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“It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.”
If we had been within earshot of Jesus, we would have understood what He meant about a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Incorporated into the main gates to ancient cities there often stood a smaller gate, known as a needle’s eye, that was used mainly by pedestrians. The main gate was almost always closed at sunset and on the Sabbath for security purposes and to keep camels and their camel jockeys and their wares from entering the city. But people could still pass through if need be.
Now once in a while, there was an insistent camel owner, who for whatever reason wanted to get inside the city walls even though the main gate had already been closed. Was that possible?
Notice Jesus didn’t say it was impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle He said it was very difficult. In his commentary, Ivor Powell suggests it was difficult because it required three things:
The animal had to be small; the load had to be taken from its back, and the camel, somehow, had to go forward on its knees. It could be done, but it was difficult. 1
Because we who live in America are rich, it would do us well to consider the same three requirements for it is still harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
First, that person must be on the small size, not physically, but attitude-wise.
For Jesus is more interested in the rich man’s attitude toward his wealth than anything else.
William Barclay adds to our understanding of this rich young man:
There is an apocryphal gospel called the Gospel According to the Hebrews, most of which is lost; in one of the fragments which remain there is an account of this incident which gives us a clue. “The rich man said to Jesus, ‘What good thing must I do to really live?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Man, obey the law and the prophets.’ He said, “I have done so.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go, sell all that you possess, distribute among the poor, and come follow Me.’ The rich man began to scratch his head because he did not like this command. The Lord said to him, ‘Why do you say that you have obeyed the law and the prophets? For it is written in the law you must love your neighbor as yourself and look, there are many brothers of yours, sons of Abraham, who are dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, and not one single thing goes out of it to them.’ And then He turned and said to Simon, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. 2
In other words, this rich young man was living a selfish life driven by an anti-Jesus human prideful tendency to believe that one’s wealth is solely gained as a result of our own human achievement and characterized by, “I have worked hard to earn everything I have. It therefore belongs to me, and furthermore, no one other than yours truly is going to have a say in what I do with what I have accumulated.”
The person desiring to participate in God’s Kingdom must be ready to humble himself by adopting the belief that everything he or she has is a gift from God.
Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives (italics mine) us all we need for our enjoyment. (I Timothy 6:17)
To take it a step further to realize that God is the rightful owner of everything we have and He is just allowing us to use some of His stuff while we are here.
Second, the person considering entrance to the Kingdom of God would have to offload anything hindering him from making it through the door.
For this rich kid it was his wealth that was coming between him and Jesus.
To be sure, Luke gives us stories of other would be followers of Jesus who allow other things to get in the way of following Jesus, but in this case, this man is carrying a burden of wealth that is weighing him down and coming between him and Jesus.
It is apparent to Jesus, who knows the hearts all of our hearts, that this man attached more importance to his possessions than he did to the need of his own soul. This makes Jesus sad, as by His own admission He “came into this world to seek and save those who are lost” (Luke 19:10). Mark also has this story and adds a gracious sentence: “Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him” (Mark10:21). And because He did, Jesus challenges him on this vital issue. Jesus is asking, “What’s more important, your possessions or your soul?” Indeed a little earlier in this gospel Jesus ask His disciples, “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (9:25).
So what Jesus is asking of this young man, what He is asking of us, is to put Him first in our lives. And so any would-be followers today must ask, ‘Is there anything hindering us from putting him first in our lives?’
Darrell Bock, in his commentary writes:
This text’s examination of one’s fundamental allegiance is really an exposure of the most subtle forms of idolatry. It is a timeless test of the heart. We must pause and reflect as we read this story, asking why Jesus would make such a challenge. Like a prophet, he probes the heart and raises a question that not only this rich man needs to hear, but all of us as well. This man thought he had a righteous heart, but Jesus’ question exposed that he had other Gods who offered him more than he thought heaven could give. The call to sell all touched a nerve that exposed this man’s lack of allegiance and should have led to him turning to God for grace. But he is not interested in laying his priorities out before God. 3
This passage along with 18 other similar passages in Luke’s gospel reminds us of what we already know: that money and possessions too often come between us and Jesus. But Jesus could not have been any clearer than when He said:
No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stand devotedly by the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon [that is, your earthly possessions or anything else you trust in and rely on instead of God. (Luke 16:13 AMP)
Again I turn to Darrell Bock for some clarification:
So what is Jesus’ view of wealth? That question requires that we look at several texts, not just this one. This background to the question and the later example of Zacchaeus show that the central issue is not selling everything in order to know God. Salvation does not come through an empty back account. Rather, what bridges the contexts is the question of where our trust resides. Does it center in our possession and the security they give? Or does it center in God? Do we recognize that everything we have is part of the stewardship God gives us that is not our own? Will we pretend to be righteous, while we hold to other resources as security in the face of God’s offer? 4
Difficult yes, but not impossible. “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
For thirdly, as the camel had to bend his knee to enter the city, so anyone looking to enter the heavenly city must bend the knee to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
The young man in Luke’s story wasn’t willing to humbly acknowledge Jesus as Lord of his life.
The disciples, on the other hand, were doing their best to put Christ first. “I assure you that anyone who has given up house, or wife or brother or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God will be repaid many times over” (Luke 18:29-30).
And when they later understood all that Jesus had accomplished for them:
“Everything is different, everything so different, Lord
I know I’m not the same, my life you’ve changed,
I want to be with you, I want to be with you.”
It is the cry of our hearts to follow You,
It is the cry of our hearts to be close to You,
It is the cry of our hearts to follow, all of the days of our lives.
In Matthew 13:45-46, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!
I like the way Juan Carlos Ortiz tells the story of the pearl of great price: A man sees a pearl and says to the merchant, “I want that pearl. How much is it?”
The seller says, “It’s very expensive.”
“Well, do you think I could buy it?” the man asks.
“Oh, yes,” says the merchant, “everyone can buy it.”
“But I thought you said it was very expensive.”
“Well, how much?”
“Everything you have,” says the seller.
“All right, I’ll buy it.”
“Okay, what do you have?”
“Well, I have $10,000 in the bank.”
“Good, $10,000. What else?”
“That’s all I have.”
“Well, I have a few dollars more in my pocket.”
“Let’s see … $100.”
“That’s mine, too,” says the seller. “What else do you have?”
“That’s all, nothing else.”
“Where do you live?” the seller asks.
“In my house. Yes, I own a home.”
The seller writes down, “house.” “It’s mine.”
“Where do you expect me to sleep—in my camper?”
“Oh, you have a camper, do you? That, too. What else”
“Am I supposed to sleep in my car?”
“Oh, you have a car?”
“Yes, I own two of them.”
“They’re mine now.”
“Look, you’ve taken my money, my house, my camper, and my cars. Where is my family going to live?”
“So, you have a family?”
“Yes, I have a wife and three kids.”
“They’re mine now.”
Suddenly the seller exclaims, “Oh, I almost forgot! You yourself, too!
Everything becomes mine—wife, children, house, money, cars, and you, too.”
Then he goes on, “Listen, I will allow you to use all these things for the time being.
But don’t forget that they’re all mine, just as you are. And whenever I need any of them, you must give them up, because I am now the owner.” 5
That, in my humble estimation, is what Jesus is driving at in this story of the Rich young ruler.
1 Powell, Ivor. Luke’s Thrilling Gospel. [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications © 1984]. Page 386.
2 Barclay, William. The Gospel of Luke. [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, ©1975]
3 Bock Darrell L. The NIV Application Commentary. [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan © 1996]. Page 469.