“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
– Mark 10:25
The Difficulty: Does Jesus mean it is impossible or difficult?
Principle: Let the Bible interpret itself
The text comes to us in the context of a discussion Jesus had with a rich young man. The rich man desired to follow Jesus as one of His disciples, but could not make the necessary sacrifice of selling all his possessions and distributing the money to the poor. He could not let go of His wealth. In refusing to liquidate his assets and surrender them to Christ he showed that he valued them more than he valued being a disciple of the Lord. It is after he walks sorrowfully away that Jesus remarks, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”
Softening the Text
When the disciples heard this, they found it difficult to take. They were not wealthy, and they lived in a society in which wealth was taken as a sign of blessing and favour from God. If the wealthy are not saved, then, as they asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Since then, many who have read this text have tried to soften it up.
- Metaphor: Some say that they eye of a needle is only a metaphor, or a symbol, of small doorways in the large gates that led into cities in ancient times. The camel could enter if the whole gate was opened, but only the rider could enter through the narrow doorways.
- Others say the Greek word kamelos for camel was mistaken for another Greek word, kamilos, which means cable or rope. So that the verse should read, “It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle.
So on the one hand, some are trying to make the eye of the needle wider to accommodate the camel, and others are trying to make the camel smaller to fit through the eye of the needle.
But in the first case, though such smaller doorways were present in the city gates, there is no evidence that they were called needles or needle-eyes in the time of Jesus. Also, the earliest manuscripts all use the Greek word kamelos for camel, not kamilos for rope.
The Meaning of the Text
Especially for people in societies that prize financial and economic prosperity of the individual, this is a very difficult passage. But we must face the text and take it for what it is.
It is not possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle on its own. Similarly it is not possible for a rich person to enter heaven on his or her own. Trying to make the eye wider or the man smaller is an attempt to make it easier for us to earn our own salvation. But the Bible tells us,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.” – Ephesians 2:8, 9
If you look at the text on its own merit, Jesus is not teaching anything new: no one can make it into the kingdom of God on his or her own, without the merit and grace of Christ and His righteousness. Each person must come to trust in God to provide salvation and blessing in this life and the one to come. But He does say that there is something about riches that make it hard for people to trust in God.
As humans naturally look to ourselves when we have the means to solve our own problems or make ourselves happy. It is easy to come to trust in our own financial strength without even realizing it: it is just like pride, and indeed, it is a form of it. Jesus tells a parable of a rich man in Luke 12:16 – 21, who stored up food provisions for a long time to come, and took comfort in his long-term security, rather than in God. It did not end well for him. Moses warned Israel many years before:
“Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” – Deuteronomy 8: 12 – 14
In summary, Jesus is simply presenting wealth as a great temptation against full trust in God. It is a temptation like any other, but it is much stronger than many others – so strong that without God’s intervention, it is impossible to resist. This is the meaning of the text, and it is why Jesus answered the question “Who then shall be saved” with “With men it is impossible, but not with God’ for with God all things are possible.”