as she could, stretching the honey.
Just before dawn she went outside and scattered the cakes around, on the roof, in the garden, on the porch and walkway, among the bushes. Then she ran inside and woke her child. “Look,” she said, “I think it rained honey and cinnamon cakes last night! Come quickly and help me gather them before the birds discover them.” Outside in the morning light the two of them collected the cakes in bags and showed their find to the father. They ate some for breakfast and then sent the boy out to play.
And of course, the first thing he did was share the good news with his friends—he had so much to talk about. Yesterday we found a great big shiny stone in our backyard! He described it, and immediately he was overheard by the village head. She came to the boy and questioned him about it: Where had they found it, where was it now? But he was anxious to tell the rest too. “And that’s not all!” he said. “It rained honey and cinnamon cakes on our house last night. We collected them and ate some for breakfast.”
He was delighted with himself and the woman laughed—just stories children make up—and she went back to what she was doing. The cakes were impossible; everyone knew that it hadn’t rained anything the night before, and as for the other story, it was merely another tale. What was rare or unexpected was now associated with the utterly unbelievable; no one was the wiser on any score, and the family’s situation slowly prospered. And what was thought to be impossible was, of course, reality and very true.
There are two occasions in Luke’s gospel where the words “nothing is impossible with God” are uttered. First they are spoken by the Angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation, or better the moment of the Incarnation, in specific reference to Elizabeth who is aged and pregnant by the gracious mercy of God (Luke 1:37). It is, we know, an intimation of more wondrous things to come.
And then later these words are found in Jesus’ mouth directed to his disciples, after the rich landowner turned away from him. The man left with sadness and some reluctance, but he still adamantly refused Jesus’ offer of discipleship, intimacy, and eternal life because of his great wealth and his inordinate attachment to it. He could not part with it, not even to share with those in desperate need—the poor—and so to lay up treasures in heaven. Jesus, too, is sad, and says: “How hard it is for people who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And the others reply, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus answers: “What is impossible for humans is possible for God” (Luke 18:24-26).
The disciples are distressed by Jesus’ words about wealth and begin to panic over whether they themselves have a chance at entrance and long-term residence in the kingdom. Yet Jesus’ words are a simple declarative sentence. “Nothing is impossible with God.”
What appears impossible—a camel entering through a needle’s eye—is easier than for some people heavily burdened with wealth entering the kingdom of justice shared and mercy given. I have been told that the eye of the needle is the name of a gate in Jerusalem for travelers on foot leaving the city. It is narrow and low. A camel can get through it, but only if it is unloaded of its cargo, hopefully without its drinking water for the journey and being pushed from behind! The image is lasting and the reality improbable but possible. What about the more impossible?
It seems the first insight of Jesus’ kingdom and power is that of conversion: the conversion of those of us who are most secure, lax, self-righteous, waffling in our commitments, and living with very divided hearts. And this is tied to a second realization: heaven and earth are intimately bound together. What we do for the poor here and now in our age lays up treasure in heaven. These worlds overlap, and, as the Irish say, the dwelling place of the poor is where the veil is very thin—semi-permeable.
Conversion to sharing, to letting go of excess, and making friends with those who lack what we have is not impossible with God, not impossible for anyone who is a disciple of Jesus. Impossible prayers: ending nuclear weapons buildup and threats; ending terrorism; ending rhetoric that leads to frenzies of hate, violence, and murder; and even ending the legal though unjust crimes of the death penalty, abortion, and eliminating those who are expendable? Impossible: to be converted to compassion, generosity, and humility as individuals? Impossible: to be converted to communities of faith who are more concerned with healing and making holy the world than attending to our own in-house church concerns? Impossible: to be converted to the Body of Christ and experience communion by sharing our bread, shelter, education, medicine, hope, and human dignity with others as ritually and reverently as we do in church? Impossible: to be converted to creation and to reclaiming and repairing the ground, waters, air, old growth and rain forests, resources, and creatures for our children, at least down to the seventh generation?
Is it impossible to become passionate about the Jubilee Year 2000 during these three years dedicated to the Trinity, and to commit our nation to canceling the Third World’s unjust debt, redistributing land, health care, and educational opportunities? We can set prisoners of despair free. Oh, would we be laying up treasure in heaven and knowing the rewards here on earth soon enough! Eternal life and earth would overlap visibly.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” would be more than a mindless prayer. Jesus’ impossible prayer of blessing, of hope for all God’s children born of something impossible, is incarnation—a God that prefers human flesh to bright divinity and will die with us so that we can learn the impossible love of God found in uncrucifying and taking down all those hung disgracefully and standing together to face resurrection.
Impossible? Improbable? Perhaps Incarnation proclaims that the merely improbable is easy, and what was thought to be impossible just takes time and conversion, some laying up of treasure in heaven, among the poor here, and returning to the invitation of Jesus: now, you can come and follow me. Let’s start on the impossible together so that by the year of our Lord 2000, the Lord only knows what will have come to pass!