Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Camels and Needles (Matthew 19:24)

Complete: “It is harder for a ____ man to enter heaven than for a _____ to go through the eye of a ______.” Rich, camel, needle (Matthew 19:24)

Late in his ministry, Jesus is approached by an unnamed man in Judea who has come to be known as the “rich young ruler” (Matthew 19:16-22). The wealthy man asks Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). He leaves the encounter saddened when Jesus suggests that he liquidate all of his assets and give the funds to the poor (Matthew 19:21-22). After the man exits the scene, Jesus capitalizes on the teachable moment, remarking to his disciples about the high degree of difficulty for a rich person “to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23). Not content to leave the issue, Jesus then intensifies his thought with an analogy using familiar objects (Matthew 19:24). He quips:

“Again I say to 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.” (Matthew 19:24 NASB)
The repetition underscores the thought as though Jesus uses “again” 17 times in Matthew, he does so only twice in conjunction with the emphatic preface “I say to you” (Matthew 18:19, 19:24). Jesus’ colorful illustration is not only an attention grabber; more importantly it advances the task he describes from being difficult (Matthew 19:23) to impossible (Matthew 19:24-26).

Jesus’ words are comparable to philosophers who have contended that wealth prevents the study of their field (e.g. Plutarch [45-120], De Cupidate Diviarum 526; Seneca the Younger [4 BCE-65 CE], Epistles 17.3). In 178 CE, Celsus, who produced the earliest comprehensive attack on Christianity, claimed that Jesus took the idea from Plato (427-347 BCE) who had written that it was impossible for a good man to be rich (Laws V.743a).

As he commonly did, Jesus incorporates hyperbole, contrasting the smallest aperture with the largest beast of burden known to the region. The big animal simply cannot squeeze through the small hole. Californian evangelist “Sister” Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) used a live camel to demonstrate this point in one of her “illustrated sermons” in 1925.

John Proctor (b. 1952) expounds:

The camel is a fine long-distance runner on sand, but a total non-starter when it comes to sliding through narrow openings. Jesus seems to have found its irregular shape splendidly bizarre (see also Matthew 23:24), and here he offers the ridiculous picture of using a camel to thread a needle. All the probabilities are stacked against success. Rich Christians need a special kind of grace and wisdom, to steward humbly and generously what they have been given. (Proctor, Matthew: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer (Daily Bible Commentary), 163)
Though striking, the image is not entirely unique. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) comments:
Camels were common beasts of burden among traveling Arabs...known for their strength...but not particularly for gracefulness...Jesus apparently employs a common figure of speech when he speaks of a camel passing through a needle’s eye. In Babylonia, where the largest land animals were elephants (cf. Achilles Tatius Leucippe and Clitophon 4.3.5; Lucian [125-180] Lover of Lies 24), Jewish teachers could depict what was impossible or close to impossible as “an elephant passing through a needle’s eye” (Babylonian Talmud Berakot 55b; Babylonian Talmud Baba Mesi‘a. 38b). In Palestine, where the largest land animal and beast of burden was a camel (cf. Matthew 23:24; Babylonian Talmud Ketubbot 67a), describing the impossible as a “camel passing through a needle’s eye” may have been a common expression as well. (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 477)
The temptation to tame Jesus always exists and this text has been mitigated often as many theories have been posited which soften Jesus’ words. One way this has been done is on linguistic grounds as a few manuscripts have the textual variant kamilon (“rope”) instead of its homonym kamelon (“camel”). This transforms the subject from a large animal to the cable used to tie a ship to a dock.

