Concerning Camels and Needles

“Again I tell you, 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.”

– Matthew 19:24 (NIV)

In this familiar quote by Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, a rich man approached Jesus and asked the Son of Man what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, and the man stated that he had kept them all. To which Jesus responded, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man was sad because he was unwilling to do this, prompting Jesus to speak the above verse to His disciples.

In the last couple of years, this verse has always been one that elicited both guilt and concern in my heart whenever I read it. Here I was, working in an industry known for its high compensation, and here Jesus was, telling us how hard it is for people with great wealth to enter His kingdom.  Fortunately, God set my heart at ease last month when through UChicago’s InterVarsity Fellowship, I attended a Bible study that spent some time digging into this passage.

Note: I’ll go ahead and state the obvious. Clearly I am more likely to interpret this passage in certain ways since I want to enter the kingdom of God (who wouldn’t?). Because of this unavoidable bias, please take my thoughts with all the salt required to melt the snow in Chicago this winter.

Idols

First, the perhaps easier way out for someone like me. One way to interpret what Jesus said is to broaden the scope of the passage to that of idols in general, instead of focusing on the particular idol of money. The rich man was someone who claimed to follow the law and hoped to earn his way into heaven. However, Jesus knew that for this particular man (and for everyone else in this world), there was some “idol” that he would not give up for God, so He asked him to give up his riches. If this man idolized something other than money, Jesus would probably have asked him to give that up to follow Him.

Even though there are other idols that can keep us from God, Jesus did specifically mention worldly riches here  and we can’t ignore that. While I can’t claim to know His complete reasoning,  these are two possible points that Jesus may have been trying to address here. First, we turn to the historical context. In Jesus’ time, the disciples expected the great/rich men of the world to glorify the Messiah with their wealth and power (from John Gill’s Exposition); therefore, like many of Jesus’ teachings, this was a counter-cultural statement that demonstrated how radical Christianity was in that society. It is no surprise that the disciples responded in the following verse with “Who then can be saved?”

Second, there is something about worldly riches that makes it easier to corrupt into sin than just about anything else in this world. God is sovereign, but money can give us a false sense of power. God’s will is final and already done, but money can make us feel in control. God calls us to live humbly, but money can breed arrogance and condescension. While having money is not naturally sinful, it’s all too easy for broken human beings to corrupt it into an idol. It’s one of the most dangerous gifts that God can give us that is not inherently broken.

Grace

Another interesting question that came up in our study was what it meant to give up our idols for God. In this case, if we idolized our riches, do we really have to sell everything and follow God empty-handed? Isn’t that a little harsh? I think the answer is…maybe. On one hand, God blesses His people with talents, whether it’s spiritual gifts or resources, so that they may glorify Him in this world. On the other hand, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” (Job 1:21, NIV) If God asks us to give up something for Him, we should be willing to do just that. In my opinion, this latter point is important. It’s not necessarily about taking the gifts that God has blessed you with and getting rid of it all to follow God, it’s about the willingness to give it up without a moment’s notice if that’s what He calls us to do. Now am I saying that I am willing to part with my worldly riches instantly if God told me to do so? Well….

In verse 26, Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” We have a God who is willing to help us turn away from whatever our idols may be and toward His salvation. God can move mountains for us, He can make camels go through the eye of a needle, and He can love His people even though they have fallen into sin. There is nothing I am more thankful of, because otherwise, I’ll have to start looking for a very large needle.

Jack Gang is currently working as an algorithmic trader at a proprietary trading firm in Chicago, IL.

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6 thoughts on “Concerning Camels and Needles”

  1. Great thoughts, and a sobering reminder for all of us as we seek God’s wisdom in how to invest all of our forms of capital – our power, money, resources, relationships – wholly for God’s Kingdom. “Seek first the Kingdom…”

    Thanks for thinking this through and sharing it, Jack.

  2. Incidentally, I ran across this quote in my readings this week:

    “This eschatological character of the ecclesial hypostasis contains, of course, a kind of dialectic, the dialectic of ‘already but not yet.’ This dialectic pervades the eucharist. It makes man as a person always sense that his true home is not in this world, a perception which is expressed by his refusal to locate the confirmation of the hypostasis of the person in this world, in the goods and values of this world.”

    In other words: to be “in Christ” is to understand one’s own true identity as being found in the age-to-come as opposed to the present age. Thus:

    “It is therefore better understood for example why “the root of all evils is avarice” (1 Tim 6:10) and wealth excludes from the Kingdom of God (Luke 6:24 etc.). This has to do not with a moral fault but with the location of the hypostasis of being, of its security, in this world, in the substance and not in the person.” (cf. p. 62 of Being as Communion, John D. Zizioulas)

    As you can probably guess from the language, this is from an Eastern Orthodox theologian. But essentially, he’s saying something very similar – our identity (hypostasis of being) comes from God’s love for us (our personhood) rather than from whatever our material circumstances. What he adds, though, is a highlighting of the eschatological and eucharistic dimension: we can put away our riches because we see in the liturgy of the eucharist that bread and wine is not just bread and wine, but the body and blood of Christ, and this transformation allows us to see, anticipate, and participate in the transformation of everything else in the material world. This transforms our understanding of the material world as being subject to “necessity” into a world which has been brought into the world of “freedom”. “Nature” itself is being transformed!

    This is just another angle to look at the verses, as an explanation of why riches can be thought of as THE idol as opposed to just an idol. The love of riches is a refusal of the freedom that comes from seeing things as bound up fundamentally by the self-giving love of God rather than by the “rules” of natural, economic, life.

    1. to be “in Christ” is to understand one’s own true identity as being found in the age-to-come as opposed to the present age.

      Wow good thought here. I’ve been intuiting this idea for a while – our true self being something constructed from above, to be revealed in the future. Maybe I need to read Zizoulas.

  3. 1 Timothy 6:17~19: “(17) Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (18) Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, (19) storing up for themselves a treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”

    There are a lot of different translations of these verses. It, I think, summarizes your points well. Verse 17 tells those who are rich to not let their riches make them proud, to lean on God only. That we are to be stewards of what God provided us. Verse 18 says, “do good.” How? By being “rich in good works” and “generous and ready to share.” That’s God calling those who are rich to be ready to give it up “without a moment’s notice if that’s what He calls us to do,” like you said, but also calls those who are rich to actively be rich in good works. What’s interesting to me is the next verse, which brings back together what you have been talking about in terms of wealth and tells us *why*: to store treasures of a good foundation for the future. In another translation, “laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” The original word for “laying up” here is the same word used for “treasuring.”

    It’s interesting to me that this is how we can learn and see the full potential of eternal life and hold onto it. Because whereas in those days, there was no bank to store their treasures in, just in grain or gold or fabric. But here, God is telling them–us–to store our treasures in an even better foundation (Matthew 6:20, we are called to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and vermin do not destroy.”) I’m sure there are other opinions on what storing treasures in heavens means and what this verse, and I’m not saying this is the only explanation.

    But it just even better shows me what a camel going through the eye of a needle means. It means to me that in order for the camel to go through it, this gate to Heaven and eternal life, we need to drop the earthly possessions that we’ve stored up in our life and give that entirely to God. He wants us to store our treasures, our heart, our love, our burdens, our trust…everything in the kingdom of God. And that’s why I think that it’s so hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God: because having wealth not only makes it easier to fall into idolatry or pride, but it also comes with the calling, an added responsibility, to steward it and use it for God’s glory, so that we can have an even clearer spiritual sight of eternal life.

    Anyways, I was looking at these verses today, was reminded of your post, and felt compelled to comment. 🙂

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