But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is [for those who trust in riches] to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” –Mark 10:24-26
What? Is Jesus saying that he can’t save rich people, or that wealth is bad? Wretched out of context, you might think so. A more careful reading reveals so many things jam-packed into this relatively short conversation in Mark chapter 10!
First, there seems to be a contradiction here compared to the preceding verses. In Mark 10:14-15, his disciples decide that Jesus is too important a religious teacher to waste his time on blessing little children. But their attitude toward children makes Jesus indignant. He tells them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Is it any wonder that by the time we read verse 26 that the disciples are dumbfounded by the seemingly impossible task of entering the kingdom of God?
Looking at a little more context, Mark 10:17-22 tells us that a young man runs up to Jesus, falls on his knees, and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The first thing he tells him is, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except God alone.” In one breath, Jesus alludes to his deity AND makes a blanket statement. God alone is good. No one else can claim to be good. The greek word for “good” is agathos, meaning “good, profitable, generous, upright, virtuous.”
Jesus then reminds this man of several of God’s commandments, such as “you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.” The young man tells Jesus that he has kept these laws since he was a little boy. His desire to please God was humanly sincere. To test that sincerity, Jesus tells him there is one thing he lacks if he wants to be perfect. He tells him to go and sell everything he owns, lock, stock, and barrel, give it to the poor, and invites him to become a follower. Then the bible tells us, “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
You see, with this little spiritual “pop quiz,” Jesus reveals that the young man’s desire to observe external rules perfectly cannot be compared to an internal love for God. By asking this rich young ruler to part with all his wealth, he pinpointed his failure to keep the first commandment, to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, to love God passionately. The man simply loved his money more than he loved God. He turned from Jesus and chose to walk away from the only One who could save him and give him supernatural love! And here we come to our quote wrenched out of context.
Starting in verse 24, after this dramatic exit, Jesus looks around him and tells his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” He then gives this striking image that likens the rich person’s salvation to leading a camel through the eye of a needle! Camels are not only large animals, but also carry heavy cargo. They are true beasts of burden. Some scholars believe this could be a reference to a narrow gate that required the reign-holder to strip the camel of its cargo before being able to pass through. Others claim the meaning was simply a hyperbole, or exaggerated statement, referring to the actual eye of a sewing needle. Regardless, the message boils down to the impossibility of the situation.
And here, I think we have in a very condensed passage of scripture, the message of the gospel. Salvation is simple. Remember verse 15? You “receive it” like a little child. It is a gift of love from our heavenly Father, just as earthly parents provide for the needs of their children. Another thing to note is that children are not beasts of burden, like camels. They are not called upon to physically or emotionally labor for the love of their parents. A good parent simply loves their child and allows them to play and grow while nurturing their development. How much more so with our perfect Parent? And one last thing. If the camel in this word image refers to the rich man, what does the eye of the needle represent? Jesus! We live in a world filled with the mindset that all paths lead to God. But Jesus made it clear that there is no other way than through the eye of a needle, Jesus himself. He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
And the crowning gem to this story is in verse 27 where Jesus says: “With man [salvation] is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Dear friend, if you feel God tugging at your heart to come to him, don’t be afraid. You don’t have to be perfect. Simply receive his love like a small child. If you already are a Christian, but because of an imperfect parent you have the habit of always working to please in order to get love, rest in knowing God’s love is not earned. Perhaps you are in a faith tradition that teaches you may not go to heaven if you don’t give enough, sacrifice enough, go to church enough, serve enough, pray enough. I pray God frees you from that false notion, because “Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7: 24-25) Trust in God’s goodness until love, a perfect motivator, replaces fear. Your heavenly Father wants you to simply love him so that all else follows. God’s love is not earned. It is simply returned to the Giver.
PRAYER: Dearest Father, lead all of us to Jesus, who loves you infinitely, and allow him to cover our feeble attempts to please you with his perfect sacrifice on the cross. In his precious and holy name, Amen.