The Needle’s Eye

Jesus famously said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) In the previous post with the video about selling everything a reader interpreted this to mean that the “rich man can enter heaven (with his riches which is what Jesus implies), but it is difficult.” Variants on this apology include the mistaken notion that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle’s Eye” that was narrow but still passable. Or that Jesus was referring to a carpet needle with excessively thick thread.

All of these explanations have one thing in common: they attempt to mitigate and water down what Jesus said in order to keep hold of riches and eternal life. Such is the allure of greed. Call it the American desire to fuse the excesses of capitalism with biblical teaching if you will. But in the end these explanations are flat wrong. Consider the original story in Mark, from which Matthew probably copied:

As [Jesus] was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” You know the commandments:’Do not murder,”Do not commit adultery,”Do not steal,”Do not give false testimony,”Do not defraud,”Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.” (Mark 10:17,19-20)

Here the rabbi is telling the man that he must obey standard religious laws if he is to be considered righteous. This would not have surprised Mark’s readers. But what Jesus says next is the real shocker:

Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” But his [the man's] face fell at that saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus looked around, and said to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus answered again, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:21-25)

The man is told to sell everything if he wants to enter the Kingdom of God, something that would have shocked Mark’s readers just as it shocks us today. Both the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and the Babylonian Talmud (Berakoth 55b) understood this to refer to a literal camel and needle. You might hang your hat on the word “trust” and assume that what Jesus means is that trusting in wealth more than in God is the real problem. And that’s certainly true to a point. But what Jesus says a little later clues us in as to his deeper meaning:

“But many who are first will be last; and the last first.” (Mark 10:31)

This is really at the heart of the historical Jesus’ teachings. The powerful have everything and the poor nothing. There is no justice save what the rich purchase or bribe for themselves. Jesus teaches that all of the injustices of this world will be corrected in the next. The rich may be able to buy their way to the front of the line but God can’t be bribed; he will see to it that the least among us are lifted up while the undeserving are left behind. You get the idea.

I like Proverbs 23:4: “Do not weary yourself to gain wealth; cease from your consideration of it.” You can’t take it with you when you’re gone and the pursuit of money for its own ends will lead to suffering. If wealth happens to come your way, fine. But be satisfied with what you have. Because true happiness comes from contentment right now rather than agitation and anxiety over what might or might not come to you in the future.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07303172336903971330 armand

    I don’t believe Jesus is saying that if you sell all your things you will be instantly righteous before God. That would be mean all rich people are evil and all poor are good. I know many poor people who covet, steal, etc.. because of their lack of wealth which God would hardly call good or righteous. Remember King David was a man after God’s own heart and had more wealth than many of us combined. Job was the most righteous man of his day and had much wealth. And after God tested him, he gave him manifold more than he had. The problem isn’t the wealth, but the love of wealth. It can be a snare that chokes the spiritual life out of you. Where your treasure is, your heart will be.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Armand:

    Nobody has said that–rather, the argument here is that it’s a necessary, not a sufficient condition. Doing it isn’t enough to get you into heaven, but not doing it is enough to keep you out.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03859046131830902921 Mark Plus

    Of course, if the “rich man” supplied grain to the community as an honest entrepreneur, where would his customers get their bread if he put himself out of business? Where would people get their supplies in general if all the entrepreneurs caught the Jesus bug and stopped offering their services?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01151525356755782797 Daniel Rutter

    It’s common enough in the “prosperity preaching” movement to claim that Jesus was, in fact, himself a wealthy man.

    And, of course, we’re all meant to be as much like Jesus as we can.

    So not only does God – according to Prosperity Preaching doctrine – reward his faithful with deep spiritual things like mansions and BMWs, but the richer you are, the more Godly it makes you! It’s a positive feedback loop!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09491229715804614782 Nvrgoingbk

    Look, Christianity is only one of many religions that teach the way to eternal life, fulfillment, and salvation is through “non-attachment” to the world. The Buddhists and the Jains are just two religions that share the belief that giving up everything makes one spiritually superior to others.

    I am not a Christian, but to tell you the truth, I just don’t get how being poor helps anyone at all. Greed drives consumerism which puts money in other people’s pockets and provides jobs. I have been poor my whole adult life. I would love to win the lottery, because I would love to share with others. I can say this with the utmost sincerity, because I know that even now, when I have so little, I share whatever I have with others. I go without quite often to help my fellow man. You don’t have to be rich to be greedy. I have seen the poor horde what little they have too, and I have seen the rich give in secret unbenownst to the public of the millions or even billions given by them to those less fortunate. Jesus’s admonition to sell all he had to the poor doesn’t make alot of sense. He should have told the guy to stop being so damned attached to his money and start having compassion on his fellow man by sharing some of the wealth instead of just losing it all. The heart of the man is what needed to change, not his financial status. I doubt selling everything would have changed his heart at all, and he would have only been resentful, because the core of the man had not been transformed.

    By the way, I thought this was a “secular” outpost. Where are all of these Christians comming from?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04699296428920303928 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    I see a couple of commenters beat me to this point. Anyway…

    Why do you care what Jesus said? I thought this was a forum for materialists, agnostics, amd atheists. Is it really a forum for socialists, communists, and other authoritarians, who take anti-market arguments wherever they find them? “Oh, yee hypocrites!”


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