I was visiting another church the other Sunday and the pastor was discussing stewardship. This led him to the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler where Jesus drops the famous line about it being ‘easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man enter the Kingdom of God.’ It started off well enough, the pastor pointed out this was a metaphor and of course rich people can go to Heaven. He explained that it was like when people say they are so hungry they could eat a horse. Then he said it could be something a little different, that there was a gate that was small, so it received the nickname “eye of the needle” and that it was so small in fact, that horses had to get down on their knees to get through. I’ve heard something of this before but decided to research it a bit.
This interpretation is somewhere between 200 years old to over 1,000 depending on who you talk to. There are also a few more interpretations that include a mistranslations so that it’s not a camel but a rope (possibly made of camel hair, in at least one thing I found) and instead of gate, it was a well known mountain pass named ‘eye of the needle’. Of course, none of these are very good interpretations, so bad, that I’m not going to even bother arguing against it because it has been done (and better) many times(Blue Letter Bible), including this Wikipedia entry that points out the idiom in other languages (it was an elephant) and even the Qur’an.
Now, I have no idea what this pastor believes. He may have read this in a commentary or somewhere else and was simply trying to educate and give more background. So, the point in not to say anything about him, but instead about this idea. How unwilling are we to accept this parable from Christ Himself? That’s what I think of when I read these other takes on it. What is wrong with us that we would take obvious hyperbole and try to downplay it? I don’t know if the fear is greater that we would offend the rich or (as American’s tend to think) one day we will be rich and perhaps risk being kept out of the Kingdom. This isn’t an attack on wealth. The rich young ruler is looking for God’s favor, he has kept all the commandments (but for God’s will or to secure his place in Heaven?) but that still isn’t enough. You can’t earn your way to Heaven.
It was common in those times for the Jews to believe that their wealth came from God’s blessing because they were good. So, for Jesus to tell him to sell everything is also counter-cultural. If he gave up his money, how would he know he was good? The more common reading, also, is that he loved his money more than God (he went away sad). We are told no one can serve two masters. If someone seeks money and not God, it is literally impossible to spend eternity with Him. It is only though Christ that we can do that. Generally, we are fine with that message, aren’t we? But there is just something about discussing money that we don’t like. We want to be able to keep out love of money and still serve Christ.
Now, maybe you can’t blame some of the pastors who perpetuate these interpretations, maybe they don’t know it was a common saying in the A.N.E., but I haven’t read commentaries that downplay the mountain that our faith moves. So we are least alright with some hyperbole and metaphor from Christ, it just shouldn’t be about money.
Edit – Colbert quotes this parable in a story, has his own take on it: http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/yxerhp/the-word—see-no-equal