Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 42. Camels and Needles
Mt 19:24 Again I tell 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.”
Context: a wealthy young man (Mt 19:22) has come to Jesus asking about receiving eternal life and at the end of his conversation he goes away mournful, either because he found Jesus’ instruction to sell up and give to the poor an impossible thing to do, or he went away struggling with the difficulty he knew he would face if he was to do this. As he goes away, “Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v.23) Now that is the basic teaching and the analogy that follows simply confirms or ratifies this teaching.
So why should it be so difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? Well, the basic requirement for entry is repentance and that may be in respect of specific sins but at the very least it is repentance in respect of the nature of the life we live. Repentance means a one hundred and eighty degree turn about, a turn from a self-centred godless life to a Christ-centred godly life. Previously we lived on the basis of self-will, what we determined was right and wrong and that was largely based on how good the thing left us feeling. Rich people live for enjoyment, for self-pleasure, able to spend what they have on self. They are able to determine what they do and when they do it. Coming to Christ recognizes the empty futility of such a life in reality, and surrenders up that lifestyle and submits to Jesus’ Lordship. Now that is an incredibly hard thing to do and that is why Jesus says what we have just read.
So now comes the analogy: “Again I tell 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.” (v.24) Now there are usually two interpretations given for what this means.
First, the obvious one, is the more simple. Perhaps where Jesus was teaching Camel Traders were passing by and so if you wanted an illustration of something living that was large, the camel was the obvious thing. Now the women in particular would be familiar with a needle used at home and husbands would have seen their use as well so we have a second thing that was familiar. Indeed the struggle to get thread through the eye of a needle is a familiar thing to any homemaker so it is like Jesus was saying, “You know what it is like, the struggle to thread a needle, well imagine what it would be like if I said you must push that camel over there through the eye of your needle.”
This produced a natural reaction: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” (v.25) Jesus gives a reply that goes to the heart of the problem: “Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (v.26) That is the truth of this analogy, that it is impossible for a rich man to come to God because of his reliance on his riches. But is that the end of the story, will that rich young man never come to God? Oh no, says Jesus, it may be humanly impossible but when God is on your case, nothing is impossible.
I think that sometimes it is not only riches that make it hard for people to come to Christ; it can also be culture or even politics. I have no doubt told this story in some previous study on this site but it bears repeating. Many years ago when I was much younger and worked in an office in the City of London, in the office was a much older man who was a cockney Labour councillor who saw my Christianity as a middle class thing utterly opposed to everything his culture believed in. We became good friends and he regularly made fun of my faith. He was, we might say, ‘as hard as nails’ when it comes to belief. He was absolutely, to use another expression, set in concrete, but one day we were at lunch together and he started sharing a personal problem he had at home, a spiritual problem. I started sharing but after a while I had to say, “My old friend, I would love to carry on talking but unfortunately in this building there is a Christian group that meets regularly to pray and read the Bible and it just so happens that today they have asked me to lead the Bible study and so I have to go and do that. You’d be very welcome to come if you want, but I have to go now.”
I didn’t think he would take up my offer and so I went off to take the Bible study in the second half-hour of our lunch hour. I joined the group and started the study which just so happened to be (previously set) an exposition of John Chapter 3 – all about being born again! To my total surprise, after about two minutes he slipped in at the back and listened attentively. At the end of the half hour this ‘hard-as-nails’ old friend was ‘born again’. If you had asked me a week before, I would have said he was the last person on earth who would accept Christ – but he did. The camel came through the eye. It was utterly a work of God, that which was humanly impossible became possible with God.
Now there is a second interpretation given of this analogy. In the city there would be the large main gate which was shut at dusk, but there was also a small arched gateway that was left open for pedestrians who arrived late in the city. This small gate, possibly because of its smallness, was referred to as ‘The Needle’s Eye’. Now it was only designed for people and so if you wanted to get your camel into the city through this little gate, you would have to take off all its load, and get it right down on its knees and only then might it be able to shuffle through. That analogy is equally instructive – that to come to Christ, you must shed all you have and come empty handed on bended knee in total humility. Now that analogy does not actually fit with Jesus words about the impossibility of the situation, but it does convey the truths about a person coming to Christ.
So, two things to conclude. First, don’t try and make it easy for a person to come to Christ – it isn’t. Whoever they are, repentance and total surrender are essentials. Second, never write off anyone as too hard for God. As my illustration above shows, God has an amazing way of working on the most hard of hearts. It (they) may appear impossible from your standpoint but God may think otherwise. Why doesn’t God convict every single person and bring them to Him? He respects our free will and as much as He may speak and bring pressure to bear, He will never force us into the kingdom. Perhaps another way of putting it, in the light of my old friend, is to say that He alone can see the cracks in the hardest of hearts and He alone knows just how little it may require to help that person on to a place of surrender. Keep praying for your unsaved loved ones, friends and neighbours, you never know who the Lord his going to approach as His next ‘camel’!!!