The Eye of a Needle!
Today I would like to discuss the story of the rich young ruler. You may know this story, you may not. You might not know it as well as you think you do or understand it in the complex nature that holds it. Most people hear this story and take a small few things away from it, most notably “It will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven,” or something along those lines. But, friend, I am glad to tell you there is more to this story than may readily meet the eye! So let’s look at the passage at hand.
Matthew 19:16-26New American Standard Bible (NASB)
16 And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 Then he *said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother, and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man *said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.
23 And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I say to you, 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.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
This particular version is from Matthew, and while I will be using this particular version most, I will also use Luke and Mark’s telling of the story a handful of times.
Let’s look at verses 16 and 17. The first thing we notice is that the young man went to Jesus in search of truth, goodness, and eternal life. This is good, as it sets the stage as such: The young man desires truth, is looking for truth in the right place, but knows that he has not, himself, obtained this truth or eternal life. The second thing you might notice is Jesus’ response, particularly how odd it might seem as a response to the question at hand. So let’s talk about this:
For starters, the various authors chose to write these statements slightly differently. Wherein Matthew, we find the ruler asking what good thing ought he do to get into heaven, we find Mark and Luke changing the question so slightly to “good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life” or the such. Jesus’s response also varies slightly but the brunt of His response stays the same. In essence, He asks the ruler either “why are you asking me what is good” or “why do you call me good” along with “there is only One (God) who is good,” and follows up with “if you wish to inherit life, follow the commandments.”
This is particularly heavy for a multitude of reasons. First is the idea that none of us our good. Of course, as we see in Isaiah 64:4, even our most righteous acts are but dirty rags, but it seems almost incomprehensible to us that even our best is worth nothing. Second, is Jesus really saying that the way to heaven is to follow commandments? I thought Christianity was specifically NOT a works based religion? I thought that was Paul’s whole ideology?! To that, I say yes. You are right in saying that Christianity is not a works based religion. In bringing up the commandments Jesus is setting up the conversation in order for Him to show the rich young man how he might actually gain entrance to the place of the Divine. You see this quite often throughout the gospels, where Jesus begins a conversation at an offset in order to lead into what He really wants to get at.
Of course, hearing that Heaven can be gotten at such ease, the young man jumps at the chance to find the key, asking Jesus “Which ones?” To understand this question is particularly important to know the context around the commandments. There are approximately 600 commandments in the first five books of the Bible. During the time that Jesus was on earth, there was great debate and discourse concerning WHICH commandments took precedence over others and HOW they ought to be followed. So while we might sit and think, I know I certainly did, well duh, guy, follow the commandments… like… all of them. It just wasn’t quite that easy. In fact, I’m sure that Jesus’ initial response excited him even more. I can just hear his words “you’re telling me I only have to keep 5 commandments?! That’s EASY! I’ve been doing that!” Which he clearly says, and in Luke, we see that the ruler had even kept them from his youth. But then we see him falter. He knows that he is not whole, that he has not received heaven in his inheritance as of yet. So he asks “what am I still lacking?”
This is the key to the question from before, the concern about Jesus saying the ruler needed to follow the commandments. You see, Jesus listed five of the Ten Commandments, which are broken into two parts: four concerning humanity’s relationship with God and six concerning humanity’s relationship with itself. The five that Jesus listed are: “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother, and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (The last statement, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” is not one of the Ten Commandments and is not listed in Jesus’ statement in either Mark or Luke). You see, there is one missing, one that may be particularly relevant to one such as a rich ruler. Do not covet.
Jesus left this particular commandment out, leading into the entire conversation with commandments, to show the young ruler just exactly what was keeping him out of the kingdom of heaven. So when the young man asks Jesus if there is more, knowing that he must certainly be missing something, Jesus hits him where it matters, where it hurts.
“If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
This cut the young man down. He had great riches, presumably riches that he had worked very hard for. But this desire for wealth was what was keeping his heart from God. In Mark, it says that before Jesus spoke this He looked at the young man and felt love for him. The root word used for this love is agape, unconditional love. When He spoke these words, words He knew would cut the man down to his lowest, Jesus spoke them in Love, in the interest of the young man so that he might heed Jesus’ words. But we see that the ruler, heartbroken as he was, simply walked away. He simply could not give up the greed that he had. The wealth that he had.
