Why does Jesus say that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God? Does this mean that rich people can't follow Jesus? How do we define who is a rich man?
To understand Jesus' saying about the rich man, we have to take a closer look at Matthew 19. We have to look at the context in which Jesus says that hardly a rich man shall enter the Kingdom.
"Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions" (Matthew 19:21-22 KJV bible).
A certain young man asks Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. Then Jesus tells him that to be complete, he should sell all that he has, and follow him. Upon hearing this the man goes away sorrowful. Because of his great wealth, the rich man is unwilling to follow Jesus.
Then Jesus remarks how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, "...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" (Matthew 19:23-24 KJV bible).
Life is filled with many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. None of them have any significance compared to the opportunity to follow Jesus. However, Jesus makes clear throughout the gospels that there are requirements in following him. In the case of the rich man, he is unwilling to meet these requirements, and so walks away.
There are several questions that this passage raises, especially as it relates to being rich. Many question if Jesus is saying that a rich person can't be saved, unless they become poor. Also, if a rich person has to literally get rid of everything they own to follow Jesus, then what about the rest of us? Do we also have to sell everything to follow Jesus?
It's clear that Jesus is telling this man that to follow him he has to sell his possessions. However, we have to consider the times in which they were living. To be Jesus' disciple at this time, one had to literally follow and serve him in his ministry.
"And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead" (Matthew 8:21-22 KJV bible).
At this time, Jesus' disciples had to leave behind their wordly lives and possessions. This would include relatives, lands, houses, businesses etc. Not only was it impossible to maintain these things from far away, but they could easily be a distraction from serving God.
Jesus doesn't ask anything of the rich man that he doesn't ask of his other followers. They all must leave behind what they have in the world to follow Jesus. Their hearts must not be conflicted, but set on serving the Kingdom. No one can be in two places at once, or serve two masters.
In this context, we see that the rich man's sin isn't that he's rich. It's not as though his wealth has exceeded a certain amount and so he has to become poor. Rather, his sin is that he is unwilling to become poor for the sake of the gospel. The man's riches become a sin because they prevent him from following Jesus.
Mark's gospel can help us better understand Jesus' message here, "But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:24 KJV bible).
Jesus is teaching against the idolatry of riches. He's making the point that those who are rich in the world tend to find security in what they have. They have much greater difficulty leaving behind their worldly statuses and possessions than those who are poor.
Nowadays we don't follow Jesus literally, but spiritually. It would be "out of context" to say that we literally have to sell everything and follow Jesus. For some of us, selling everything we own wouldn't make us useful to Jesus.
However, we need to be careful about excusing ourselves. Its easy to look at the disciples and think our situation is different, and we don't have to make those same sacrifices. But Jesus is clear that we have to put him before ourselves.
"And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 10:38-39 KJV bible).
In some respects we are all like the rich man. We all have idols that impede us from entering the Kingdom, and following Jesus. This is why the disciples ask "who can be saved", because it's in our nature to place significance on worldly things.
"When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:25-26 KJV bible).
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