Commentary for the February 22, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 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.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’” Matthew 19:23-25, NIV
This story is often watered down by those who would assert that there is a gate in Jerusalem called “The Eye of the Needle” where camels actually go through, but only be kneeling and shedding all of their cargo. This story is preposterous on its face because no merchant would normally choose to go through a gate with his camel if he had to leave the cargo behind when there are several serviceable gates nearby. Also, the Disciples appear to have understood Christ’s allegory to mean that entry was impossible not simply difficult.
However, for those who may persist in such an explanation of this allegory, it may be hard to refute the simple fact that such a gate does not exist and never did anywhere in Jerusalem.[i] When we add to this fable the fact that the “needle” referred to in the Greek text is rafidos, which is literally a sewing needle. Juxtaposing huge and miniscule objects in hyperbolic statements was not uncommon for Jesus. For example, there is also the “grain of a mustard seed” faith capable of moving humongous mountains.[ii]One cannot help but wonder why such a myth that altered the story’s meaning came to be. Perhaps as the church left behind the persecutions of the Ante-Nicene era and under the aegis of imperial favor began to accumulate wealth and power, it became necessary to re-interpret the narrative in a manner less confrontational to those changes.
A serious problem for the rich is that they entrust their security for themselves and their families to the riches they have procured. They do not know how they can survive in this world without that security. Anxious about every cloud they see looming on the horizon, both real and imaginary, their minds are filled with fears and justifications why what they have even now is not enough. They may not be able to see that they are held in a golden cage, promising security but in reality entrapping them in such a way that they find it impossible to ever fully trust in God.
In spite of this there are many who would gladly exchange places with them. Millions cast their meager funds to the many lotteries hoping to do just that by overcoming the incredible odds and win a fortune. They fail to understand that often the anxieties only multiply along with the riches. Like a golden Sword of Damocles, their wealth hangs perilously over their lives. Perhaps it was to these that Jesus spoke when he urged them to lay aside these anxieties and place their trust in God.[iii] Those who rely on their wealth witness to the poor that they should do the same. They perpetuate the very cycle of worry and anxiety that Jesus sought to deliver us from.
Sadly, these wealthy individuals could do far more to relieve the worries of the impoverished by using the blessings they have obtained to bless others. All too often, this is not the case. Instead they begin to see themselves as more deserving of what they have than others might be. Such arrogance denies the true source of their wealth. It is God who pours His blessings upon the just and the unjust day by day.[iv] Perhaps this is why there are so many who deny God’s claim on their lives as their Creator when they are well off. Maybe they find it easier to part with God than to share their blessings with the poor. In this way, it truly would seem impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom.
At this point some might challenge whether or not they are wealthy as such a term is relative to one’s culture. This is very similar to the lawyer who asked Jesus when told to love his neighbor, “Who is my neighbor?”[v] To even ask such a question is to acknowledge that the term is not an absolute value such as “he who lives in the house next door.” The story Jesus shared with the lawyer demonstrated that a neighbor is anyone in need of our help. When we apply that principle, we are wealthy when we have two pair of shoes and our neighbor has none. We are wealthy when we have so much to eat we have leftovers and our neighbor must skip meals due to his poverty. We are wealthy when we have multiple vehicles and our neighbor must walk everywhere. Lest we belabor the point, wealth is relative, but not to one’s culture so much as to one’s neighbor within and without their culture.
The allure of wealth is based on a commonly and perhaps erroneously held belief in a hypothetical. This being that it is entirely possible to one day attain enough wealth to be able to sit back secure and snug in the knowledge that nothing can threaten one’s idyllic lifestyle. Even though no one knows anyone who has actually achieved it, this golden “carrot on the stick” persists and keeps many chasing the mirage. To what end? Jesus spoke to this very issue. He said that just when you feel you have finally made it and can kick back and take things easy, it may all be snatched away.[vi]
We may be like Job, and see our wealth destroyed by those who would take it from us, or by natural disasters.[vii] Or like in the story just referred to that Jesus told we may simply run out of life. Then the financial vultures who have gathered, sensing the pending expiration of someone of means, will pick over the corpse of their legacy. Like runners in an endless relay race, they pick up the baton and start running, not really understanding why, only that they must pursue the same carrot, and so the baton moves forward to the next runner.
When we consider all of this, perhaps we can understand that wealth based security is a myth. Instead the possession of wealth fills our hearts with fear. In virtually every city around the world, there are areas where the wealthy cannot travel without strong security because their wealth would be in such contrast to the poverty in those areas that it would make them a target. Sadly they become that target because the poor buy into the same lie as the rich, the lie that wealth is the answer, the way out.
All day long, seven days a week, the myth is spun like spider’s silk, entrapping the unwary. Television, radio, movies, books, social media all tell the story of how hard work in pursuit of wealth will pay off in complete security one day. Never mind that at poverty wages that day may never happen in our lifetime, the myth encourages us to continue to pursue it so our children or their children may one day have the security that eluded us. After all when we look around us, we see people richer than we are, so isn’t it true? Better perhaps to ask them if they have achieved that ultimate security.
Maybe this is what Jesus wants us to understand. That the elusive dreams of wealth and security are just that—only dreams. True security may lay instead in the love and support of family, neighbors and friends who compassionately care for one another and provide a foundation of support for the entire community. The movies often portray the stereotypical cowboy hero as a rugged individualist who rides off alone to seek fame and fortune. The historical reality is that the person who tried to go it alone often did not survive long in a hostile land. There is a reason why settlers grouped together in wagon trains to move westward from St. Louis during the nineteenth century. They may not have been rich, often carrying everything they owned in the wagons they drove, but when they got sick, they nurtured one another to health and continued moving westward. When food became scarce they hunted and foraged and shared the results with one another.
Jesus wants us to live lives like these settlers, giving without expectation of return. This is because the return is intrinsic to the giving.[viii] To share our blessings as we are able without expectation of return carries within it the promise that we will not go away empty. Like the widow who cared for Elijah, sharing her meager store, she found that in her act of caring for another with even less than she had was hidden a blessing that sustained her and all who depended upon her.[ix] She didn’t need to chase the carrot to get there.
[i] "The Myth of the "Eye of the Needle" Gate"
[ii] Matthew 17:20
[iii] Matthew 6:25-34
[iv] Matthew 5:43-45
[v] Luke 10:25-37
[vi] Luke 12:16-21
[vii] Job 1:13-17
[viii] Ecclesiastes 11:1
[ix] 1 Kings 17:7-16