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That eye-of-a-needle metaphor? It really is about needles.

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”— Mark 10:24-26

Twice in recent months I’ve had clients use this story in their work. Only one of them got it right.

The other repeated a fable people like to tell: that when Jesus spoke of a camel going through the eye of a needle, he wasn’t speaking of a sewing needle. He was, the story goes, speaking of a gate in Jerusalem called the Needle Gate, which presumably was very small. A hypothetical camel could only go through this supposed gate if it were stripped of its burdens and got down on its knees.

A nice sermon illustration—I’ve even heard a pastor use it.

But it’s bunk.

The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary of the Bible calls it “a pious explanation…unfounded in fact.” The “eye of a needle” means “Needle Gate” hypothesis was not floated until the middle ages. The only gates in Jerusalem labeled “Eye of the Needle” received that moniker after tourists started showing up asking, “Where is the Needle Gate?”

Go on, search your Bible for references to this Needle Gate. You won’t find it. Because it didn’t exist. Jesus isn’t talking about some hypothetical gate. He is really talking about a needle.

needle

Photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert • freeimages.com

Remember, Jesus is prone to hyperbole. This is the guy to told you to gouge your eye out if it offends you. Who told you to get the log out of your own eye before picking on someone else.

So it is not unreasonable to assume that when he said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” he was using hyperbole to describe something that is impossible.

We don’t like that. We don’t like it because if we have any shred of self-awareness, we understand that compared to 99.9 percent of the world’s population, we are rich. So we try to explain it away. He didn’t mean impossible. He just meant really difficult.

No. He meant impossible.

Look at the disciples’ reaction. They’re amazed. “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

With man this is impossible. Impossible. As impossible as a camel going through the eye of a needle. Not difficult. Not manageable with a bit of sacrifice.

Impossible.

The point of this lesson Jesus teaches is not that we can earn admission to the kingdom of heaven if we make enough sacrifices. The point is not that we can buy our way into the kingdom if we just give a bunch of money to charity.

The point is that nothing we do will get us into the kingdom. Only God can do that, and he will if we let him.

Because he specializes in doing the impossible.

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About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

4 comments on “That eye-of-a-needle metaphor? It really is about needles.

  1. The idea that a “large rope” rather than a “camel”, however, was meant is not a medieval invention, but an artifact of Aramaic and of the Christian Aramaic versions of the New Testament, and of how they relate to the Greek text. The two words are virtually identical in Aramaic – gamla’ – as I recall the only difference is the hard or the soft “g”. Some argue, backwards as it seems to me, that the Greek NT translates an Aramaic original and in error at that. But leaving the linguistic history aside, in textual criticism the “more difficult” reading among two variants is the preferred one and a “camel” is certainly “more difficult” (uh, “more impossible?” 😉 ) than a “large rope” to get through the eye of a needle.

    Just because I thought you might be interested 😀 Good job.

  2. Interesting post. Never have seen anyone write about this before. I was not confused about the Scriptural lesson or moral here. And even if I was, John would no doubt set me on the right track. We are in the same church and share the same beliefs.
    I enjoyed your post. And no we cannot despite what some religious cults believe, cannot earn our way into heaven. The fact that the notion of us going to heaven or hell is not from God but man. Too much proves that. But aside from that, when Christ does return to earth with His Kingdom, we still won’t be able to earn eternal life. That is a whole another subject.
    Yisraela

  3. Pursuant to Yisraela’s comment above:

    It is interesting how you cite Mark’s account, which says “the kingdom of *God”, only to switch to “the kingdom of *heaven”, which is Matthew’s phrasing, toward the end. Was this an unconscious concession to the idea that Christians go to heaven immediately upon death? Yisraela seemed to think so. I felt no need to point out the change in phrasing as your main point was in another direction.

    But let’s run with Yisraela’s comment a bit and see where it leads us. Of all the New Testament authors, only Matthew uses “the kingdom of heaven”, and he does so because he is a Jew writing in a Jewish way to a Jewish audience as no other Gospel author (even John) does. “Heaven” is a Jewish circumlocution for “God”. Matthew says by circumlocution what Mark and all the other authors say openly, that God rules His Kingdom. Matthew does not imply thereby that God’s Kingdom – as the saints will inherit it with Jesus Christ, to be sure – is in heaven. Rather, all of Jesus’ parables and teachings, and the rest of the New Testament authors too (to say nothing of Daniel and others), speak of the resurrection of the righteous dead, body, soul and spirit, at Jesus’ return, and of His reign as the King of that Kingdom under God beginning with a thousand-year period on earth. Only after all is done here do the saints inherit everything else both seen and unseen. (What will happen to the rest of mankind from Christ’s return onward is vital to understand, but it is another subject.)

    It took centuries for the “heaven/hell upon death” paradigm to become predominant in mainstream theology and even several of the Ante-Nicene Fathers strenuously resisted it. One of the most pointed statements against going to heaven immediately after death was by Justin Martyr, considered the first truly Catholic apologist, in his DIALOGUE WITH TRYPHO A JEW (ch. 80-81). What the Bible says about Hell is harder to understand in some ways than what it says about the Kingdom and unsurprisingly, Justin along with others of the time misunderstood the nature of Hell. But what he said about the founding of the Kingdom of God on earth at Christ’s return is exactly scriptural, and also cites an old tradition about six thousand years of man’s rule followed by a thousand years of God’s rule. He also said to Trypho and his Jewish companions (in chapter 80) that those who believed people go to heaven immediately upon death not only denied the resurrection of the dead, but were not to be counted as true Christians!

    It is worth asking why the general opinion in Christianity changed on this doctrine, and why. One reason was a progressive Catholic overreaction to Gnostic heresies about the Millennium – but that is another subject too.

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