When a Bible story is in all three gospels it must be important. Each writer had a different intention in what they chose to write. Matthew was trying to make a case for the Jewish reader: Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one. Matthew quotes the O.T. more than any other writer, 93 times in fact (as opposed to 49 for Mark, 80 for Luke, and 33 for John).
Mark tells you immediately that Jesus is the Christ: (Mark 1: 1) “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” . Mark doesn’t try to prove this statement so much as he wants to unfold it’s ramifications; the implications of faith and discipleship. Mark’s gospel is the story of how a little secret (Jesus is the Messiah who takes away the sins of the world) is slowly revealed and what happens as a result.
Luke wants to give an ‘orderly account’ of all the stories about Jesus to his primary reader: Theophilus. We read Luke’s gospel over his shoulder.
Never-the-less all three want to include this story. It serves the purposes of each writer.
Matt. 19: 16 – 30, Mark 10: 17 – 27, and Luke 18: 18 – 30 all tell the story of a wealthy, upstanding individual who comes to Jesus with a question for the ages: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What do I have to do to get into heaven? Tell me straight and I’ll do it.
Jesus doesn’t question his sincerity like he did to the Pharisee questioners. He does however respond curiously to the question. He takes exception to the wording. “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Without waiting for a response to this question Jesus answers, “Keep the commandments” and the rich man says that he did.
Again, Jesus doesn’t contest him on this point. Surely this man wasn’t perfect, but Jesus isn’t interested in humiliating this man with a list of his violations. In fact the Bible says Jesus felt love for him; agape, perfect love.
Jesus liked this guy, he wanted the best for him, he wanted to get through to him; and yet he knew that the wealthy young man still had sin. Jesus tells him what he must do: “Sell everything and give it all to the poor.” Whether he had violated the law or not, Jesus knew that this guy’s love of money was a huge stumbling block for him. The man left Jesus in sorrow, he had many possessions that he loved dearly.
Jesus then remarks to the crowd, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” This phrase has for over a thousand years been the object of much speculation.
In the eleventh century, Theophylact of Bulgaria , wrote about a gate in Jerusalem that was in the shape of a needle’s eye; thin and short. A camel could only pass if it was unladen and on it’s knees. For travellers to use this gate they had to take everything off their camel, get it to kneel and crawl through the gate. The application is obvious: the rich must leave all their treasures in order to enter the kingdom.
The problem is no such gates exists. No historical record of a gate called ‘the eye of the needle’ has ever been found. It simply doesn’t exist. It is possible, on the other hand that this statement is merely the product of a mistranslation; perhaps the word camel (κάμηλον) was a mistranslation of the word for cable or rope (κάμιλον).
Either way I think that point Jesus is making here can be missed if you are look too hard at the figure of speech he uses. Jesus’ intention here is not to illustrate the steps required to accomplish the task of getting a rich person into the Kingdom but instead to illustrate just how impossible it is by man’s efforts. You simply cannot get a camel or rope throught the eye of a needle no matter how hard you try.
Dilligent attention to detail, effort, adherence to perscribed forms, meticulous attention to the finest points of the law, none of these things will help you get a camel (or rope) throught the eye of a needle and none of them will get you into heaven.
The more interesting thing in this story is the disciples response, They didn’t say, ‘Too bad for rich people, oh well. I’m glad I’m not rich.’ They said, ‘Yikes! Who then can be saved?’
The wealthy were considered in the Jewish 1st century mindset as the elect. They were the good guys; The go to church each Sunday types. The wealthy were the ones who were approved by God. If they can’t get in then we are toast.
What is it that makes the rich so unlikely in Jesus eyes to enter the kingdom? Could it be their dependence on God is not fully developed? They were among the few who didn’t have to worry at night if they were going to eat the next day. The rich could easily fool themselves into thinking that they could take care of themselves. Wealth does make it difficult to keep your mind on kingdom things.
In keeping with the first century mindset, maybe the wealthy thought they bore God’s seal of approval. ‘We’re already in the Kingdom, I mean look at us we live like kings right?’
What the disciples are saying is, ‘Man if the rich can’t make it who can?’
I think 21st century christians can have this same problem. We who have grown up going to church can develop a moral superiority complex. We’re O.K. We’ve just got to get the message out to these heathen so they can clean themselves up.
Jesus says with a mindset of entitlement, and an attitude of moral superiority it is imposible to be in the Kingdom, it is impossible to do Kingdom work, it is impossible to make the Kingdom grow.
But with a dependence on God, and His grace, all things are possible.