A couple of weeks ago I received this question via email: “When Jesus talked about the ‘rich not getting into heaven until a camel passes through the eye of a needle’. . . . .who are the rich?”
This is a great question and worthy of our attention. Books have been written on the relationship between the rich and the Kingdom of God, so far be it for me to provide a satisfactory answer in this small article. But, I hope to be able to point us in the right direction.
The comment by Jesus concerning the camel and the eye of a needle is found in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and comes at the end of a discussion Jesus has with the “rich, young ruler” (interestingly, Matthew calls him “young” and Luke calls him a “ruler”, all three refer to him as rich). His interaction with Jesus in Luke is found in chapter 18, along with two very important stories that precede this conversation. Luke 18:9-14 describes the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector and 18:15-17 provides instruction for all to come to Jesus as children do. Both of these accounts, which lead into the conversation with the rich ruler, are about the centrality of humility in the life of believers. The Pharisee went to his house condemned because he was relying on his own worth and goodness, a false understanding of what it means to be “good.” It is no coincidence, then, that Jesus says to the rich ruler, “why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. . .”(18:19). So, it is crucial to fist place story of the rich, young ruler in its proper context – a context of humility vs a false understanding of “goodness.”
The phrase itself, going through the eye of a needle, should be understood to be hyperbole. There are some who will suggest that there is a literal gate coming into Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle” gate. This is baloney and loses sight of the hyperbolic nature of Jesus’ words. What Jesus wants to convey by the camel and needle imagery is a picture of impossibility. The perceived goodness, worth, and status achieved by riches have never and will never save a person from their condemnation. The disciples then ask, “Who then can be saved?” (18:26). The reason for this question is timely and important. Wealth was considered a sign of God’s great blessing. Those who were wealthy were able to offer more sacrifices and alms to the Lord. If they are not able to be saved, how could someone who lacked this sign of God’s ongoing blessing and who was not able to provide the same kind of generous sacrifice be saved?
Jesus answers this question in verse 27: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” This verse is abused by all of us. We use this to tell a teenager that he can be a basketball star, to tell a friend that they can afford a new car, and to even conjure up unhealthy ideas for the Church. No doubt God can do anything He wants, but in this context it is especially concerned with salvation. Only God can break the self-reliant nature riches have on a person. Only God. And what is the opposite of self-reliance? Humility.
I do not believe this passage in any way teaches that God wants all of us to be materially poor (he does want us all to be poor in spirit). I have been in the church all my life, serving as a pastor for over a decade. I have seen some very good, God-honoring folks who are rich. I have no problem with having fun, enjoying technology, and at times, spending money “on ourselves.” But money can and will be a hindrance. There is something very, very important to be said about a simple life that is daily dependent on God for everything. Yet, I have personally been the recipient, many times, of great blessings from those who can afford to provide a gift. From church members and from family members. I appreciate those times. I am thankful for them. I would not be able to do many of the things I have experienced if not for the help of others who are wealthy. So we should acknowledge that good things can come from the proper use of money and wealth.
But be careful. What is at stake here is salvation, not charity. It is about eternal life, not temporary generosity. Although I am so thankful and enjoy the benefits that come from those who freely give of their money, it is nothing in comparison to that person’s salvation and we have to always come back to what we mean by “good things can come from the proper use of money.” What has ultimate goodness but salvation alone?
In conclusion, can rich people be saved? Yes, of course. With God anything is possible. But “being rich” will create a certain set of issues and will build roadblocks that others do not encounter. Jesus is clear on this. The word “rich” should not be interpreted as a metaphor for something else; Jesus is definitely referring to those who have and enjoy material wealth. Jesus is also warning us that how we spend our money and the relationship of our heart to our bank account have eternal consequences. And yet, none of us are immune to similar dangers and I am first on the list. I have been wanting a new TV for a while now, even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with my 32″ flat screen high definition television. The primary reason is that I want internet television, which would be very useful for my babies and Andi. Even though there is a $50 product that provides internet television on your current TV, I saw this as a way to justify spending $700 on a new television. Finally I came to my senses, spent $50, and my family loves it. It was a better use of the money God has given me and, I think, more God honoring. Not to mention, 5 days later I learn that my wife is pregnant. Wow. Unfortunately, this is the exception. More often than not, I probably blow it when it comes to using my money properly.
So, Luke 18 is a warning to all of us to embrace humility and resist self-reliance. It is especially a message to those who are wealthy. Examine your heart. Ask God to search you and try you. Are your finances being most used for the glory of God’s Kingdom, or for the glory of yours.