And having looked around, Jesus said to the disciples “How difficult for those with riches to enter the Kingdom of God.” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus again said “How difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God. It is easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of of God.”
They were even more amazed, asking each other “Then who has the ability to save themselves?” Having watched this, Jesus said “Men lack the ability, but not God. For God has the ability to do all things.”
— tr. mine.
One of the most inconvenient passages in the NT for Western Christians. The average US household income puts the average US householder in the top 10% of the richest people worldwide. Here in the UK we’re not far behind. If you are reading this on your own computer, in your own home, you’re one of the richest people in the world.
This passage follows the story of the rich young man, who comes to Jesus to ask what he might do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the law: the young man says he has; Jesus then tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor, then come and join him. The man goes away saddened, because he has many possessions.
There have been lots of attempts over the years to tone down this passage. Like most inconvenient passages in the bible it has been either ignored or neutered. In this case there are a bunch of approaches one can take to neutering it. Please suggest others.
1. The eye of the needle was a gate in Jerusalem. Camels that tried to enter that gate would have to have crawl through on their knees. Therefore it isn’t impossible for a rich person to enter the Kingdom, they just have to do so on their knees — This is a later invention with no historic or archaeological evidence. And makes no sense.
2. The ‘camel’ was a particular type of fisherman’s knot. Therefore it isn’t impossible for a rich person to enter, they just need to untangle their lives first — Again this just plain bad historical scholarship.
3. [See Edit message below] The camel is a mistranslation of the greek word for rope. The original story talked about a rope passing through the eye of the needle — This doesn’t change the meaning much, although it perhaps softens it a bit. But it does seem designed to make Jesus less zany and hyperbolic. Unfortunately it is also false, the only greek texts we have with ‘rope’ are a thousand years too late for it to be original.
4. Jesus is responding to the arrogance of the rich young man in the previous section. The rich young man claimed to keep the law, but clearly he must have been lying, because nobody can really keep the law. Therefore what Jesus is saying here is “rich people are often arrogant, and it is arrogant people who don’t get to enter the Kingdom”. Therefore if you’re rich, be humble and you can receive the Kingdom. — This is just completely made up. The rich young ruler comes and bows at Jesus’s feet, there’s no indication he is arrogant from the text: he is portrayed as being eager to learn. In fact if anyone can be said to have knocked at the door in this passage, it is him. Unfortunately it is shut in his face. — There are other interpretations of the story of the rich young man, but I don’t want to get caught up in the previous story though – this is about the camel and the needle. We can return to that story in another post.
5. Jesus is making the point that a rich person cannot enter the Kingdom in their own power, but must rely on God — This is perhaps the best approach I’ve heard, but I don’t find it particularly convincing. Most translations mush the two parts of the story together (I’ve separated them, above). Jesus’s response to the rich young man is to send him off depressed – Jesus makes no attempt to introduce him to God’s salvation. Then in the first bit of our passage, there are no verbs of agency. It doesn’t say it is more difficult for a camel to be threaded through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be able to enter. The verb “to be able” only comes in the disciples’ question: “who is able to save themselves?” – to which Jesus answers that only God has that ability. Jesus is here responding to the disciples’ question, not to the previous statement; and specifically he is responding to the introduction of the verb δύναμαι – this verb of ability, of possibility, and of action, from which we get our word ‘dynamic’. I’ve translated the passage with ‘ability’ to show how this verb comes in, and it is this verb that Jesus then uses back in his response, twice. It is normally translated ‘possible’ in this passage, which is fine, but the verb carries the meaning of action. We might say “it is possible that the stock market will fall this year”, but that wouldn’t be δύναμαι. So I translate “who is able to save themselves” rather that the more traditional “who can be saved”, to reflect this active sense in the greek.
6. [See Edit message below] The hyperbole has a traditional answer. The camel goes through the eye if you first ground it up into powder. The difficulty (again note, it is not impossible) is to get the camel ground up. And doing so will obviously destroy it. Thus Jesus is making the point that you have to lose your life to gain it: only that which is willing to be destroyed can be used by God. I can’t find a pedigree for this interpretation, but again (as in the gate example) it has the effect of softening the starkness of the statement, and providing a recipe for making progress.
So I think this passage isn’t simply ignorable. Jesus doesn’t appear to be saying that rich folks who trust God are okay, because God is able to save them. If so, why send the rich young man away depressed? Why does he only talk about God’s ability to save after overhearing the disciples discussing ability among themselves? Why not make that comment earlier, when it could have been solace to the rich young man? For this passage and others, it seems fairly clear to me that Jesus taught a theology of poverty: a kingdom of God among the poor, in which the rich were not present.
How do you understand this passage? If you are a Christian who thinks that this is an authentic teaching of Jesus, how do you reconcile this with your myriad possessions? If you are not a Christian, do you think that this passage shows that Jesus was fundamentally anti-rich, or was it just a joke?
On a completely separate note, there are a couple of interesting little features in this passage that normally slip by unnoticed. First notice that Jesus looks around at the start – he’s just sent the rich young ruler away, and now seems to look around to check he’s not being overheard. Second notice the join between the two parts – the disciples ask each other about salvation, and Jesus watches this for a while before interjecting. Two little character notes that give glimpses into how Mark sees the dynamics of the group.
Edit 2010-11-10: Added number 3 above after Shane, in the comments, pointed it out. I had been improperly mushing this and number 2 in my mind, but they are separate things, and the linguistic argument at least has some textual basis.
Edit 2010-12-15: Added number 6 above after Ed, in the comments, suggested it. I haven’t been able to find other evidence on this score, but it is an interesting interpretation.