Biographers of W.C. Fields always narrate an episode that happened shortly before he died. A friend came to visit him in the hospital and was amazed to find the curmudgeonly comedian reading a Bible. "I didn't know you were a religious person," the friend said.

"I'm not!" Fields shot back.

"Then what are you doing with that Bible?"

"Looking for loopholes!"

Camels and us

Fields wasn't alone in his pursuit. Hearing the demands God lays on people of faith, lots of us try to discover ways of being Christian without having to follow every one of those demands. Nowhere does our loophole quest kick in more than in Sunday's Gospel (Mark 10:17-30).

The rich man asks Jesus a simple question: "What do I have to do to get into heaven?" Jesus gives a simple response: "Keep the commandment."

But then their conversation goes to another level. Both realize there's more to life than just getting into heaven. Jesus' ministry revolves not just around getting people into heaven, but also around getting into the "kingdom of God" long before they reach the pearly gates.

Jesus uses "kingdom of God" as a way to express His belief that God is present and working in each person's life. One must do more than just keep rules and regulations in order to step across the line into that kingdom. We experience God in that special way only by going through a "metanoia" -- a total change of our value system.

Jesus concretizes that process for the rich man: "Go, sell what you have; give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me."

The man isn't prepared to make such a drastic change in his value system. As he walks away, even Jesus' disciples show they don't understand His demand. After He comments, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" their objections force Him to put His belief into starker terms: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Those looking for loopholes will be surprised to learn there's no narrow Jerusalem gate or tight, but passable rock formation anywhere near the city called the "Eye of the Needle." Jesus is just employing a well-known rabbinic idiom for impossibility, something like "You've got the chance of a snowball in hell...."

When the astonished disciples come back with, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus states, "For human beings it is impossible, but not for God."

This is not to be interpreted as a loophole, assuring Christians that God will still permit the rich to enter the kingdom. If that were the case, Jesus would have to call to the rich man and offer him "Plan B." God simply will help the rich do the impossible: Give up their wealth, and live a more God-filled life. There's no loophole to entering God's kingdom.

Two edges

That's why the author of the second reading (Hebrews 4:12-13) must remind his readers that "the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edge sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit."

Like any two-edge sword, the word cuts both ways; it cuts if you carry it out, and it cuts if you refuse to carry it out. No one attains life -- even life here on earth -- without experiencing death.

We're expected to have the mind of the author of the second reading (Wisdom 7:7-11), a mind that values the life true wisdom offers more than it values riches. Such life-giving wealth comes only to those willing to pay God's price.

Even if W.C. Fields eventually uncovered a biblical loophole that enabled him to squeeze into heaven, it seems to have come too late for him to have enjoyed the life he was about to leave.