Mark 10:23-27 (NIV): Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Jesus’ words to His disciples cause as much consternation today as they did when He first spoke them. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Obviously, to fit a camel through a needle’s eye (the word for needle in Matthew and Mark is a regular sewing needle, while that in Luke is a suturing needle, entirely appropriate for a physician) is a physical impossibility.
The concept of it being impossible for a rich person to get into heaven is so distasteful to people that some have tried to explain Jesus’ words away. For a couple hundred years it has been taught that there was a small “after hours” gat next to the main gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle.” It was so small that a camel could get through it only after having all of its burdens removed, and only if it crawled in on its knees. It’s an interesting picture with some good imagery. But that small gate never actually existed. Others have tried to change the camel into a rope by changing a letter in the text. (Not that getting a thick rope through the eye of a needle is any easier than getting a camel through it!)
But no hedging or “re-imaging” is necessary. Jesus was using hyperbole, as He frequently did to make His point. (Cf. the plank sticking out of the judgmental person’s eye in Matthew 7:3-5.) The context for His remark is the fact that the rich young man had just opted out of the kingdom of God, deciding that the cost (selling all that he had, giving it to the poor, and then following Jesus) was too high a price to pay. Jesus was simply pointing out that this is the way it is with many (most?) people whose focus has been on amassing worldly riches. Those riches become an idol for them, gaining such a stronghold in that person’s heart that they are usually unwilling to give it all up for the much simpler life that is focused on Jesus.
The disciples’ disbelief came from two sources. First, it was common theology that rich people were rich because they had been specially blessed by God. The idea that such people were not already in God’s kingdom was a shocking thought. Second, the disciples were still looking forward to serving as top members of Jesus’ cabinet when He took over as king in Jerusalem. And, yes, that included gaining LOTS of worldly riches, too. This whole statement by Jesus, that riches could be a block to entering the kingdom, and not a sign that one was already in it, tapped their kaleidoscopes sharply, changing their whole view of how worldly riches fit into the picture of God’s kingdom.
But Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ amazed question, “Who then can be saved?” showed a small ribbon of light around the seemingly closed door: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” The claws of worldly wealth sink deep into the hearts of those who focus on it. But God can break those claws loose. The lure of riches can blind the eyes of those focused on them to the point where they can see nothing else clearly. But God can open those eyes to the glory of His kingdom. But He will do that only if the person wants to live in His kingdom enough to be willing to be set free.
Father, I agree that the quest for riches can easily enclose our hearts, and move us further from You and Your kingdom. Help us, Lord, to always put the interests of You and Your kingdom first on our list of priorities. And help us, when You do bless us with material wealth, to think first of how to use if for the good and the growth of Your kingdom. Amen.