This is one of Jesus’ most puzzling statements: It is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to get a wealthy person to go into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 16:24).
When you understand how Jesus saw the kingdom, you see what crucial insight he had. Without that understanding, people contort the camel and the text in ways that would be comic if they weren’t serious.
The problem is our tendency to hear Scripture as a message about personal salvation rather than the kingdom of God. If you think kingdom of God equals going to heaven, Jesus just said rich people cannot go to heaven. And you’ll probably feel confirmed in your view by the disciples’ follow-up question: Who then can be saved? (16:25)
This whole thing seems so implausible that preachers have invented ways to soften Jesus’ statement so the rich can get to heaven. Perhaps there was a door built into one of Jerusalem’s gates, so a person could enter through the small door when the big gate was shut. This door — supposedly called the eye of the needle —existed only in the imagination of those who contort the text. There was no such door.
Jesus meant what he said. The camel was the biggest animal in Palestine. Squeezing it through the eye of a needle was impossible. The absurdity highlights Jesus’ kingdom message.
A kingdom perspective
As Peter realized (16:16) and God confirmed (17:5), Jesus is anointed by God to restore heaven’s reign over the earth, the Son with the authority of his Father the heavenly sovereign. This commission places him in conflict with those who currently hold power (16:20-21; 17:22-23). It also places him at loggerheads with those who currently claim possession of the earth and its resources — the rich.
Jesus promised the people who were currently missing out (the poor) that they will get a fair go under his kingship (Matthew 5:3). But this vision cannot be realized while 1% of the world’s population claim possession of half the world. If Jesus’ reign means blessing for you who are poor, it also means woe to you who are rich (Luke 6:20, 24).
That’s why it is so hard to get wealthy people on board. Jesus’ kingdom vision — the restoration of the world under God’s reign — is not to their advantage. Getting a rich person to come into God’s reign over the world (the kingdom of God) is more difficult than getting a camel through the eye of a needle.
So why did the disciples ask, Who then can be saved? If Jesus wasn’t talking about personal salvation (going to heaven when you die), what were they asking?
Our understanding of salvation is too small. When I’m preoccupied with myself, I reduce the message to me and whether I make it to heaven. Then I hear the disciples’ question as, “Well, the rich clearly have God’s blessing, and if they cannot be saved (go to heaven), what hope is there for the rest of us?”
Jesus’ understanding of salvation was the kingdom of God — saving the world from its oppression under sin and death, so earth is what it was designed to be (a kingdom of heaven). The disciples understood Jesus as God’s anointed ruler for the world. That was the good news: Jesus is the Christ (anointed ruler) who saves the world from evil’s reign to be his Father’s kingdom.
But if Jesus cannot get the wealthy to relinquish their claims over the world and its resources, how can he restore God’s reign for everyone? Isn’t this a deal-breaker for all of us? If Jesus has no more hope of getting the wealthy into his kingdom than of getting a camel through a needle, all his promises about giving the kingdom to the poor are sunk already. He can’t save the world. He can’t save the poor. He can’t save the rich. He can’t save anybody. Literally, Who can he save?
That’s why they were exceedingly astonished (19:25). Jesus’ statement vaporized everything the disciples were expecting. If Jesus could not solve the problem of the rich and powerful, they felt the same hopelessness as when Jesus told them he would be killed (16:22).
And Jesus gave them a similar response. If those in power killed him, it was humanly impossible for him to become king. It would take an act of God to raise him up (16:21). If it was humanly impossible to get rich people to relinquish their claim on the world and its resources, it will take the miraculous work of God to restore his kingship over the world:
With people this is beyond us; with God all things are in his power (16:26).
Jesus doesn’t tell them how God will solve the problem of the rich, the injustice they perpetrate over the world. The most common solution throughout history has been violence. Another country invades and takes the property of the rich for themselves, or the proletariat rise up revolution to take the riches from the bourgeois.
Violence was not Jesus’ solution. Well, not committing violence anyway. He was prepared to take violence of the rich and powerful in his own body on the cross. It’s how he bore away the sin of the world.
God’s kingdom saves the world
You’ve got to love Jesus’ blunt honesty. The injustice of the wealthy has contributed to wars and oppression throughout history. It’s a problem no one has resolved, and the world cannot be at peace until it is. It’s easier to get a camel through a needle’s eye than to get a rich person to enter God’s kingdom (the world as God intends).
Jesus agrees it’s an impossible problem from the human perspective, but the rich do not have the power to block what God has decreed for his world. The God who raises the dead can topple the tyranny of wealth and power. Earth will not remain oppressed.
Jesus calls us to trust the grace of the heavenly sovereign who can and will save the world through the one he has anointed as our Lord. Even if we can’t get the camels through.