W. D. Davies (1911-2001) and Dale C. Allison, Jr. (b. 1950) explain:

A few manuscripts (e.g. 59 61) and versions (e.g. Armenian, Georgian) have the similar-sounding κάμιλος = ‘rope’ or ‘ship’s cable’; so also a scholion attributed to Origen [184-253] (cf. G.W.H. Lampe [1912-1980], s.v.), and Cyril of Alexandria [387-444], Commentary on Luke 123; Theophylact [1050-1107] and Euthymius Zigabenus [12th century] mention this as the opinion of ‘some’...The same result has been obtained in modern times via conjectures about the original Aramaic. (Davies and Allison, Matthew 19-28 (International Critical Commentary), 51)
R.T. France (1938-2012) rejects this hypothesis:
The later substitution of kamilon, “rope” or “cable,” for kamēlon, “camel,” not attested in Greek before this time, and Henry George Liddell [1811-1898], Robert Scott [1811-1887] and Henry Stuart Jones [1867-1939] suggest that it may have been coined in an attempt to evade the sense of this text. But if so, it was not a very clever attempt, since it is hardly less ludicrous to attempt to put a cable through the eye of a needle than it is a camel. (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 738)
Though few modern commentators accept it, the most widely circulated mitigating of the expression claims that it refers to a small door in the gate of a walled eastern city known as “the eye of the needle”. Such openings allowed pedestrians to enter a city without the need for the large gates to be opened as they would have been for a camel train. It has been posited that a camel might be forced through such a gate, albeit with difficulty. This reading has been spiritualized further by notions that in order to do so, the camel need be stripped of its load.

The theory is decidedly late, being first attested in the Middle Ages by Theophylact of Ohrid (1055-1107). Despite there being no evidence for such a claim, even today locals present the “site” of this gate to unsuspecting pilgrims in the Holy Land.

David E. Garland (b. 1947) refutes:

There is no basis for the widely circulated tradition that the eye of the needle was the name of a gate in Jerusalem. Walled cities had smaller gates beside or built into a larger gate so that people could enter when the larger gate was closed. Large animals might be able to squeeze through such a gate...Luke uses a different word in Greek for “needle (belonē, Luke 18:25), than Mark (raphis). If a gate has been known as “The Needle’s Eye,” it seems likely that only one Greek term would have been used. (Clinton E. Arnold [b. 1958], (Matthew, Mark, Luke (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 63)
Even if there were such a gate, context clearly dictates that Jesus is illumining something that is impossible not merely difficult (Matthew 19:25-26). Church father Jerome (347-420) concluded: “one impossibility is compared with another (Against the Pelagians 1.10).”

Watering down Jesus’ teaching is not only inaccurate, it is dangerous. Frederick Dale Bruner (b. 1932) warns:

The vice of the teaching that says, “the needle’s eye is a low gate in the Middle East that camels must stoop to enter” is that it tells the well-to-do that by acts of humility they can get into the kingdom, that they can keep their comforts and even continue their drive for financial enrichment if they will only be a little humble in the process. This teaching turns Jesus’ teaching in its head — it teaches how to be covetous and Christian at the same time. “The fact that such minimizing interpretations [as the cable or the gate] have been thought up is itself an eloquent comment on the passage”. (Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, 305)
The remark is also an exemplar of Jesus’ humor, serving as a one-liner or punchline. Lessening its force spoils Jesus’ joke. Christian humorist Grady Nutt (1934-1982) observes:
Humor is the capacity to describe. It takes the tangible and uses it to picture—to parable—the intangible. “It is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”...Jesus was called teacher more often than by any other title. Humor, parable, description were the basic tools of his trade. (Nutt, So Good, So Far, 143)
In his book, The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood (1900-1994) acknowledges:
Of all the mistakes we make in regard to the humor of Christ, perhaps the worst mistake is our failure, or our unwillingness, to recognize that Christ deliberately used preposterous statements to get His point across. When we take a deliberately preposterous statement and, from a false sense of piety, try to force some literal truth out of it, the result is often grotesque. The playful, when interpreted with humorless seriousness, becomes ridiculous. An excellent illustration of this is a frequent handling of the gigantic dictum about the rich man and the needle’s eye. (Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 46-47)
Jesus’ image is intended to be outlandish. Absurd juxtaposition is actually characteristic of his teaching, e.g. Matthew 23:24 refers to the equally ridiculous swallowing of a camel.

