The Eye of the Needle
“And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man
to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, 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.”
One of the more difficult and intriguing verses in scripture that has caused a lot of debate among scholars, theologians and pastor/Elders is the meaning behind Jesus’ words found in Matthew 19:34. One will find themselves thinking “of course it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” So, is that what Jesus is asserting in His message to you and I as we read this encounter?
First, let’s understand a little about the Jewish cultural settings of Jesus’ day to set the background for our examination of this wonderful text. If we understand the setting and the culture of that day, it helps to open the passage before us in a very wonderful way.
According to Alfred Edersheim, the Hebrew culture always thought in word pictures. Every story or concept brought a mental picture to their minds. We with our Western minds tend to describe things in abstract terms. We use descriptive words to tell what someone or something is like. The dictionary defines “abstract” as theoretical, not practical or applied, not easy to understand.
The Eastern mind is very different. It thinks in images and pictures which illustrate the subject with a brilliant clarity! To illustrate this, allow me to ask you a question:
Describe God to me?
Western minds (us), will probably say things like: omnipotent, omnipresent, powerful, loving, kind, good, merciful, holy, etc.… These are abstract terms describing to us what God is like. If you were to go to Israel and ask a Jew to describe God, his reply would be quite different. He thinks in pictures, so his immediate answer would be something like:
God is like a rock… In this case, David, sees a vivid picture of a huge rock in a burning desert providing cool shade and shelter to the desert traveler. He might say …
God is like a shepherd … He would see a gentle, tender, leader of the flock, one who supplies all the sheep’s needs, intimately communes with them and tenderly cares for them, a fierce protector. He might say …
God is like an eagle … Strong, free, powerful. Or,
God is like a tower – a place of safety, security, refuge, i.e. a tower of strength
In our examination of the text above, the disciples instantly connected with the mental picture that explained to them what Jesus was talking about.
So, in Matthew 19 we find a young man comes to Jesus kneeling, and asks Him, “good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The young ‘ruler’ was sincere but naïve in the things pertaining to the eternal - In keeping with the legalism of the Law, he sought that one elusive good work that would push him over the top to obtain eternal life.
Jesus’ immediate response to the young rich ruler is to challenge him with a penetrating question, ‘Why do you call me good?’. Jesus is pushing the man to think through the implications of his own words and ultimately see his own lack of goodness.
And so, Jesus again challenges the young ruler ‘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.’
The man responds with a sincerity that warmed Jesus’ heart. Marks account says at this, ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him’. “One thing you lack, … go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
The man at hearing this became sad, because he was very wealthy, and he walked away, grieved in his heart. The young ruler realized that although he had devoted himself to keeping the commandments, he had failed to keep the first and greatest of the commandments – ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ (Matt. 22:37-38). The man’s riches were of more worth to him than God and he failed the ultimate test of being “good” in the eyes of God.
Jesus’ ultimate lesson here is that goodness flows not from a man’s deeds, but rather from God Himself. That is why it is listed as one of the fruit of the Spirit, an attribute that God is willing to develop in the heart of every believer when they are willing to give up everything and follow Jesus.
This brings us to our verse in question – Jesus turns His disciples and says, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, 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.”
From an initial reading of this verse it would appear that Jesus is implying that it is impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. But is that what He is really trying to convey to His disciples?
Certainly, that view would seem to contradict numerous scriptures in God’s Holy Word. Many of the Patriarchs were wealthy men such as Job, Abraham, Lot and Jacob just to name a few. In I Timothy: 9-10, Paul makes it clear that it is the love of money, not money itself, that is a root for all sorts of evil. But he also clarifies that those who desire to get rich need to recognize the inherent dangers that accompany such pursuits, i.e. temptations, and snares of the devil that can cause foolish and harmful desires, ultimately, leading men into ruin, destruction and a falling away from the faith.
Interestingly, in Jesus’ time there were doors located in the middle of the main gates entering Jerusalem. At night, for security reasons, the main gates were closed so that enemies could not simply ride into the city on their camels and attack. To enter the city at night, the only entrance was a small door, appropriately called, ‘the eye of a needle’. To enter a man would have to unload his camel of all it was carrying and then carefully lead the animal through the small doorway. It was a slow and difficult task. It would be difficult for the camel to get through the door, but not impossible.
In the story it is made clear that Jesus did not despise the young rich ruler for being materially wealthy, but he recognizes a sense of emptiness in the man’s life, and his search for a greater purpose. Even after following all the rules, the commandments, he failed to recognize the answer to his search was right in front of him, Jesus, the true way to eternal life. Jesus gives a simple answer to the young rulers’ request. To enter the kingdom of God he needed to disentangle himself from all his wealth first, like you would have to unload all that was on a camel’s back to get through the eye of the needle. Unfortunately, the young rich ruler was not willing to unload his back and he missed out on what his heart was looking for.
May we not miss out on the true goodness of the Lord.
As Jesus said in John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me.”