Let the Scriptures Speak
The Camel and the Needle
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.
Jesus' image about a camel going through the eye of a needle is so startling and so challenging in its application that scribes and commentators have tried to tone down its language. Some manuscripts have kamilon (“rope”) instead of kamelon (“camel”). The difference is just one letter, after all, and if you imagine a small enough rope and a large enough needle, it is possible to think of forcing a string-like rope through a really huge needle. Most scholars, however, judge kamelon to be the better reading and attribute the eta/iota shift to some ancient copyist’s desire to render the saying more palatable.
Another effort to soften the blow of this saying comes from commentators who like the idea that “eye of the needle” might be applied to a narrow gate—the kind of gate that it would be difficult to get a loaded camel through, but if you unloaded the camel and maybe gave him a good greasing, you just might be able to squeeze him through that gate. Another nice try! Scholars note that we know of no gate called Needle’s Eye. Moreover, there is a parallel Talmudic saying about the impossibility of an elephant going through the eye of a needle that suggests that this kind of image for impossibility was at home in the Semitic world (recall, too, the one about straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel at Mt 23:24).
We have to accept that Jesus’ metaphor presents an image of something quite impossible. The astonishment of the disciples shows that the saying was indeed a shock. Part of the shock derived from the presumption that being rich was not a hindrance but rather an advantage for entering the kingdom of God. For wealthy people could build synagogues, help the needy, sponsor Temple sacrifices. If they could not be saved, who could? And that question opens the way for Jesus’ ultimate point: salvation is finally not a human achievement but an act of God. And the problem with wealth is that wealth brings power and, often, the delusion that one has no need for others, even for God. If one is rich enough, one can begin to think of oneself as the center of the world.
The fact that the wealthy inquirer of this reading was a keeper of the commandments, including Deuteronomy's prohibition of fraud, was not enough. His property ran his life, and he was not free enough to follow Jesus’ way of losing self to find oneself.
When Jesus muses, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God,” he addresses the disciples as “children,” which pointedly echoes the preceding episode. The disciples were trying to shoo away some children. Jesus became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
These episodes go together. Indeed, five of Jesus’ fourteen kingdom-of-God sayings in Mark occur here in these two accounts. The one about accepting like children helps us see that you do not earn an inheritance (the rich man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”). You receive an inheritance, if you remain in right relationship with the testator. You get to enter the kingdom of God (in the future) only if you receive it like a child (in the present). Apparently this man's riches had rendered him incapable of receiving the kingdom like a child.
Two famous deaths brought the world to attention—Diana, Princess of Wales, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta—two women separated by enormous differences of origin and lifestyle, yet linked by fame, friendship, and compassion. The compassion of the nun was poured out in a lifetime of serving the dying poor; the compassion of the princess, touching the untouchables, was still serving a probing apprenticeship. But both deaths help us reflect on what it means to live out the gift of life in the midst of people and possessions deriving from the one Creator.
The First Reading speaks to all this as well. The author of the book of Wisdom presents rich King Solomon contemplating the human condition and praising the gift of God's wisdom as greater than silver or gold. Famous deaths and funerals lend poignancy to Solomon's reflection,
For no king has any different origin or birth,
but one is the entry into life for all;
and in one same way they leave it (Wis 7:5-6).
Dennis Hamm, SJ