All Christians have heard of the expression: “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.” The phrase comes from a teaching by Jesus in reply to a question from a rich young man. Let us have a look at the whole passage from the Gospel of Matthew, 19:13-30. The quoted text is from The Message version of the Bible:
One day children were brought to Jesus in the hope that he would lay hands on them and pray over them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus intervened: “Let the children alone, don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.” After laying hands on them, he left.
Another day, a man stopped Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Jesus said, “Why do you question me about what’s good? God is the One who is good. If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you.”
The man asked, “What in particular?”
Jesus said, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honour your father and mother, and love your neighbour as you do yourself.”
The young man said, “I’ve done all that. What’s left?”
“If you want to give it all you’ve got,”Jesus replied, “go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.”
That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crest-fallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.
As he watched him go, Jesus told his disciples, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for the rich to enter God’s kingdom? Let me tell you, it’s easier to gallop a camel through a needle’s eye than for the rich to enter God’s kingdom.”
The disciples were staggered. “Then who has any chance at all?”
Jesus looked hard at them and said, “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off yourself. Every chance in the world if you trust God to do it.”
Then Peter chimed in, “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?”
Jesus replied, “Yes, you have followed me. In the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously, you who have followed me will also rule, starting with the twelve tribes of Israel. And not only you, but anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields—whatever—because of me will get it all back a hundred times over, not to mention the considerable bonus of eternal life. This is the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”
Whichever version of the Bible you use, the message Jesus provides remains the same: YES “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.e. it is impossible. For the disciples of Jesus, this was a hard teaching to take. Jesus heard as they asked amongst themselves “who then has any chance of getting to heaven?” From the disciples’ position, the words of Jesus were contrary to their worldview. They saw success with God as being measured against, or at least related to, one’s standing in the community. The Pharisees, who were the religious leaders of the time, were also the leaders of the community. They benefitted from the temple economy and other controls which they exerted; to keep for themselves and to exclude the less fortunate. They were the pious ones of the society and if they were not good enough to warrant eternal life, then, reasonably they asked, if not them, who was? There were of course others in society who had amassed wealthy, the money changers and the tax collectors, but they were seen as making themselves rich at the expense of the commoners and certainly would not consider them as eternity candidates.
Some two thousand years later the human race is still asking the same question: “Can a rich man get into heaven?” and the reply from Jesus still rings out clear and unchanged in Matthew 19:24 “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye” (eukopōteron estin kamēlon dia trēmatos rhaphidos eiselthein). Jesus is saying bluntly “it is impossible.”
But this is not the answer we all want to hear. This is not a good answer to preach from the pulpit to please a congregation! As a result, ways have been found to attempt to explain it away and reverse the original meaning of Jesus’ words. Puerile explanation like the ‘eye of the needle’ is like a ship’s cable, or a narrow gorge, or a gate of entrance for camels which requires stooping etc. etc. All are blatant efforts to mislead and sell an inaccurate interpretation of the Gospel, for Jesus Himself tells us in Matthew 19:26 “with man, this is impossible.” It can be no clearer than that! Jesus, whether He was quoting a common saying or a local proverb of the time or not, intended to express that it was impossible. There is no other way to interpret His words honestly.
The Jews’ Babylonian Talmud has a similar proverb to the effect that a man, even in his dreams will not see an elephant pass through the eye of a needle and the Koran speaks of heaven being closed to the wicked till a camel passes through the eye of a needle – though it is though this idea originated in the New Testament. Not only do these other writings concur on this phrase reflecting “impossibility”, Luke, a doctor by profession writes in Luke 18:25 using the word “belonē ” for the word “needle” here. This word is a medical term for the surgical needle not elsewhere in the New Testament. Luke was clearly ensuring clarity of interpretation of an impossible situation – irrespective of how the rich or how we today, would rather interpret it. No matter how one looks at it with objectivity and truth, with man, it is impossible for a rich man to attain eternity. Jesus tell us this.
As Matthew Henry says, it is a hard thing for a rich man to be a good Christian and be saved. The way to heaven is a narrow road and hard to travel, especially so for the rich. More duties are expected from them, than from others, making the task immeasurably harder. Furthermore, unavoidable sin will tend to beset them in their walk while their temptations on the way are also greater. The rich have to work hard to retain their estate and in that, take the focus off the Lord. It is too easy for them to make a god of their own doing, of their own success. Only a great measure of divine grace will enable a man to break through these difficulties. Similarly, the difficulty of the salvation of apostates (Hebrews 6:4-6), and of old sinners (Jeremiah 13:23), are also represented as “an impossibility”. The salvation of any is so very difficult (even the righteous scarcely are saved), that, where there is a peculiar or particular difficulty, it is clearly told to us, such that we may be warned and prepared. We do have a choice, after all, about being rich.
It is very rare for a man to be rich, and not to set his heart upon his riches; and it is utterly impossible for a man who has set his heart upon his riches, to get to heaven; for if any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (First John 2:15 and James 4:4).
Amen and Amen.