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.