Inheriting the Kingdom: wealth

ChineseJesus-rich-manProblem of Wealth? 23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to pass through (the) eye of (a) needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

Before we address the question of wealth, the larger question is really “Who can be saved?” The answer in v.21 is clear – human beings cannot save themselves. Just can’t do it. But, nothing is impossible for God. Stoffregen writes: “The answer to ‘how hard?’ is ‘It’s impossible.’ Whenever we make it ‘possible’ to do with enough work or sacrifice, we miss the radical nature of Jesus’ comments; which were especially revolting because (1) it was naturally assumed that the wealthy were closer to God and were more likely to be saved than the common people and (2) it was naturally assumed that those who kept the commandments were closer to God and were more likely to be saved than the common people. The man in our text fulfilled both requirements — but doesn’t enter the kingdom — at least not based on his righteousness or wealth.”

And then there is the camel-eye-of-the-needle comment. There has been a lot of energy spent on that verse – which is good for the most part. But there has been a lot of energy seeking to change the presentation and understanding of the metaphor. Some later manuscripts make a one letter change in the word for camel from kamelon to kamilon, meaning “rope.” Then, a rope puts things in the realm of possibility. Another interpretation says that the “Needle’s Eye” was the name of a small gate into the city of Jerusalem. This was the way one had to enter after the main gates were closed. In order for someone to get a camel through this small gate, the camel would have to be unloaded and bow down to get through the small door. There is no evidence that such a small door was ever called “the needle’s eye”. France (The Gospel of Mark, 405) goes on to state: “ But worse than the lack of evidence for this conjecture is its effect in actually undermining the point of the proverb. That which Jesus presented as ludicrously impossible is turned into a remote possibility: the rich person, given sufficient unloading and humility, might just possibly be able to squeeze in. That was not what Jesus’ proverb meant, and it was not how the disciples understood it (v. 26).” Witherington [284] suggests that Jesus is “contrasting the largest animal and the smallest hole that an early Jew in Israel would likely think of.” All-in-all, they seem to be attempts to dilute the impossibility of getting a camel through the eye of a needle. It is a way of making the impossible possible for us to do – which is the fundamental problem Jesus is trying to address.

“In Judaism it was inconceivable that riches should be a barrier to the Kingdom, since a significant strand of OT teaching regarded wealth and substance as marks of God’s favor (e.g. Job 1:10; 42:10; Ps. 128:1–2; Isa. 3:10 and often). If a related strand of the tradition recognized the poor as the special objects of God’s protection (e.g. Deut. 15:7–11; Prov. 22:22f.), the possession of wealth permitted generous gifts to those in need. This aspect of personal and public concern was one of the three major pillars of Jewish piety (almsgiving, fasting and prayer). The affirmation of v. 23 was shocking precisely because it entails the rejection of the concept of merit accumulated through the good works accomplished by the rich, which was presupposed in contemporary Judaism. There is no mark of God’s special favor in possessions, nor in the lack of them. The peculiar danger confronting the rich, however, lies in the false sense of security which wealth creates and in the temptation to trust in material resources and personal power when what is demanded by the Law and the gospel is a whole-hearted reliance upon God.” [Lane, 369]

Then who can be saved? When the disciples expressed their surprise, Jesus repeated his solemn warning in an absolute form: how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God. But they understand the broader eschatological implications: this is not just a concern for the rich, it is about the barriers that any one faced in trying to earn entrance into the Kingdom, and they were frightened by this implication. Who will be found in the Kingdom? Will it include me? Jesus’ response in v. 27 provides the key to the sober declarations in the immediate context and to the gospel he proclaimed. Salvation is completely beyond the sphere of human possibilities and lays completely within in the power of God. The conclusion to the account returns to the beginning by directing attention to the ability and goodness of God, and constitutes the basis for the renewal of a theology of hope.

Notes

Mark 10:23 How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God! Jesus used the rich man’s reaction to typify the problem the rich have in responding to Jesus and his teaching on the Kingdom. The illustration that follows argues that such entry is impossible without God’s help. The idea is repeated in Mark 10:24 to emphasize the point. The word used for “hard” (duskolōs) usually pictures someone who is hard to please, but here it pertains to something that is difficult to accomplish.

Mark 10:24 The disciples were amazed The remarks amazed (ethambounto) the disciples; the term used suggests that they were surprised and could not entirely process what Jesus was saying (1:27; Mark 10:32; Acts 3:11).

Mark 10:25 it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Despite efforts to argue otherwise by differently interpreting the eye of the needle, Jesus’ point is that in human terms, entry into the Kingdom by the rich is impossible, as Mark 10:27 makes clear. The rhetorical point is that it is harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom on his or her own than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Rabbis used the illustration of an elephant going through the eye of a needle (b. Bava Metzi’a 38b). Jeremias offered that one of the night gates in Jerusalem was referred to as the “eye of the needle” because only one lightly loaded camel could pass through it (the tightness was a way of limiting entry into the city during night hours). Unfortunately, no evidence of such a gate is known to any other scholars.

Mark 10:26 Then who can be saved? The disciples’ reaction came from their understanding that the rich were blessed by God (Job 1:10; 42:10; Isa 3:10; Lane 1974:369). If the rich could not enter into the Kingdom, who could? In this verse, the disciples have moved from the amazement of Mark 10:24 to exceeding astonishment. The verb exeplēssonto means being amazed to the extent of being overwhelmed (1:22; 6:2; 7:37; 11:18).

Mark 10:27 All things are possible for God. Jesus’ reply makes it clear that God is able to do what man cannot do (on this idea, see Gen 18:14; Job Mark 10:13; 42:2; Zech 8:6). A heart changed by God can embrace Jesus and his call.

Sources

  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 362-73
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1994) 648-52
  • Ben Worthington, The Gospel of Mark: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) 86, 274-81
  • Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at www.crossmarks.com/brian/
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