Just imagine it:
Jesus is standing in front of you. He calls you by name, lets you ask Him the one question we all want to understand, “How to I gain eternal life?” he looks at you, you can see the compassion on His face, maybe even a hint of sadness as He knows what He is going to say may cause you great pain. Then He speaks, “You must _____.” He speaks aloud, for you and everyone else to hear, the one thing, the single sin you have kept all these years. It may be greed, pride, lust, gluttony, hatred, but it’s yours, and you know it. And now you have to choose to give it up and follow Him or keep living your familiar lifestyle.
I’m sure we’d all like to also imagine that we would drop our sins at that instant and follow Him, I know I would. But with real consideration, I wonder how many of us could truly say that we wouldn’t at least need a minute to think. Because we are people of habit, we are people who like familiarity, we are people who like consistency, even if that consistency is composed of inconsistencies. We know how to live the life we live right now. We know that giving up our hatred is giving up a part of ourselves, however dead and rotted it might be, and that by giving it up and following Jesus we are following a way that is guaranteed to be hard work, dangerous work, though worth it at the very end. Considering these things I become more compassionate for the rich young ruler, trying to understand the mindset of “But I worked so hard for all of this! I can’t just give it away. And for what? To live a hard life following this Jesus as He basically bums His way around the nation?” I’m not saying I agree with the ruler’s response, but I hear his plight and can lend some understanding.
But do not lose hope!
The final statement is not Jesus particularly hating on rich people. With such a grandiose statement as “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I say to you, 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.” It is hard to think otherwise. But this statement is more than just “rich people won’t get to heaven” (which it isn’t saying at all, but we’ll get to that in just a minute”), so much as it is “anyone with such a great block between him and God will not easily make it into heaven.” Replace rich with racist, or murderer, or rapist, or blasphemer, or, or, or.. the list goes on forever what sort of things can be used to block one’s relationship with the Almighty. But the important piece, the beauty of the passage, comes at the very end. You see, the disciples understood what I was trying to say, that this verse is applicable to any other blocking mechanism as it is to wealth, and in understanding so they ask Jesus “Who then can be saved?” Who can be saved, if just one sin blocks him or her from God? If any sin makes our ability to get into heaven so much harder than a camel through a needle’s eye? Jesus responds with what should have been obvious to them from the start, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Let me rephrase that a bit for us: We, humanity, have no way of getting into heaven on our own, but God can transform anyone, heal anyone, renew anyone, save and sanctify ANYONE. But as we saw in my last piece on holiness, this salvation/sanctification process is a two-way street. The Rich young ruler may have desired to follow Christ, he may have truly wanted to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but in the end he was not willing to work with God to do so. In a sense, he wanted to be strong and fit, he wanted to run marathons, but he was not willing to train for these things. He was willing to be cleansed by God but not to work on cleansing himself.
So what is there to get out of all of this? Why explain all of this, like, what is the importance of it?
There are but two things I want you my reader, as well as myself, to get out of this, three that I want us to live.
First: We need to actively ask God what there is in our lives that needs to be removed, worked on, fixed, or cleansed.
We cannot know in and of ourselves what is good and what should stay or what is bad and what should not stay. Jesus explains this very thoroughly, the idea that no man is ‘good’ but only the Lord himself. Furthermore, this precedent set forth by the rich young ruler is recorded for a reason, to show us that it is indeed okay, even necessary, for us to come to Him in order to learn about ourselves.
Second: When our Heavenly Father directs us on how to live, however painful, saddening, or harsh it might seem, we need, need, need to listen to Him.
He only has our best in mind, friends, we see this in Jesus’ compassion and love for the ruler, even as He was about to show the man his weakness. The Divine’s desire for us to see our iniquities is not so that it can stand in Judgement or stand about declaring purity over ours, but rather so that we might work with God to cleanse our iniquities to become more like Him!
Third: Remember that no matter what we have done, no matter where we have been, no matter how we have hurt or been hurt God can heal us. God can cleanse us. Though we, with our merely created hands, can do nothing, there is nothing which God can NOT do!
Sometimes we think are too far gone in a certain area, sometimes we become apathetic or uncaring towards certain sins in our lives. But God is the impossible, He is the one being that is able to do everything. Never be afraid or feel alone in this respect because if there is one being in the entirety of existence that not only CAN help you, but also WANTS to help you, it’s our Lord God!
Thank you, Beloved. I hope this benefits you in every way that it has benefitted me and more.