Chatting with a reader about a puzzling gospel passage

Over on the Book of Face, somebody posted a reading from Matthew followed by a favorite passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I will reproduce both here:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich
to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Again I say to you,
it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said,
“Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men this is impossible,
but for God all things are possible.”
Then Peter said to him in reply,
“We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you
that you who have followed me, in the new age,
when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory,
will yourselves sit on twelve thrones,
judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters
or father or mother or children or lands
for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more,
and will inherit eternal life.
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:23-30)

And here is Chesterton:

“But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest—if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this— that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy.

Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable.

You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt.

There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.”

These two readings prompted an interesting question from another reader:

I find the response of the disciples unfathomable and in need of explication. “Who then can be saved?” I think we today start with a distrust of the rich. If the rich are going to have trouble getting into the Kingdom, fine, most of us are poor. It would seem that the disciples, poor though they were, thought it obvious that the rich would enter the Kingdom, and if not them, then who? Why would the disciples have thought that way?

To which I reply:

One can only guess. Given that their tradition begins with three exceedingly rich Patriarchs, not to mention Isaiah’s repeated prophecies (Is 60-61) that the “wealth of the nations” would flow to the Chosen in the messianic age, it is entirely possible that Jesus’ statements on wealth were as surprising and counter-intuitive as his statements on taking up your cross or on his immanent resurrection. It is doubtful they thought they needed riches to be saved (since social mobility was extremely rare in that world). But it is quite possible that (as many Christians still do) they read riches as a sign of blessing (think Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and therefore thought, “If even these guys could not be saved, then how can we?” (Not that Jesus is implying Abe and Sons are not saved.)

Some subtext to their question along these lines seems to be reinforced by what immediately follows, which is their question about what their status will be in the messianic kingdom they are expecting Jesus to establish:

Then Peter said in reply, “Behold, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” .Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. .But many that are first will be last, and the last first. (Mt 19:27–30)

So far from having no messianic expectations of some sort of Davidic kingdom, they clearly do. But Jesus’ work is to affirm their messianic expectations while radically reordering those expectations away from earthly power and wealth toward a kingdom that is not of this world. I think something of that order lies behind this whole conversation.


8 Responses

  1. That’s a puzzling passage because a lot of people take it literally and never look into the original text. I researched it a few months ago and found an interesting discussion which attempted to restore the original text. The original word could have been kamelos or kamilos. The former means camel, the latter means hawser (a mooring rope). The words are very similar and had the same consonant root from the original Phoenician (it is thought), and then made their way to Semitic languages and influenced Greek.

    It’s difficult to say when the error originally occurred, but it’s possibly due to a vowel shift that was occurring around the same time after which kamilos (the rope) started sounding different (ee sound, not eh) and kamelos (the camel) started being written differently (with an epsilon, not an eta).

    Anyway, some disciples of Jesus were fishermen. They didn’t deal with camels, but they definitely dealt with all kinds of ropes and were used to repairing nets and ropes using needles and threads. But at least a rope is something you can imagine sewing with, unlike a camel.

    Changing this word doesn’t take away the hyperbolic meaning of the passage since it’s still impossible to sew with a rope, let alone thick hawser, but it makes more logical sense this way.

    And it opens up a way to make a play with words, changing hawser to camel, which takes the passage from hyperbolic to absurd, although it obscures the original meaning.

    One way in which this can be taken is that while you can’t sew with a rope, you can still imagine threading it through eyelets in sails. This shows that, yes, there is hope for the rich, but they must get creative and look beyond simply following the commandments, because it’s easier to not have to steal if you’re rich.
    But, as you yourself say, it’s the bare minimum and it’s not enough to do the bare minimum, especially since it can be diabolic, like the ironic phrase by Anatole France describes the majestic equality of law.

    So, like you don’t “sew” with a rope, it can still be used to hold pieces of material (like sails) together, and it can still be very important, you just need to look beyond the act of sewing in the simplest possible manner, and find something creative (and charitable) to do with your wealth.

    1. Ugh, and I realized I made a bit of a fool myself here. It’s not that the rich must get creative, they must open themselves to God’s grace and see beyond the material goods as means to save themselves.

      And as for a play with words, it’s probable that it’s exactly what it was. Camels were the largest commonly known animal in Israel. And the eye of a needle was the smallest imaginable opening common at that time.
      There’s an attested different saying in Talmud, about passing an elephant through the eye of a needle which dates back to Babylon, where the largest commonly known animals were elephants.
      There’s also a midrash on Song of Songs which mentions opening as small as an eye of a needle would be enough for God to push carts through.

      So there’s some probability that Jesus demonstrated it as trying to thread rope through an eye of a needle, but at the same time made a reference to a widely known saying and a tale which would be understandable for his disciples.

      1. It was. And older translations of the Bible attempted to capture this, but without the context, the meaning is lost or even reversed.

        “Are you the king of Jews?”
        “You say I am the king of Jews”

        Without any explanation it sounds like Jesus denies being king, that it’s hearsay that Pilate repeats. On the contrary, it can be interpreted as “It’s like you say it is” to the point of agreeing with the question even if we don’t fully know what exactly the asker knows about it. Or, it can be interpreted as “you see, even you state this as a fact and I’m not denying it”.

        Anyway, the phrase expresses full agreement.

      2. Hey, that’s brilliant. Now imagine KJV:
        John 18:37
        Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, You said it! I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

  2. I think you’ve quoted the passage from Orthodoxy before, and it’s a good and jarring reminder.

    One thing that strikes me in the reader’s question is this: ” I think we today start with a distrust of the rich. If the rich are going to have trouble getting into the Kingdom, fine, most of us are poor.” And I would take exception to both halves of it. Modern American culture absolutely lionizes the rich — pace Trump, and scoffing at Jeff Bezos et. al., there’s a fair bit of uncritical worship of celebrities.

    More to the point though, it’s only in comparison to such that “most of us are poor.” Your Facebook friend is a literate guy with Internet access and the time to read the Scriptures and Christian intellectuals. He’s probably not food insecure, probably pays too much for the house or apartment that he has, and feels it.

    But I’d bet a fair amount that he’s not standing outside the Wawa every morning with a bunch of other immigrant guys, hoping to pick up a day’s work, many together sharing inexpensive apartments because *that* is a better deal than they left behind in Salvador or Guatemala or wherever.

    We’re rich and we don’t even know it — and there’s that damned needle.

  3. I have often wondered about this too. Jesus’s statement that the rich will struggle to reach Heaven leads the apostles to wonder if anyone will be saved at all. I wonder what led Jesus to respond in such a consoling way.

Leave a Reply

Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email