The boy’s elbows jutted out at an awkward angle. One hand hovered at eye level while the other darted back and forth, perforating the ether with short, sharp movements. The rest of his body seemed turned to stone, cursed by some ancient greek fable. A casual observer might have guessed some sort of convulsion or fit; the truth was much more mundane.
“I just can’t do it!” His hands fell back into his lap, his face downcast. “The stupid thread won’t go through the stupid eye of the stupid needle.”
“Try licking it,” said the boy’s father, busy with his own domestic responsibilities.”
“I did. I licked it so much that the thread bent over. Now it’s next to impossible!”
That at least raised a smile. Mr Charles could remember his own childhood irritation when his mother asked him to do the seemingly impossible and thread a needle for her. Reaching over, he took the thread from the boy’s unprotesting grip and expertly thrust it through the tiny opening. The boy muttered his thanks and proceeded to sew a button on to his shirt, freeing Mr Charles to resume work on the ripped seam of his trousers.
Father and son worked in silence for several minutes, entranced by the rhythm, thoughts wandering as the needle worked its quiet magic: up and down, in and out; pull, tug, knot, snip.
The boy cried out.
“What’s the matter, Ralph? Did you prick yourself?”
“No,” he replied grumpily, “the stupid thread broke. Now I’ve got to start again.”
“It could be worse,” suggested Mr Charles, keen to distract his son with a riddle. “It’s a lot harder with a camel.”
“A camel. You know, that desert animal with the humps and the bad breath.”
“I know what a camel is, Dad. I just don’t follow.”
“Jesus said it, don’t you remember? 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.”
There was a prolonged pause. Mr Charles enjoyed teasing his son, seeing the look of utter confusion on his face. Ralph was enthusiastic about reading the Scriptures but clearly he hadn’t come across this particular passage.
“Okay, I give up. What does it mean? How do you get a camel through that hole?”
“You can’t. It’s impossible.”
The gears turned slowly. “So,” said Ralph hesitantly, “was Jesus saying that rich people can’t get into heaven?”
Mr Charles merely grunted, waiting for his son to come to a conclusion in his own time.
“But that doesn’t seem right. There’re plenty of rich people in our church. You don’t mean to say that they’re all going to hell?”
“It’s certainly a hard saying,” the father agreed. “And a lot of Christians like to pretend Jesus never said it. I once heard about a monk in the Middle Ages who taught that there was a very short, narrow door in the walls of Jerusalem. If a merchant arrived after dusk when the main gates were already shut tight, he could still get into the city through this door. What’s more, if he were really determined, he could get his camel inside as well. The dumb beast had to go down on its knees and squeeze through but it was just about possible. The monk said that this gate was called the eye of the needle because it was so tiny, and that this was what Jesus really meant.”
“What do you think, Dad? Was he right?”
“It’s not what I think that matters. What does your heart tell you?”
The boy closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the scene in all its noise and stench and heat. He could visualise the merchant bringing down his whip hard, determined to drive the nervous animal through the narrow confine.
“It seems to me,” said Ralph, “that the monk has changed Jesus’ words. That way it’s no longer impossible for rich people to get into heaven, merely a bit of a hassle. Surely that can’t be right?”
“Why don’t you have another go at threading your needle?”
The boy suddenly laughed out loud. “You did it again! I was going to moan and complain for the next half-hour and you went and distracted me.”
Then, without consciously thinking about what he was doing, he picked up the broken thread and in one smooth motion pushed it straight through the eye of the needle.
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