23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
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.”
25 When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Staring with some definitions…
Kingdom of heaven: appears only in Matthew.It shares many of the features of the Kingdom of God and scholars are generally in agreement that it can be regarded a synonym1.
the Kingdom of God: to use a first century Jew’s context it means Yahweh’s kingdom made manifest through the defeat of humanity’s real enemies: namely, sin, Satan and death. More modern interpretations view the Kingdom more along the lines of humanity becoming what it is meant to be (sinless perfection as created by God in Adam for example, or in Jesus depending how your view of humanity/divinity lay)
the eye of a needle: there was a Jewish saying of the time about the impossibility of fitting an elephant through the eye of a [sewing] needle. There was also speculation that the Greek word for ‘chord’ (piece of rope) was mistranslated into camel. Thirdly is an aphorism in which the gate through which people could enter Jerusalem could only accept a camel on its knees without its goods. The latter has 9th century origins and no evidence that it actually existed. Either way, the aphorism was meant to show the impossibility of the feat.
Breaking it down…
Why does Matthew say that wealth is a barrier to entry into the age to come?
The parallel passage to Matthew 19:23-24 in Mark 10:24 makes Jesus’ position a little clearer by using the example of those who trust in riches:
And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is for those who trust in riches to enter the Kingdom of God!
David had said something similar over a thousand years earlier in Ps. 49:5-7:
…They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him
To place Matthew 19:23-26 in the bigger picture, the risk associated with riches and wealth is to be subject to a great temptation. Those who become wealthy risk being snared by the illusion of autonomy as well as sin ( a turning away from God either way). The rich young man kneeling before Jesus had a problem with the content of his faith. He trusted in what he thought he could do and had always done; keep all of God’s commandments. Jesus showed him that his faith was in himself and therefore defective – that is, the rich young man trusted in autonomy from having riches, and the act of upholding the law, to enter the Kingdom. His faith (in himself), however, was leading him to eternal death*. Here it may be interpreted that faith in God (in contract to the rich man’s faith in self and riches) was the only way in which one could enter the Kingdom of God and even then, as 19:26 reveals, only by the grace of God. Man was powerless to effect that entry himself even if he had kept the Law. More about that later.
How can being poor be a help to entry to the age to come?
Matthew 6:24 says:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Effectively, if your life is driven by the desire and maintenance of riches then you cannot serve God. This may suggest poverty can be helpful, and I shall address that momentarily.
The aphorism illustrates how utterly impossible it is for a man that sets his heart upon his riches, to enter the Kingdom of God, and in fact denotes a difficulty altogether unconquerable by the power of man. Being poor is not, however, the answer either. If riches hinder rich people, are not pride and sinful lusts found in those who are not rich equally as dangerous?
Here we can look at Proverbs 30:8-9 which says:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the Lord?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.
But getting back to that teachable moment in Matthew 19, the quandary of rich -v- poor had the disciples asking of Jesus, “Who can be saved?” None by any created power, is Jesus’ answer. Nothing less than the grace of God will enable a rich man to get over this difficulty. The work of salvation depends wholly on God, to which all things are possible.
So to answer the question, poverty does not guarantee entry into the Kingdom of God but nor does it necessarily help in gaining that entry.
If you enjoy Latin American Liberation Theology then this quote from the Introduction of a book written by the Jesuit, Jon Sobrino SJ, might be of interest: “…more important is the detailed study [Sobrino] gives it in the second part of this essay, and its application to reality when dealing with kinds of salvation, the historical forms of salvation coming from the world of the poor, and the role of the non-poor. One is tempted to ask whether the sufferings of a crucified people, though crying to heaven for vengeance, have in themselves a redemptive value as St Paul claims that ‘by means of my physical sufferings, I am helping to complete what still remains of Christ’s sufferings on behalf of his body, the church’ (Col 1:24).”
“Extra pauperes nulla salus“, that is, “Outside the poor, there is no salvation.” For more on Sobrino’s Liberation Theology, which is centred on social justice and liberation, you may want to read an extract from his book The Eye of the Needle.
Bultmann, an existentialist of the 20th century, said that the New Testament recognises two types of human existence;
- the unbelieving, unredeemed existence of individuals seeking to justify themselves by attempting to secure existence through moral actions and/or material wealth which both testaments designate ‘sin’
- the believing, redeeming existence in which we abandon self-made security and trust in God
Augustin says it is a consequence of the Christian doctrine that we are made in the image of God, therefore possess an inbuilt capacity to relate to Him but the fallenness of human nature frustrates this. Human beings try to fill this need with created things, which come to be a substitute for God. Because these things do not satisfy, human beings are left with a feeling of longing – a longing for something undefinable.
* From a theological point of view, Christ was the new Law and Covenant so although the Mosaic Laws were God’s Law, Jesus was teaching a New Covenant in both words and example that extended beyond the Law. Where the Torah was the Wisdom of God previously, Christ was the new.