Grace to you!
Yesterday, I promised to reflect on “the eye of a needle” phrase, hence this blog.
Jesus declared: “It is easier for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). This is one of those proverbs in the New Testament with various interpretations and misinterpretations.
There are different views as to the meaning of this proverb, which by the way, according to Scripture scholar Alfred Edersheim, was a slight adaptation of another common Jewish proverb which says, “a man even in his dreams does not see an elephant pass through a needle’s eye.” Basically, it shows how unrealizable such a dream is.
While reflecting on those different understandings, as with other of my daily reflections, my goal is to enrich our spiritual life. Call it a Christian spiritual boost for the day. Though this topic may be a little more technical, I will try to simplify it as much as possible.
You may have heard some people who understand the above proverb to mean the camel passing through the knitting needle’s eye or the surgical needle, as used in Luke’s translation (remember Luke was a physician). Though this view is unpopular, and very simplistic, many have come to see it as also important to understanding the message.
The most popular view, which I suspect you already know, is that the eye of a needle refers to the small gate beside the big gate on the walls surrounding the Jerusalem city during the time of Jesus. The small gates were designed so that in the evening, when the big gate is closed for security reasons, the shepherds or others outside the wall could still have access to the city without having to wait till the next morning when the big gate is opened.
Because the so-called gate, called the eye of a needle, was generally small, some suggest it would be difficult for the camel to pass through it. If the camel must pass through the gate, at least two things have to happen.
First, the camel must stoop down, almost lapping the stomach on the sand. This could be possible if the fore limbs are cuddled up or stretched almost flat forward and the hind limbs stretched backwards, all these depending on the size of the camel. The bigger the camel, the more difficult it would be to pass through the gate. What a torture that could be.
What it takes to get to heaven if we are attached to wealth could be like a torture too. A lot of sacrifice is involved. Detachment makes a heaven journey more pleasant. No need to labor under torture.
Second, for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle, the hunchback of the animal would have to be pressed down, at least a little bit. As the belly is touching the ground, the hunchback is pressed down to make it possible for the huge animal to pass through.
Each of these two actions seems extremely difficult. One could spiritually see the two actions in the light of the level of stooping – humility, pressing and stretching (sacrifice and detachment), which the rich would have to pass through to enter God’s kingdom.
A simple example could help drive home this point. Consider living in the USA where regular electricity is taken for granted. You visited some part of Africa and realized that for your one week stay there was no electricity, thus neither hot shower nor online connectivity is possible. It would demand a lot of sacrifice, literally detoxing from your usual convenience, for you to survive in such an environment. Generally speaking, people who are very comfortable have less resistance to unusual crosses; and going to heaven, whose route is the way of the cross, could be very challenging to some.
Though the above understanding re “small gate” was the mainstream and seems to sound sweeter for sermons, recent biblical and historical studies have shown the idea of a small gate by the big city gate, called the eye of a needle, may not be historically accurate. It may be good for personal meditation, but not for accuracy of biblical interpretation.
Let’s look at another interpretation of Jesus’ “the eye of a needle” proverb. This has to do with the actual Greek word, which many have translated in English as “camel.” If, as some bible scholars have suggested (though this is unlikely), the actual word used by Jesus is κάμιλος (kamilos), which means “the rope of a ship, or a cable” instead of κάμηλος (kamelos) – camel, then it sheds another light on the message for us.
To employ the imagery of the ship-rope or cable, consider using the rope used for anchoring the ship and trying to use it to pass through the eye of a needle, that is, the opening in the needle where threads are passed for sewing. Wouldn’t this be simply impossible to do? Could this be what Jesus wanted to communicate; hence the apostles were shocked, and in desperation said, “Then who can be saved?”
There is something about this second interpretation which heightens the sense of curiosity. If we take it as what Jesus meant, then it’s only by God’s grace that the wealthy can go to heaven. Indeed, everyone needs that grace.
Finally, here is how the text speaks to me, having read the lines of many of the Church’s understanding. The proverb carries symbolic meaning(s), like many other proverbs used by Jesus, and should be seen as a reference to something that is unachievable, except by God’s grace.
The shock of the apostles shouldn’t be seen in the light of a camel passing through the small gate or the cable passing through the knitting or surgical needle but in the light of the fact that for the Jews of Jesus’ time, wealth was seen as a sign of divine justification and poverty was seen as a curse. Jesus showed the complete opposite – being rich doesn’t necessarily mean being righteous. In fact, it would be more difficult, almost unthinkable, for those attached to wealth to get to heaven. That was what shocked the disciples.
So, what’s my take-home here, the spiritual food I crave for my day’s nourishment? Wealth isn’t a sign of divine justification. Similarly, salvation for the wealthy would demand detachment, cutting down on what we don’t need by giving them to those who need them. By so doing, we are nipping greed in the bud and training ourselves in the virtue of charity and temperance. But ultimately, as with every one, salvation is by God’s grace.
We need that grace, don’t we? Lets continue to pray for it.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on the bible readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.