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Rusia, from New Zealand, asks, "What is the meaning of this phrase: Indeed, 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."

Hi Rusia, when I read this question, I thought, "Surely I've answered this question on the Professor Puzzler blog before?" So I went through the archives to find it, and realized that I was remembering wrong: I previously answered a question about another one of Jesus' statements involving a camel: straining at a gnat, swallowing a camel.

I mention that because it's interesting that in both cases, Jesus is making a rather absurd-sounding claim about camels. In the first, that if you're not careful, you could actually swallow a camel, and the second, that you might somehow fit a camel through a sewing needle's eye.

So, what's actually happening when Jesus makes the statement about swallowing camels? A rich man has come up to Jesus and asked him (note: you can find this entire exchange in Matthew 19:16-26. Rather than quoting the text, I'm putting it in my own words.): "What good thing should I do, if I want to get eternal life?" Jesus responds by telling him that he should keep the commandments. "Which ones?" the man replies, so Jesus gives a run-down of a partial list of the Ten Commandments, plus the additional "Love your neighbor as yourself," which is one of Jesus' favorites; he mentions in another place that this is the second most important commandment ever given.

The rich man proudly declares, "I've done all of these things since childhood!"

At this point, Jesus suggests that the man isn't as perfect as he thinks he is - Jesus says to him, "If you want to be truly perfect, go sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me." The man turns and walks away, sad, because of his great wealth.

At this point, as the man is walking away, Jesus turns to his disciples and announces, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." It is an absurd mental image, to suppose that a camel could fit through the eye of a needle; a camel is significantly taller than me, and the eye of a sewing needle is tiny. It's a comparison designed to sound utterly absurd and impossible.

The disciples are stunned by this, and with good reason. If you ever read through some of the Old Testament stories about the patriarchs, you find that wealth is often shown as evidence of God's favor. Abraham, Job, King David, King Solomon, and others. Jesus seems to be turning this idea on its head, by saying that wealth isn't evidence of God's favor, and in fact can be an impediment to godliness and God's favor. So the disciples, with the biblical background they have under their belts, are astonished, and demand, "Well, if the rich can't make it, who can?"

Jesus considers that they've gone from one misunderstanding to another; He never said that a rich man can't make it - only that it's difficult. So he answers, "With man this isn't possible, but God can do anything." In saying this, he highlights one of the central tenets of Christianity - that man, on his own, is incapable of being "good enough" - God's intervention is required on his behalf.

That's the story, in a nutshell, and now I'll add a few comments for clarification and additional information.

What Did the Rich Man Do?

In the story of the rich man, he is described as "going away sad, because he had a lot of money." There is some disagreement on what that statement means: some people think the man is sad because he can't bring himself to give away everything; some think he's sad because he's going to give away everything and is sad that he won't have it any more. The former is the more commonly held view.

A Jerusalem Gate?

There is a popular explanation that one of the many gates to the city of Jerusalem is actually called "The Eye of the Needle." It is a small gate - smaller than a camel. So if a merchant comes to that gate with a loaded camel, the camel has to be unburdened, and crawl through the gate on its knees. Thus, the gate becomes a symbol of conversion; the camel loses its burden (representative of sin, perhaps) and takes a posture of humility (bended knee) before God. This is an interesting story, but there doesn't seem to be historical evidence that such a gate actually existed, or that camels went through any gates on their knees. 

Money in the Bible

In this section of the Bible, it sounds like Jesus is vehemently opposed to money. People will pair this with another statement (which Jesus never made) "Money is the root of all evil," To prove that Jesus was opposed to money. The actual quote (which was from Paul, not Jesus) is, "The LOVE of money is the root of all evil." In other words, money itself is not evil, but the greed that often goes with it is evil.

A better understanding of Jesus' views on money might be that he was opposed to the purposeless hoarding of wealth.  This view could be supported by considering his story of the wealthy man who had so much stuff he couldn't store it all, so he built bigger barns, in order to avoid having to work. It was after he did this that God rebuked him and called him a fool. The book of James makes similar commentary about rich men having storehouses filled with money that is rusting away.

With that as background, the statement Jesus makes about the wealthy would not be understood as "money keeps people from the kingdom of God," but instead, "the love of money keeps people from the kingdom of God." So people are not exempted because they have money, but because of an inner quality that goes hand-in-hand with money: greed.

Give it all Away?

It's interesting that Jesus didn't tell everyone to give away everything they own. Some of his own followers (Joseph of Arimethea, for example) had money, and were never instructed to give it away. Why in this particular instance, but not others? Perhaps because he knew of the underlying greed in the man's heart. In the book of Ephesians, Paul keeps in line with Jesus' message on money by telling the Christians in Ephesus, "Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need." (Ephesians 4:28). Work, not so you can hoard money, but so you have something to share with those who are in need.

I think that this is a very important lesson, especially as we consider the physical state of our world, with people suffering from natural disasters everywhere. An abundance of hurricanes, forest fires, and earthquakes have left record numbers of people homeless and destitute. Someone who holds to the teachings of Jesus and Paul might ask, "Do I have something to share with those who are in need?"

If you're in that position, let me suggest it might be time to find a favorite charity working in areas of natural disaster, and make a donation. Some charities even allow people to come and volunteer time, working in rebuilding efforts. One charity that I highly recommend is Nazarene Compassionate Ministries. This charity has a very low overhead percentage, which means your gift goes where you want it to. Whatever your favorite charity, please consider doing what you can to help those in need.

Thanks for asking the question, Rusia - it's fun to take a break from answering math and science questions once in awhile! :)

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