A Camel and a Needle's Eye

A rich young ruler hurried towards Jesus and knelt at his feet. He may have been thirty years old, or even forty - the word is used of Saul when he must have been thirty, and by Josephus of one about forty. He had however, the earnestness and zeal of youth, and withal a sincerity that attracted Jesus: "he loved him". "Good Master", the ruler said, "what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" Jesus answered, "Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments".

Various ideas have been deduced from the answer of Jesus. It was no disclaimer of sinlessness, all agree; but some say that Jesus was asking if the man knew what he affirmed; that since only God is good, Jesus too must be divine. It is better to treat the question of Jesus as an enquiry whether the words were used by the young ruler merely as a courteous form of address, or with a sincere desire to obtain Christ's answer; besides this, the enquiry also turned the man's thoughts to God and to His standard of goodness. Jesus therefore instructed him to keep God's commandments if he would enter into life. This answer was so general in form that it cannot be regarded as complete; nor would it appear that Jesus expected it to be so regarded. The commandments were many, independently of all the various interpretations of the Rabbis, which would also be included in the ruler's thoughts. The next question, Which? was to be expected. In the answer Jesus only directed him to the Second Table of the Law, together with the summary of it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. This would be a remarkable limitation if Jesus were giving a complete answer; but he was evidently leading the man to a recognition of his position. The man was not hypocritical when he claimed that he had kept all those; his answer, however, prepared the way for the last word of Jesus: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me" (Matt. 19:21).

The answer evidently touched a secret weakness - the fascination of riches had a strong hold upon him. To sell all he had was therefore a call to break free from the toils that held him, to break away from the worship of mammon. Although often treated as the whole of Christ's answer, that renunciation was only half of the demand; it was, however, preliminary to the second half: "Come and follow me". This demand was a call to centre his affection on "treasure in heaven"; it was also a call to enter the line of the crossbearers, the mark of Christ's followers. Although the young ruler could not meet the demand, his possessions being too great to be renounced, yet Jesus loved him. And as he went away sorrowful we may not be wrong in thinking that Jesus too was sorrowful as he watched him go. It was therefore with a sad note that he pointed out the dangers of riches, as turning to his disciples he said, "Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (verses 23, 24).

Jesus did not say it was impossible - yet he indicated how difficult it was by the hyperbole of the camel going through a needle's eye, which if taken literally would indicate impossibility.

A rather attractive explanation has been put forward in modern times, that the needle's eye was a small postern gate, used after nightfall when the large gates of the city were shut. Only by the load being removed from the camel's back, and with much pushing and pulling, could the animal be got through; so the rich man must get rid of his load of riches if he wished to enter the Kingdom of God.

Against this idea there are two objections. No ancient writer ever gives this explanation; yet if it was customary for camels to get through postern gates such an explanation might have been expected from men familiar with the sight. In addition, the variant form in the Babylonian Talmud, where an elephant takes the place of the camel, points to the saying being proverbial; for whatever may be possible with difficulty for a camel would be quite impossible for an elephant. The saying is hyperbolic - an exaggeration, to describe a thing very difficult to do.

Very difficult, but not impossible. The disciples concluded that it was impossible; they also felt that the saying of Jesus also implied that none could get eternal life. To them a rich man seemed to have so many advantages that if he could not get salvation. No one else could possibly succeed. "Who then can be saved?" they despairingly ask. The answer of Jesus is obscured by the translation of the preposition by the word "with". He said in effect, "If you stand by the side of men, and see it as men see it, it appears impossible; but stand by God's side, see it by His side, and all things, even the salvation of both rich and poor, becomes possible".

Watching the retreating figure of the young man, Peter asked, since the apostles had left all, what they should have? Jesus promised to them thrones in his kingdom; he also said that all who for his sake had forsaken present advantages, should receive eternal life. He then added words which, while concluding his answer to Peter, are also the text of another parable, the chapter division in the English Bible obscuring the connection. "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first." When he had finished the parable of the Labourers, he repeated this statement: "So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen".

Looking at difficulties from God's point of view the humanly impossible becomes not only possible but is actually accomplished when part of God's purpose. Sarah laughed at the idea of having a son when she was ninety years old. God, however, promised it and the words of God to Abraham are both a remonstrance against doubt and a call to faith. "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Gen. 18:14). Jeremiah performed a great act of faith when he bought a field in Anathoth while the Babylonian armies were investing the city of Jerusalem; but he was fortified by his knowledge that God had made heaven and earth by His great power; and he could say: "There is nothing too hard for thee" (Jer. 32:17; cf. God's response, verse 27). Mary, the Lord's mother, was encouraged to accept her sublime responsibilities as the mother of God's Son by the angel's words: "With God nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1: 37). Other things follow from this greatest of all God's acts - that He has given us His own son for a saviour. Thus the "impossible thing of law", that sin should be condemned in the flesh, has yet been accomplished, for Christ overcame every impulse that was contrary to His Father's will and so was an acceptable offering for sin (Rom. 8:1-3). Paul can therefore say: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13).

"With God", or "beside God" was always the outlook of Jesus himself. He saw that men chained in bondage to riches and power and office, could yet be released from their slavery and by God's grace become servants to God.

From: Parables of the Messiah by John Carter