In my post last week, I discussed Jesus’ use of hyperbole. This was a literary device that Jesus used on more than one occasion, and one that was fairly common among the Hebrews of the time. Sometimes, today’s readers interpret Jesus’ words according to our own culture rather than His, and we either take His words literally, or we try to explain them in ways that are more palatable to us. One case of hyperbole that I have often heard explained in a way that attempts to soften it, is the case of the camel going through the eye of a needle. (Luke 18:25) Obviously, if we take that literally, it would be impossible, so Jesus must have meant something else, right?
There are two common explanations for the camel/needle expression. One is that is was a scribal error. The word for camel in the original language was very close to the word for rope. Maybe Jesus really said rope, but the scribes got it wrong. That’s very unlikely, because archaeological evidence shows a very high rate of accuracy in subsequent copies of Biblical texts. But even if it were the case, have you ever tried to get a rope through the eye of a needle? I don’t think that would be any more possible.
The second, and probably more common, explanation is that the “eye of the needle” was the name of a narrow gate leading into Jerusalem—one that was only large enough for a pedestrian to go through. Camels, wagons and the like would have to go through the larger gate. There is no evidence that at the time when Jesus said these words, any gates had been referred to in that way. This is evidently a later explanation which means it wouldn’t be impossible, just very difficult, for the rich man to get into heaven. After all, we want to give him a fighting chance, don’t we?
If you look at the context in which Jesus made this shocking statement—and it would have been shocking to his listeners who were convinced that material wealth was a blessing from God—you will see why He said it. He had just had a conversation with a rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-24) who seemed to think that he was blameless and sin-free. He told Jesus that he had kept all the commandments since childhood. The very fact that he had asked about eternal life indicated that he was a Pharisee, and therefore would have been very intent on following the rules. But the Pharisees always seemed to miss the point, and so did this young man. Through the conversation, Jesus pointed out that he was not keeping the commandments as well as he thought he was. The ones that Jesus mentioned were all commandments that refer to our relationship with others, ones that could be summed up as “love your neighbour”. But this rich young man was not willing to give up his wealth to help the poor, and he was not willing to give it up to follow Jesus either, thereby also breaking the first commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3) You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24) Again, we have to make a choice.
It is just as difficult for a poor man to enter the Kingdom of God if he tries to do it in his own strength or by his own means. The difference is that the poor don’t have quite so much to lose by giving up everything for Jesus, so they are more likely to be willing. A rich man has something else to depend on, a competing offer that he may find more appealing. In either case, it is only by the grace of God that we can be granted eternal life. (Ephesians 2:8-9) In the very next chapter of Luke, wealthy Zacchaeus chose Jesus over his riches. He promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he had cheated four times what he had taken. Jesus rewarded him with eternal salvation. (Luke 19:8-10) What is impossible for us, is possible for God. (Luke 18:27) That was the whole point of the camel and the needle. It was impossible. Except for God.
One more thought on the needle. In the parallel passages in Matthew and Mark, the Greek word that is translated needle represents a sewing needle. Doctor Luke uses a physician’s term that represents the needle that is used for stitching up wounds.