July 6, 2010
This is the third in a series of entries on Jesus’ attitude toward riches and the rich, prompted by a June 13 article in Huffington Post by Les Leopold entitled “Is there a Global War Between Financial Theocracy and Democracy?”
Although he famously included women, the poor, lepers and other marginalized people in his community and explicitly forbade hierarchical forms of governance (see Mark 10:35-45), Jesus’ kingdom of God was no democracy. It was in fact a theocracy, a covenant under God’s direct rulership whose primary mission was to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). It also brought bad news to the rich. No story illustrates this central focus of the gospel message better than that of the rich young man who asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, told in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 10:17-31; Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30).
The first thing to note right away in the man’s question is the economic language the man uses to describe how he will achieve his goal of eternal life: he hopes to inherit it. Jesus himself uses ‘inherit’ this way quite frequently (see my posts on the Beatitudes). The man is posing a question about the law (and Jesus answers him with the law) and he knows that it is inheritance law that applies to his query: he will inherit eternal life from his Father in heaven as his portion—as a son of God—if he follows the law faithfully. In essence, he is asking Jesus, how can I become a son of God under your interpretation of the law. It’s worth noting that the “sons of God” was the term used in Jesus’ time for angels and that Jesus expected the saints to rise from the dead to become “like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).
Jesus asks him if he has followed the law, citing several of the Ten Commandments, all of them economic crimes: theft, false witness, swindling (coveting, wrongly understood as wishing you had what your neighbor has), care of your aged father and mother, and adultery. (Adultery directly violated inheritance law because conceiving a child outside the marriage disrupted the inheritance of the woman’s family.) The rich young man replies that he has
“kept all these since my youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 10:20-24,
Some scholars have proposed, on only a little evidence, that there was a postern gate (that is, a small gate for people only, rather than for commercial traffic) in the city wall of Jerusalem called the Needle Gate. If this were true, the image would be of a rich merchant forced to unload his camel’s saddlebags of all their cargo so that the camel could fit through the gate. This is a perfect image for what Jesus has in mind, whether there was a Needle Gate or not. In any event, the literal image of a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle is hyperbolic and dramatic, capturing the intensity of Jesus’ message: the only way rich people will inherit the kingdom of God is for them to give their surplus wealth to the poor.
Most of us will walk away grieving, just like the man in the story.