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The Eye of the Needle

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Mark 10.23-27.

The context of this morning’s reading is the sorrowful departure from Jesus of the young ruler who had come to Jesus in search of eternal life but could not bear to be parted from his “great possessions” (Mark 10.17-22). The Greek word translated there as “possessions” is chremata — the same word that is translated “wealth” in this morning’s verses; and I must not think it excludes me just because I am not on the world’s rich list. Chremata are what today I might call “things” — anything that has monetary value and that I take pleasure in possessing … fashionable clothes, plasma TV, nice car, mp3 player, laptop etc. And the more “things” I have, Jesus is saying, the harder it is for me to enter his upsidedown kingdom where “things” are of no importance.

The disciples are “amazed” at this and then, when Jesus comes out with his saying about a camel, they are “exceedingly astonished”. Why? Because the accepted wisdom of Jesus’ day was that riches were a sure sign of God’s blessing. The more things you had, the more God must love you.

The camel saying has been much debated. Some suggest that what Jesus really said was that it is easier for a ship’s hawser to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. “Camel” is kamelos, “hawser” is kamilos. Only one vowel distinguishes the two words; so did the wrong one find its way into the source documents? Certainly the imagery of trying to thread a ship’s mooring rope through the eye of a tiny needle is more satisfying than the picture of attempting to thread a camel through such an eye — and the point of impossibility would be just as forcibly made. The other suggestion, however, that the “eye of a needle” was the name of a low and narrow gate into Jerusalem at which camels had to stoop and be unloaded before they could pass through, must be completely rejected. It has no factual basis whatsoever and only surfaced for the first time in about AD 400.

Whether Jesus spoke of a camel or a rope, when the disciples react to the saying with the question “Then who can be saved?”, Jesus moves on from saying it is difficult (duskolos) to saying it is downright impossible (adunatos). Human beings are simply in- (a) capable (dunatos) of entering the kingdom, achieving salvation, and acquiring eternal life. (Jesus treats all those terms as synonymous.) Riches or no riches, the work of salvation is all of God. Only he can bring me into his kingdom, save me, and give me eternal life … and that is true whether I am as poor as a church mouse or as rich as Croesus. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God …” (Ephesians 2.8).

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