We seem to have become a bit blogged down in our discussion about the Bible so perhaps we should have a look at a few of the passages which have been mentioned. I will try and show what I mean by ‘the key to the scripture is scripture.’
One or two opening comments though.
If there is a god (which will be the working assumption of this piece) then the word of God has to be inerrant and infallible or that god is a bit disappointing. Christians too often make an exact correlation between the Bible and that ‘word.’ I do not believe the Bible is absolutely equivalent to the phrase ‘the word of God.’ We have many translations, not one of which is flaw-free. When the Bible itself uses the expression ‘the word of God’ or the ‘word of the Lord’ it means ‘what God said’ not ‘what eventually got written down.’
Secondly we will have to approach this task using human reason and our comments will have to be consistent within that reason. Humans are not infallible and inerrant.
So let’s start with camels and the eyes of needles. We need to visit the world into which this was spoken to understand it. Today we can easily get a camel through the eye of any given needle because of the power of our industrial liquidising technology.
We will find the verse in three places in the Bible:
When we have a verse in Mathew, Mark and Luke we usually assume that Mark (the earliest written) wrote it down first and the other two copied him. We cannot be certain of this though.
The New International Version, widely accepted as a reasonable translation of the Greek New Testament, renders this:
‘…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’
Making my best effort at New Testament Greek I find that the order of the words has been changed to make the translation work. It says, word for word:
‘…easier it is camel through eye of a needle to enter than rich man into the kingdom the of God.’
Of course, if Jesus said it exactly, he may have said it in Aramaic, although some think he may have taught in Greek. See how many steps from ‘the word of God’ we are already.
Some people have explained that ‘The Eye of a Needle’ was a particularly narrow gateway into Jerusalem which fully-laden camels struggled to get through. Others have suggested that the similarity of the Greek words for rope/cable and camel point to a typo. If Jesus taught in Greek it may have been a pun. Who knows? Jewish scholars already had a saying written down about an elephant going through the eye of a needle so perhaps we’d better assume Jesus was just saying ‘it’s hard.’
Where did he say it? Mathew and Mark give us the context of Jesus on a journey. He had gone from Galilee to Judea, across the Jordan. Crowds were thronging around. Luke included the saying in a set of stories and sayings that Jesus said ‘once.’
To whom did Jesus say it? We have some variance.
Matthew says it was to a rich young man (Matthew 19:22); Luke says the guy was a wealthy ruler (Luke 18:18).
What was the question?
‘What good thing must I do to get eternal life?’
‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ (Matthew 19:16,17).
‘Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘Why do you call me good?’ (Mark 10:17,18; Luke 18:18,19)
Either the enquirer wanted to suck up to Jesus, calling him good whilst showing off his own goodness at commandment keeping, or he wanted to believe you could get eternal life by doing good things. We don’t know which was his error but we know he erred.
Eternal life in the Gospels always means ‘life in all its fullness’ – it is about quality not quantity of life. Likewise the ‘Kingdom of God’. It is a now thing not a heaven thing. Either way, Jesus’ answer points the man to Scripture – keep the commandments.
The man claims to have kept these but feels he lacks something (Matthew 19:20). At this point Jesus tells him two things:
1. Give away your possessions
2. Follow me
Many disciples are already following Jesus on the road. They have left possessions behind (Matthew 19:27) because they are useless on the journey. But the man can’t meet the standard and goes away sad.
Note, Jesus is not saying:
Rich people aren’t nice
Everyone must give everything away
Jesus is giving the man, as he has given most people he encounters, the opportunity of joining him. He refuses the terms.
Then Jesus says the camel thing.
The disciples question that this must mean ‘being saved’ is too hard, but Jesus says it is impossible for humans but not for God (Matthew 19:26).
The passage tells us that to have a quality of life now you have to jettison everything that might get in the way of your relationship with God. It then tells us that one day all will be judged.
Jesus’ saying is simply a colourful depiction of the sort of thing that can get in the way of discipleship. Money, talent, advantage, skill – all tend to make you rely on them rather than God. We may well want to discuss whether relying on God is what we want to do but let's be clear what Jesus was saying when he said it.