In a recent interview with National Public Radio, actress Anna Kendrick talked about how, when she was a child, the Bible made her anxious:
I remember there being this thing about “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And at that point, because . . . my brother and I each had our own room and we had a garage, I thought, “Well, that’s us. We’re rich and we need to give everything away, otherwise my whole family is going to go to hell.”
The passage Kendrick is referring to is Matthew 19:24 or one of the parallel passages that can be found in Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:25. It occurs after Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man who kept the commandments but did not follow Jesus’ advice to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Matthew explains that the young man was “sorrowful” at that instruction because he had “many possessions.” The Evangelist then describes Jesus reaction to the incident:
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell 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.” When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Some people say the “eye of the needle” was actually a small gate in the old city of Jerusalem that a camel could pass through only once it shed the belongings it carried on its sides. This means Jesus was teaching that a rich person must shed his excess belongings if he wants to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
But according to New Testament scholar David Croteau, this interpretation is far-fetched:
There is no mention of a gate in any of the passages. Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25 neglect to reference a gate. None of them says Jesus was pointing to a gate in Jerusalem. In fact, Mark 10:32 says they started on the road toward Jerusalem. Jesus was not even in Jerusalem when referring to the supposed “needle gate.” The whole concept of a gate is entirely imported into the text (Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions, 63).
It’s more likely that Jesus was talking about an actual sewing needle and and actual camel, but he was not speaking about these things in a literal sense. In other words, Jesus was using a rhetorical device called hyperbole, or exaggerated rhetoric.
A million exaggerations
The Jewish comedian Jackie Mason once said, “A rabbi would never exaggerate. A rabbi composes. He creates thoughts. He tells stories that may never have happened. But he does not exaggerate!” (“Like Father, Like Clown,” The Simpsons, original airdate October 24, 1991). Of course, exaggerated rhetoric has been a common tool among rabbis since before the time of Christ.
The Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinical writings, records the second-century Rabbi Bar Yochai saying, “Better had a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbor to shame.” This is similar rhetorically to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”
Should we actually pluck our eyes out or jump into furnaces? No. Jesus is simply showing us that sin is serious, and we should do whatever it takes to avoid it. We don’t have to pluck out our eyes, but we should not forget that our eyes could lead us into sins like lust and adultery (see Matthew 5:27). Likewise, we don’t have to literally sell all that we own, but our wealth can lead us into sins like greed and exploitation. St. Paul even warned Timothy “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10).
Also, notice the disciples’ response to Jesus teaching. They asked, “Who then can be saved?” This means Jesus’ teaching was not directed at only the very wealthy members of society but to everyone. In ancient Judaism wealth was considered a sign of spiritual blessing (see Deuteronomy 8:18), so if even those who had found favor with God could not attain heaven, what hope was there for ordinary people? Jesus’ answer to the disciples clears the matter up: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).
If salvation were merely the result of human efforts, then no one could attain it. But, with the grace of God, anything is possible, and the greatest of sinners has the opportunity to become the greatest of saints. We must rely on God’s grace and trust in him and not our own abilities or possessions for salvation. And this is where the Bible’s warnings about wealth come into play.
The danger of wealth
Rich people can attain heaven, and the Bible records several wealthy people who found favor with God. These include Abraham, Job, and even Joseph of Arimathea, who was wealthy enough to afford a rock tomb for Jesus’ burial.
But, as we’ve seen, wealth can lead to the temptation to idolize money, and so it is a spiritual danger for God’s children. Jesus said a person could not serve both God and money lest he end up loving one and despising the other (see Matthew 6:24). St. Paul included in his list of vices that can prevent someone from entering the kingdom of God “thievery” “robbery” and “greed” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
Paul’s warning was especially necessary in the ancient world, where wealth was almost always acquired by oppressing the poor. According to biblical scholar Bruce Malina:
By and large, only the dishonorable rich, the dishonorable nonelites, and those beyond the pale of public opinion (such as city elites, governors, regional kings) could accumulate wealth with impunity. This they did in a number of ways, notably by trading, tax collecting, and money lending . . . In the first century [these methods] would all be considered dishonorable and immoral forms of usury (The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Louisville, 104-5).
Wealth in the ancient world wasn’t earned as much as it was stolen from the poor and then kept within powerful families. This might happen through tax collectors extorting citizens or landowners charging farmers high rates of interest and using lending practices that kept farmers in a persistent cycle of poverty. One ancient Mediterranean proverb said, “Every rich person is a thief or the son of a thief.”
Neither riches nor poverty
There are rich people today who achieved their wealth by defrauding others, but it is much easier to ethically acquire wealth through today’s free market than in the primitive economy of ancient Rome. This means, on the one hand, we should not take Jesus’ warnings too strictly and malign the many wealthy people who have earned their money honestly. On the other hand, we should not ignore Jesus’ warning, because the temptation to be greedy with our wealth has not changed in 2,000 years.
A more sensible approach to wealth is to treat it as a “morally serious blessing” that needs to be managed. Wealth will not automatically keep someone from attaining heaven, but the blessing of wealth comes with its own trials (if you don’t believe me, read this article about “the Lottery curse”). One of these trials is the moral duty to use our wealth to help the needy. This parallels Jesus’ warning, “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48).
The Bible treats the blessing of knowledge and the ability to teach others in a similar way when James 3:1 says, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” This does not mean no one should become a teacher but only that teaching must be approached with great care.
Likewise, wealth is not something that is always wrong to possess but it must be approached with care. We should stay alert for how the devil may use blessings like wealth or knowledge to tempt us (see 1 Peter 5:8) and not give him a foothold from which to do so (see Ephesians 4:27).
The book of Proverbs gives us sound advice: “give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me” (Prov. 30:8). If, however, God has blessed someone with wealth, that does not mean God requires that person to give away his wealth in order to be saved. Instead, God has called him as well as all of us to take stock of how much we have been given and use it to help “the least” among us (see Matthew 25:40).
By Trent Horn