N.T. Wright (b. 1948) examines:

Jesus often exaggerates hugely to make his point. It’s like saying, ‘You couldn’t get a Rolls-Royce into a matchbox.’ The point is not that you might achieve it if you tried very hard, or that there was a particular type of small garage called a ‘matchbox’; the point is precisely that it’s unthinkable. That’s the moment when all human calculations and possibilities stop, and God’s new possibilities start. (Wright, Matthew For Everyone: Part Two, 53)
It is not surprising that so much effort has been made to soften a statement of Jesus’ that is critical of the economic elite. Most of us want to be rich and instinctively reject any deterrent to this aim.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) interprets:

Our temptation is to think that Jesus’s reply is intended to “let us off the hook.” Being rich is a problem, we may think, but God will take care of us, the rich, the only way God can. Yet such a response fails to let the full weight of Jesus’s observation about wealth have the effect it should. We cannot serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:24). Jesus’s reply challenges not only our wealth, but out very conception of salvation. To be saved, to be made a member of the church through baptism, means that our lives are no longer our own. We are made vulnerable to one another in a manner such that what is ours can no longer be free the claims of others. As hard as it may be to believe, Jesus makes clear that salvation entails our being made vulnerable through the loss of our possessions. (Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible),174)
The term “rich” need not be limited to its traditional monetary connotation. Myron S. Augsburger (b. 1929) advises:
We can paraphrase “rich man” to mean “man of privilege” in our application, for riches are not all material. It may be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a professor, a doctor, a lawyer, a bishop, a nurse, a teacher, a businessman, etc., to get involved in the kingdom of heaven now! In any position of privilege there is the danger that the status and power become primary. In T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)’s play Murder in the Cathedral there is the line, “They who serve the greater cause have the greater danger of the cause serving them.” (Augsburger, Matthew (Mastering the New Testament), 230)
This passage should put modern readers on the defensive as we need not be wealthy by the standards of society to be deemed “rich”.

Is it possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle? Why have commentators historically tried so hard to soften Jesus’ phrasing? Have you ever said something in jest only to have had it interpreted literally? How do you think that Jesus would word this thought today? Do you consider yourself rich? How do you define “rich”? Is the intent of this passage to discourage wealth? Why is it so hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven? What obstacles does wealth present?

Though the saying is featured in all three Synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25), only in Matthew are the disciples said to be “very astonished” by it (Matthew 19:25). The counterintuitive claim shocks their sensibilities. Unlike many modern preachers, Jesus rejects the presumption that prosperity is synonymous with divine blessing.

Then, as now, wealth was generally regarded as a mark of God’s favor (Psalm 1:3). Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) analyzes:

The disciples’ astonishment is due to the widely held belief that wealth was a sign of righteousness and virtue...For the pagan world, note Seneca the Elder [54 BCE-39 CE]’s claim that wealth reflects a person’s virtue (Controversies 2.1.17). From the Jewish side see Deuteronomy 28:1-14, which says that if Israel is loyal to the covenant with Yahweh, the Lord will make them abound in prosperity (see also Psalm 112:3; Proverbs 3:13-16, 8:12-18; Song of Solomon 5:16-18; Philo [20 BCE--50 CE], On the Migration of Abraham 18.104). No text is clearer than Job. The books says that Job is righteous (Job 1:8) and his household’s wealth a divine blessing (Job 1:10). When Job loses his wealth, his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar interpret his loss of wealth as punishment for sin. If one is virtuous or righteous, so the assumption goes, then one will be wealthy. If wealth is a mark of righteousness, then the disciples’ question makes sense. (Talbert, Matthew (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 237)
Where the populace saw riches as a manifestation of divine blessing, Jesus viewed wealth as a hindrance to spiritual progress. In many ways, Jesus is merely returning to the basics of his preaching ministry from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3, 6:24).

