19, 10, 18, 24, 25, 25. No, that’s not my high-school locker combination. Those are the chapters and verses in Matthew, Mark and Luke that record one of the more popular illustrations that Jesus gave:
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.
I’ve heard that the “eye of the needle” referred to a gate in the city that wouldn’t allow a camel to pass when it had all its baggage on it. Allegedly, the camel would have to be unloaded, get on its knees and then crawl through.
I’m thinking the illustration is more imagination than fact. The meaning is actually worse than the fanciful explanation: No one can enter the kingdom of God through their riches, either moral or monetary. Let’s look at the context.
The context is a rich man who came to see Jesus. This man would have been of high stature. He addressed Jesus as “teacher,” which conveyed honor to the poor, traveling preacher who had no home or earthly assets.
We see this type of thing all the time: A person of high position will bestow a compliment to someone, counting on their ego to respond favorably. I’ve experienced this. Someone wants me to favor them, so they compliment me. That honoring attitude vanishes the moment they realize I’m not going to give them what they want.
The rich man asked, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
Jesus, unimpressed with the praise of the wealthy man’s praise, responded: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.”
Notice how the Lord cut through the compliment, dealing with the false praise of this “powerful” man.
For a moment, picture someone like President Trump standing in front of a preacher who didn’t have a church or home. Maybe this preacher has a small blog that is running against all the mega-church pastor messages and tweets. He’s seen as a curious man who is proclaiming, with authority, the kingdom of God and true, eternal life.
A new voice on the scene gets attention when their message promises something new. A new voice that has healed incurable diseases and cleansed people of demons and madness would be even more impressive. A new voice that can multiply bread for thousands of people? Even better! Someone powerful would want some insight from that sage!
Jesus addressed him in a way that tells us the rich man knew the Scriptures. There is only one who is good: The Almighty. This tells us that the rich man was likely a member of the religious leaders (who were very wealthy, had vast homes and clung to an honorable position despite Rome’s occupation of Israel).
After dropping the “Why do you call me good?” Jesus tells him to keep all the commandments (another indication that he knows the man is familiar with the Torah).
“Which ones?” the man asks. Perhaps he was a lawyer, too?
Jesus answer is interesting. He once said that the commandments are fully obeyed if one obeys two of them: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Luke 10:27
But this time, Jesus tells him to obey all commandments that have to do with interpersonal relationships: Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother, love your neighbor as yourself.
Of course our rich man says, “I’ve done all of these!”
Jesus breathed a sigh of relief and said, “I guess you’re good!”
No. That’s not what happened. It’s also true that Jesus only pointed out commandments of which he knew the man was guilty. The pharisees were guilty of each one of the six commandments Jesus listed.
It makes me think of when I ask my children how their room is (clean?). “It’s good!” I say, “Should we go have a look?” The response, “Oh, there’s one more thing I need to do.”
Jesus replied, “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.”
The rich man left, sorrowful, because he was very wealthy.
Some think this teaches us to tithe or give to the poor, or vote for politicians that want to create more food stamp programs. That’s not what Jesus was teaching here at all. He was, essentially saying, “Oh, you’re room is clean. Let’s go have a look, shall we?”
Then, the tag for those who were watching this amazing exchange (where Jesus turned down a chance to gain acceptance with the wealthy leaders!). Couldn’t He have just buttered up the man a little bit? couldn’t he have broadened the gate a little bit? Give the man a little hope that he was pretty good?
Isn’t that what so-called pastors and evangelists do? They like to have the “big tent?” We don’t want people feeling they can’t get to heaven! The Gospel is a free gift! It’s easy!
Jesus turns and says, “It’s impossible.”
Humans are born rich. We’re rich in our independence. We’re wealthy in our self-will. We’re well-off with pride. We’re sure that if we’re “good enough,” or “do the right thing” that God couldn’t deny us heaven.
It’s not just that we need to take off our loads and get on our knees and crawl. A camel would no more be able to get through an eye of a needle than we can get into heaven as sinful, prideful, deceitful rebels.
Jesus is the gate. And no-one enters except through Him. It’s a narrow gate that doesn’t include any praise from men, wealth of the world, or pride of life. If we keep one eye on the world’s popularity, praise or approval, then we’re unworthy of that vast and unseen kingdom.
As yourself this: Would you follow a poor, wandering child of a carpenter who may have been an illegitimate son? Would you do so if he was rejected by all the church leaders and influential people of society? Would you associate with Him when he said things that made the powerful-elite want Him dead? Would you stand close to Him? What if His promises meant you would follow the exact same path of rejection, poverty, torture and death with only the promise of heaven on the other side of that veil?
Would you remain with Him? Or would you trade Him in for 30 pieces of silver?