There was once an old Arab who died and left 17 camels to his three sons. His will was very explicit about their inheritance. One-half of the camels were to be given to the eldest son, one-third to the middle son, and one-ninth to the youngest son. The sons were extremely perplexed, since seventeen cannot be divided by two, three, and nine. As they were pondering how, in Allah’s name, they might divide up their inheritance without spilling either their own blood or that of the camels, a neighbor came to their aid. “I will lend you my camel,” he said. With the neighbor’s camel there were now eighteen camels. The oldest son took one-half or nine camels; the middle son took one-third or six camels; and the youngest son took one-ninth or two camels. Nine plus six plus two camels totaled 17, and the neighbor took back his 18th camel and all the sons were happy.
This story of the 18th camel is a story of unessential necessities. Sometimes that which may not seem to add anything to the sum total in reality adds a great deal. Believe it or not, the Bible is full of 18th camels. These people are unessential necessities. They are people who do not appear to add a whole lot, if anything, to the lives of others, but in reality are very necessary and needed. Remember Noah. The world didn’t need another crazy man who thought he heard the voice of God and spent all his time building a boat under the heat of the sun. And yet … he was an 18th camel. Or what about Sarah? What could she add to God’s promise of descendants as numerous as the sands of the sea? She was as old as the sequoias and as barren as a tree in dead winter. And yet … she was an 18th camel. Remember Jacob? Now here was a character of godly virtues. Thief. Trickster. Conniver. A real addition to God’s hall of shame, I mean, fame. And yet … an 18th camel.
How about Joseph? To his eleven brothers this starry-eyed dreamer was a corn on the family toe. He would never amount to anything to his family, let alone to the world. And yet… he was an 18th camel. And what of Rahab? A Canaanite. Considered a woman of the evening. She didn’t have anything to contribute to God’s promise of a land for the Hebrews. And yet … she was an 18th camel. What of Gideon? From a poor family. The pipsqueak of the house. Leader of a whittled down army with trumpets, clay pots, and torches for weapons. Another 18th camel. Remember David? Another runt of the family with a slingshot hanging out of his back pocket. An adulterer and murderer. And yet … an 18th camel.
Take Joseph. Supposed father of Jesus. What could he add to a virgin birth! What in the world could this poor fellow contribute to the holy family accept maybe a donkey to ride on? What about … an 18th camel? Or the poor widow, whose tiny coin clinked in the temple coffers. She was a nobody with little to offer. And yet she was an 18th camel. Or what about the poor and sick and elderly that came to Jesus? Surely they had nothing to contribute to society. Except maybe, an 18th camel. And consider most of the women in the New Testament. What could women like Martha and Mary, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Samaritan woman by the well, Mary of Bethany, the woman who anointed Jesus feet … what could they add to Jesus’ ministry? An 18th camel? Or what of the children who came to Jesus? They were negligible, nuisances, and appendages to adults. What could children contribute to the kingdom of God? Another 18th camel? The Bible is full of 18th camels.
But, so is life. And you may just be one of them. Have you ever felt like what you had to offer to life was a drop in the bucket? Have you ever thought of yourself not just as a wart on someone’s nose, but the hair on that wart? Could it be that you see yourself as someone who just fills an empty chair on Sunday morning? Or maybe at times you’ve felt like the two cows reading a milk sign that said, “Pasteurized, homogenized, standardized, Vitamin D added.” And one cow turns to the other and says, “Kinda makes you feel inadequate, doesn’t it.” Do you see yourself as inadequate, unessential, with little or nothing to add to the lives of others? Then, you may well be an 18th camel. Life is full of them.
– A short boy with the coke-bottle glasses sits quietly in the back of the class. He’s afraid to raise his hand to speak, because he feels he has nothing to contribute.
– An elderly woman rocks in her squeaking chair. She tells her children in the big house in the city that it’s too much trouble to pick her up for the family picnic with the grandchildren. It’s such a long drive. She can’t play Frisbee with the kids. Her arthritis has knotted her knuckles. “And besides,” she says, “an old woman would just get in the way.”
– “I can’t preach, or teach, or lead a committee,” sighs the church member with his eyes scanning the floor. “For Heaven’s sake, I’m a carpenter. I work with these,” he says with rough, scarred hands opened. “What carpenter ever amounted to anything?”
The Apostle Paul has a word of encouragement for those who, at times, feel unessential, unnecessary, unworthy, unwanted. He reminds them that in the community of Christ they are the eighteenth camel. For in Christ’s community those who appear to be the weaker, the least, the less honored, the less respectable, are indispensable. Those who feel that their contribution is minuscule or of little significance are to be honored.
The church has great need of the diversity of people who make up the body of Christ. No one is unessential or unnecessary. Each person here adds a rich contribution to the church, even if that contribution is not easily recognized. You may not see what your life contributes to life around you and to this community we call the church. You may not even be able to figure out how your simple presence adds to the lives of others, anymore than you can figure out how the 18th camel in the story added anything to the solution of the three sons dilemma. Anymore than George Bailey, in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, could see how his life made a difference to those around him. Remember, your presence counts!
The lonely zero’s presence counted. It took some time for her to realize it, though. You see, she didn’t think she amounted to anything. Miss Zero was a real nothing. The other numbers teased her and called her “Zilch.” She was round and pudgy. And you could see right through her. There was nothing to hide. Whenever she walked by the letters of the alphabet all they said was, “Oh!” Sometimes, when she got up the nerve, she would go stand next to the nine or the four. But, she added nothing to them. An 09 was still a 9 and a 04 still just 4. It was as if she wasn’t even there at all. She often rolled off and cried in a corner.
Then one day she saw a 1 standing all by itself on a sheet of paper. He looked so alone and sad. She knew how that felt. So, she walked right up and stood next to the 1, hoping to provide some comfort. But this time she noticed a difference. The 1 seemed to straighten up and stand tall on its base. Then she figured out why. She was standing on the 1’s right side. The one had become a 10! Her presence did add up to something. No, her presence multiplied others ten times! She wasn’t a nobody and a nothing! Though she couldn’t see it before, she now realized that her presence counted.
And so does yours. Your life, your gifts, your contributions, your presence add to the lives of others, even though you may not see how. You count! Just like the 18th camel. Just like Jesus. A friend of sinners and outcasts. Despised. Rejected. Humiliated. Weak. Godforsaken. Crucified.
Dead. Buried. And yet … He is the 18th camel, whose resurrection presence adds riches to our lives and multiplies our hope. That is why: God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are (1 Corinthians 1:28).

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