Michael Green (b. 1930) characterizes:

Money tends to make us selfish, materialistic, independent of God and of our fellows, and distracted with methods of retaining our wealth. Wealth leads to an overconfidence which is the very antithesis of the childlike spirit of trusting dependence on the goodness and mercy of God. It is perfectly evident. It had just happened in front of their eyes, in the person of the rich young man. Wealth was something Jesus set his own face against. Christians who have great possessions are in great peril. (Green, The Message of Matthew (Bible Speaks Today), 209)
Thomas G. Long (b. 1946) speculates:
If we take at face value the statements of the rich young man, it is not that he is an evil man, an oppressor, or an extortioner...The problem with this man is not that he is dishonorable; the problem is that he is rich. The problem is not with the evil he has done to others, but with the evil his wealth is doing to him. Because he is rich, it is hard for him to surrender to God. He finds it painfully difficult to become humble like a child. His wealth reinforces his commitment to the present age and to his own status in it; his wealth underscores his self-sufficiency...Being rich...simply intensifies the basic human desire for self-justification. The disciples, who are not rich, quickly realize that Jesus is speaking about more than the moneyed rich: Jesus’ word embraces all those who, in any way, are rich unto themselves—in short, the whole of humanity...The kingdom calls for total surrender to the will of God, a demand forever defeated by human pride and self-sufficiency. (Long, Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion), 222)
For Jesus’ disciples the thought is startlingly horrific and for once, the disciples get the point exactly; often more so than many modern readers. The disciples ask the question we might: “Then who can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25).

Douglas R.A. Hare (b. 1929) notes:

While this statement [Matthew 19:24] may strike us as an exaggeration, it does not astonish us as much as the disciples’ response: “Who then can be saved?” Why are they so dumbfounded? None of them were wealthy. Why should they regard the problem of the rich as engulfing them all? Here we must remember that the young man has been presented as a model citizen: decent, law-abiding, charitable, and religious. His wealth signifies to the disciples that he has been blessed by God. If such a person is not acceptable to God, what hope is there for the rest of us?...By grace and grace alone, can we be admitted to the kingdom. While the impediment facing the wealthy is particularly serious, it is present to all. Even poor people insist on defining themselves and others by what they possess (or lack). The world is too much with us, and we become “old” too soon. How can we turn and become children of God’s world? For us this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). (Hare, Matthew (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 228)
David E. Garland (b. 1947) concludes:
The key point..has to do with the more general issue that is raised by the disciples’ astonished question, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25). Jesus; answer is that salvation does not come from human resources but from God alone. The young man asked, What good thing shall I do? (Matthew 19:16) and insisted, “All these things I have observed, what I still lack.” He assumes that entering into the kingdom of heaven is something that he can bid for and pull off on his own (see Matthew 8:19). Whether one is rich or poor, salvation does not come from human achievement but is a gift from God to those who follow Jesus. Only God’s gift of a new heart (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26) will enable radical obedience. (Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel, 207)
Jesus fully understood humanity’s fundamental problem: we are incapable of saving ourselves. The encounter with the rich young ruler is immediately preceded by Jesus’ call to become a child (Matthew 19:13-15). Children do not operate with an assumption of self-sufficiency and grasping the need for dependence is critical as salvation is impossible for humans to produce. But only for humans.

Impossible is not in God’s vocabulary. With God all things are possible (Genesis 18:14; Job 42:2; Zechariah 8:6; Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 1:37, 18:27). That God can squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle is evidenced at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is assisted by Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57). Joseph is a rich man who appears to have found his way squarely within the confines of the kingdom of heaven.

How is Matthew 19:24 good news? Does Jesus’ statement astonish you? Do you typically interpret a person’s wealth as being indicative of blessing? Is it any harder for a rich person to gain admittance to the kingdom of heaven than a poor person? If not, why does Jesus underscore wealth in this passage? What do you value more: spiritual or financial growth (Matthew 6:24)?

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” - Walt Disney (1901-1966)