Hebrew Hyperbole: squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle
17 As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”
18 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19 You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”[a]
20 “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22 But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.
23 Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” 24 His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! 25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
In Mark 10, Jesus turns the world of his listeners upside down. All their assumption about how the world is supposed to work fall apart. They assume that the law of Moses is ultimate and unbreakable. But that turns out to be inadequate because it was written for humanity's "hardness of heart" and not for the purpose of legalism (MK 10:5). The esteemed religious people assume that the world of theology is far too serious to be disrupted by children. But Jesus disproves their presumption by stating: "Allow the little children to come to me" (MK 10:14). They assumed that the rich have made it. But in today's lectionary text that commonly held belief is rejected when Jesus announces: "It's easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God's kingdom" (MK 10:25).
How might a camel crawl through the eye of a needle?
One possible answer came from what the scholars call "Needle-Gate" theory. In the 9th century, it was put forth that there was a low gate into Jerusalem, and that low gate was called "the eye of the needle". The gate must have been so low that camels could only fit through it if their cargo was unloaded, and they shimmied through on their knees. After dark, travelers or merchants would have to use this smaller gate when the main gates were shut. But there is no evidence of such a gate. Biblical scholars and archaeologists reject this explanation.
Scholars agree, however, that what we have here is Hebrew hyperbole. This type of hyperbole was common in ancient Jewish literature and as well as other pieces of literature. Jewish Talmudic literature has a similar saying about an elephant passing through the eye of a needle as a figure of speech, implying the impossibility: "They do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle." This saying occurs in the context of a debate between two rabbis. One is claiming that the other is speaking about things that are not possible.
We even have a very similar saying in the Quran, which I often heard growing up in a predominantly Islamic city Lucknow, India. "The gates of heaven will not be opened for them, nor shall they enter paradise until the camel passes through the eye of a needle." (Quran, Surah 7.40)
Jesus' audience would have been familiar with this aphorism. They assumed that wealth and prosperity is a sign of God's blessing. Hence, they are surely entitled to all Godly riches. So they are now in disbelief, probably thinking along the lines: if the rich, who are accepted as righteous, can't be saved, who can be?
Jesus is clearly saying to the rich man and us that the Kingdom of God is not an entitlement. Entitlement says we deserve things without paying the price, things we should receive "just because." I also doubt that it is a call to volunteer poverty. To say that would be cruel, especially in times of great financial distress for many. I doubt Jesus thought of poverty as some nostalgic, romantic ideal. But at the same time, Jesus' words challenge a culture of self-centered neoliberalism in which greed is seen and practiced as a virtue. The culture of greed for control and power had set humanity on a path to cause enormous disparities of wealth and poverty as well as to drive devastating climate change.
But there is immense wisdom in our faith tradition that points us in a different direction. There is a quote often attributed to John Wesley: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, so long as ever you can."
What I like about this wisdom is that it considers the fact that we can't do everything. We can't save the whole world. The troubles we face in the world and currently are vast and overwhelming. We can't solve every problem. We simply can't do it all. But we can do something. It may be something minimal, but we can do something. If we do something good and life-affirming, even if it is something small, who knows where that may lead.
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Peter Brown.