Who Are the Rich Who Are Like Camels? We Are
Jesus did not subscribe to the notion that the rich had been blessed by God -- Part 1
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:24).
Our Lord delighted His listeners with His rhetoric. These days the word rhetoric is used pejoratively, or derisively, to refer to language lacking in substance, as in “It’s just rhetoric!” Our Lord’s rhetoric, however, was so full of meaning that His listeners exclaimed that He spoke with authority and not at all like the scribes to whom they were used to listening (John 7:15).
Jesus’ rhetoric made an impact on listeners. The impact consisted both in the substance of the message, a substance that called for a reaction in how one lived one’s life, and in the delivery, a delivery so powerful that it made the message memorable — repeated through the years until it was included in the written Gospels. One might say that the substance created disciples, while the delivery ensured repetition of the teachings.
Jesus is well known for His use of parables and metaphors. Another rhetorical device He employed was hyperbole, or extravagant exaggeration. Three of the four Gospels report Jesus’ use of the specific hyperbolic statement quoted above (Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25).
The image was so outlandish that it could not be forgotten. And the message it conveyed was so harsh that it provoked, and continues to provoke, a reaction. Think of the image: a big, gangly camel trying to get not just its nose, but its entire body, through the eye of a sewing needle. The mere image evokes laughter.
But then reality set in for listeners. Jesus was describing something impossible. The rich could not enter the kingdom of God. Surely this was a harsh saying. Indeed, it has been thought so harsh that biblical commentators on this Gospel passage have striven to show that Jesus did not mean “camel” but “rope,” and that he did not mean the “eye of a needle” but a gate in first century Palestine. These attempts by commentators have failed, and we are left with the harsh proclamation.
Jesus’ audience was well aware of how harsh was His meaning. Although the disciples often did not understand Jesus’ parables (Matt. 13:36; Mark 4:13; John 10:6), they understood this statement very well! The Gospels report that the disciples and others in the audience were “completely overwhelmed” by it (Matt. 20:25; Mark 10:26; Luke 18:26). No doubt it was a harsh saying, but why would all of the audience, including the disciples, be completely overwhelmed by it? Surely, it should not have caused consternation among the many listeners who were poor. Nor should it have caused consternation among the disciples, who had made themselves poor. They had, as Peter asserted, “put everything aside” to follow Jesus (Matt. 20:27; Mark 10:28; Luke 18:28).
Yet, the disciples and the others exclaimed to one another and implored Him, “Who, then, can be saved?” Let’s try changing the punctuation so that the sentence is not a question but a cry: “Who, then, can be saved!” What is the meaning of their cry? Jesus’ saying referred to the rich, yet the listeners acted as though all of them were affected. There are two possible reasons for this. (Part 2 of this essay will discuss the second.)
First, many people at the time thought that the rich had been blessed by God. Obviously, it is better theologically for believers to think that wealth comes from God than through their independent efforts. Moreover, wealth allows the rich to be philanthropic (and walk through their streets blowing trumpets as they give alms; see Matt. 6:2). Yet, Jesus’ statement about the rich meant that those who, to all appearances, had been blessed by God could not enter the kingdom. If those blessed by God could not enter the kingdom, what chance would those not so blessed have? If the blessed cannot make it, who, then, can?
Even today, when we sit around the supper table, we thank God for His blessings on us. We thank Him for our families, our food, our jobs, our homes, our education, our cars, our smartphones, our retirement accounts. And we thank Him for our country’s abundant natural resources, bountiful economy, and our system of government and freedoms. If we, who have received the blessings of God in our receipt of such things, cannot enter the kingdom, then who can?
Jesus’ pronouncement means that He did not subscribe to the notion that the rich had been blessed by God. Rather, wealth inhibits, even kills, the growth of the Spirit. It is not Jesus’ pronouncement, but fear of the loss of the kingdom due to wealth, that should overwhelm us.
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