Jesus said to his disciples, “I’m telling you the truth: it’s very hard for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven. Let me say it again: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” [Matthew 19:23-24 (NTE)
After the rich young ruler departed, Jesus compared the difficulty of a rich man entering heaven to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. Because of its impossibility, people find this metaphor troubling. To rationalize it, some scholars speculate that a narrow gate called “The Needle” was located in the wall surrounding Jerusalem. Supposedly used after dark when the main gates were closed, it was so small that a camel had to be unburdened of rider and cargo before getting down on its knees to pass through the gate. They interpret the metaphor as meaning that people must leave behind their baggage, repent, and humble themselves to get through the gate to God’s kingdom. While that’s correct and their explanation makes an excellent Sunday school lesson, no historical or archeological evidence exists that such a gate existed.
Other scholars conjecture that the original word was kamêlos, meaning cable or rope, and a copying error caused it to be written kamilos, meaning camel. They prefer an interpretation that, while it may be extremely difficult to get a rope through a needle, it wouldn’t be impossible, especially if Jesus meant a large carpet needle. Be that as it may, it seems improbable that three gospels would have the same transcribing error.
Rather than trying to reason away the difficulty of getting a camel through a needle, perhaps we should take this hyperbole at face value and accept it for what it is—an impossibility! In fact, in the Babylonian Talmud, there is a Persian metaphor about the impossibility of an elephant going through the eye of a needle. Jesus’ listeners may well have been aware of the Persian saying and, since a camel was the largest animal known in Palestine, it would make more sense to Judeans than would an elephant! If we stopped at this verse, it really would seem that the wealthy are automatically barred from God’s Kingdom. But, if wealth blocked us from God, why would He return twice his original wealth to Job? When Zacchaeus gave away half of his wealth, why didn’t Jesus tell him to give away all of it?
The disciples would have been incredulous at Jesus’ metaphor. In their 1st century Jewish world, if anyone could enter God’s Kingdom, it would be a rich man. After all, he could buy all the sacrificial lambs he needed to atone for his sins, easily pay his Temple tax, freely drop money into one of the many Temple receptacles, and even give alms to the poor. If a rich man couldn’t enter the Kingdom, they asked who could.
It is in Jesus’ answer that we begin to understand the fullness of God’s grace: “Humanly speaking, it’s impossible. But everything’s possible with God.” [Matthew 19:26] What the rich young ruler couldn’t understand and the disciples needed to know was that, rich or poor, there is nothing any of us can do to buy our ticket to the Kingdom because God’s Kingdom doesn’t operate on a works or financial system. Salvation on our own terms is impossible.
When Jesus gave His “Sermon on the Mount,” He said, “Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.” [5:3] He wasn’t speaking of those who were penniless. Jesus was speaking of those who recognize their spiritual bankruptcy—those who know they have nothing of their own to offer God—those who know how poor they are regardless of their bank balances or investment portfolios.
No man can purchase or earn God’s favor—the most we can do is receive God’s grace with a humble and contrite heart! Thinking that we are rich, however, will keep us from reaching out for that grace.