The Rich and the Kingdom of God
18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Observations & Reflections
The story of the rich young ruler appears in all 3 of the synoptic gospels. They vary only slightly in their language and content. Luke chose to smooth out some of the difficult parts of the passage relating to the rich young ruler but left the camel through the eye of the needle passage mostly identical.
One interesting (yet tiny) difference between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that both Mark and Matthew indicate that Jesus had mentioned this teaching more than once. (Matthew – “Again I tell you” | Mark “But Jesus said to them again”). Luke omits this phrase for some reason. It’s not vital to the story but it means that this was not a on-off teaching of Jesus. This was a lesson that he apparently repeated because it was quite important. In fact, it’s the only teaching in the synoptic gospels that get the “again I tell you” phrase by Jesus. He usually says “I tell you”. This little note should not be overlooked.
|Matthew 19:23-24||Mark 10:23-25||Luke 18:24-25|
|23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, 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.”||23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.”||24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”|
But what does the teaching mean? Many have tried to push the notion that the eye of the needle was a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem which was open as the night time entry into the city. They camel would have to walk through on it’s knees and unload it’s baggage to get through the gate. It’s a beautiful illustration but it’s not real or factual. There are pictures of such gates in the wall from recent past but those walls and gates were not there in the time of Jesus’ teaching. They are all destroyed in 70 CE and it was recorded by Josephus that they were completely laid to waste.
“All the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited.”
Thus, and photographic evidence of such gates are useless. In addition, the passage states that is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of “a” needle, not “the” needle. “A needle” refers to any needle. “The needle” would refer to a specific needle. This is not a mistake that would happen in Greek. Greek is an incredibly precise language and definite articles were always used appropriately…. if grammar rules were followed.
Lastly, this type of hyperbolic speech is not unique in ancient semitic speech or even in Jewish teaching. Some other examples can be found below.
“Raba said: This is proved by the fact that a man is never shown in a dream a date palm of gold, or an elephant going through the eye of a needle.” (Talmud, Berakoth 55)
“Are you from Pumbedita, where they make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle?” (Bava Metzi’a 38b)
“Open for me a gate no wider than a needle’s eye, and I will open for you a gate through which camps and fortifications can pass.” (Persiqta 25.163b)
“The gates of heaven will not be opened for them nor shall they enter paradise until the camel passes through the eye of a needle.” (Qu’ran, Surah 7.40)
Therefor, we should conclude that Jesus was not speaking in mysteries but in a very real and honest way. He is warning those about the dangers and responsibilities of having great wealth and power. We should all remember that the love of money is the root of many evils. We cannot server two masters.
[Featured image of ancient bone sewing needles similar to the types that would be used in Roman society. They used bone, bronze, and wood needles.]