On the heels of his discussion with the rich young ruler, Jesus discusses with his disciples the prospects of those with riches entering the kingdom of Heaven. Matthew records, “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mat. 19:23-24).
This statement by Jesus is one that has caused many people to be troubled over the years. Many scholars have tried to restate Jesus’ analogy to make it more palatable. Some have argued that he was simply repeating an old Eastern proverb. Jesus didn’t mean it literally; he was using a figure of speech. Others have argued that he was referencing a gate in Jerusalem that was so narrow it was almost impossible for a camel to travel through it. However, neither of these answers hold up to a critique of what Jesus actually said.
Jesus uses the Greek wording for a literal statement. He does not state that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven it would be like a camel going through the needle, but instead that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom. Add to that Luke’s version where he uses the Greek word belone, which is the word for a surgical needle, and there is no doubt Jesus is making a comparison to the impossible.
Is Jesus saying that it is impossible for one who is rich to get into Heaven? Not at all. However, in order to understand Jesus’ intent, one needs to consider the precursor to these statements. Jesus has just shown a rich young man what he needs to do to be right with God, but the man refuses to do it because of his riches. Those who are rich oftentimes put their faith in their riches and in their own ability to maintain them. They do not put their trust in anyone other than themselves. With such an attitude, the chances of one getting into the kingdom of Heaven are the same as a camel getting through the eye of a needle: it is impossible. One cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven based upon his own wealth, actions, or generosity. There is something beyond the abilities of man that is necessary.
Jesus gives the other part of the equation in verse 26 when he states, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” In order for a rich man to be saved, there must be the recognition that he needs God. Without God there is no way for any man to be saved, for “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Many of those with physical wealth will try to save themselves by their own devices; such an exertion is folly and, as Jesus showed, impossible. But if any man, no matter his wealth, will submit himself to God and devote his life in obedience to God’s will, he will receive the greatest treasure of all: entrance into the kingdom and eternal life.