It is one of Jesus’s most shocking statements:
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19: 23-24)
This saying has haunted Christianity since the New Testament books were compiled. A direct reading of the text seems to tell us that it is nearly impossible for rich people to get into heaven. Well that is a hard pill to swallow. Most of us know rich Christians and most of us would like to have enough money to go on exotic vacations and own an iWatch without worrying about it breaking. Will the possession of earthly riches keep us from getting into the kingdom of heaven?
Yesterday in Sunday school we discussed this scripture, and the normal interpretations followed. Some people tried to lessen the effect of the scripture with examples (“Look at Mitt Romney, he’s rich and he’s definitely getting into heaven.” Direct quote) while others brought up the worst and most pernicious theory about what this meant.
We’ve all heard it:
“Well there is some sort of gate in Jerusalem that was really small. A camel could get through it, but it needed to remove most of its baggage and get on its knees to get through.”
A nice sentiment (in fact it hits on the right point) but also completely factually wrong. Where does this story come from? And what exactly does Jesus mean when he says that a rich man can not get into the kingdom of heaven?
Eye of the Needle gate
The interpretation of the Eye of the Needle being a gate in Jerusalem popped up around the 15th century (although it may have been told as early as the 9th century), which places this interpretation as coming around almost 1400 years after the statement was made.
Right off the bat, it is odd that Mormons would use this interpretation, since it comes about in the Renaissance era and not through any Latter Day Saint sources. Generally, as Mormons, we tend to eschew any Medieval era Biblical exegesis since we believe that the full truth of the gospel was not restored before 1830.
Even during the restoration of the gospel, Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible makes no changes to the statement in Matthew. If the intent of the passage was to refer to a gate, it would make sense that Joseph Smith would have made a correction to change the scripture back to the original meaning (as he did with many other Biblical passages). However, in the Joseph Smith Translation, no changes are made to this scripture, implying that the King James translation is correct as it stands. Even more interesting is the fact that Joseph Smith does make a change to following scriptures in the Mark version of this passage. We can see that Joseph Smith did work in this area of the New Testament, but he did not change this particular statement.
So right off the bat, it seems weird that Latter Day Saints favor a 15th century interpretation over what the prophet Joseph Smith did not change.
There is also the little problem that a gate called the Eye of the Needle did not exist during Jesus’ time. Nowadays, Jerusalem does have such a gate, but it was not built until the 16th century under the direction of the Russian Orthodox church. No archaeological evidence has been found that during Jesus’s life Jerusalem had a gate called the Eye of the Needle.
President Lorenzo Snow summarizes the fault of this scriptural interpretation:
Jesus said what he meant and meant what he said when he taught that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. There is no metaphor intended. No softening of this hard saying by linguistic or cultural traditions is justifiable.
Then what are we to take from this passage? Are rich men instantly disqualified from the kingdom of heaven? No, but not for the reason of some fantasy about camels and gates.
What Jesus seemed to be doing here was using a hyperbole to illustrate a point. Jesus’s teachings are beautiful examples of a variety of literary techniques, and hyperbole was one that he used on various occasions.
Looking at the whole passage helps us gain context for this scripture. In the chapter, a rich young man came up to Jesus asking what he could do to enter into the kingdom of heaven. After some discussion about his worthiness, Jesus told him to give up his riches. We are told that the young men went away in sorrow, and afterwords Jesus gave the enigmatic statement that we are discussing.
The young man’s problems seems to have been that he put too much of his trust in riches and was expecting to get into the kingdom of God on his own merit.
Thus, the statement that Jesus is making is that a man can not get into heaven based off of his own riches or his own merit. It is impossible, just like putting a camel through the eye of the needle is impossible. Without accepting a celestial law of consecration, the rich man would have no way to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley (in the book Approaching Zion) elaborates on this point:
The young man could not take that one step because he was very rich, and for that the Lord turned him away sorrowing: he did not call him back to suggest easier terms but turned to his disciples and pointed out to them by this example how hard it is for a rich man to enter heaven—only a special miracle could do it, he explained; it is as impossible to enter the celestial kingdom without accepting the celestial law as it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24).
The disciples marveled greatly at this, for they had never heard of that convenient postern gate, invented by an obliging nineteenth-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation—the ancient sources knew nothing of that gate, and neither did the baffled apostles.
Getting a camel through the eye of a sewing needle is impossible, but with a miracle from God it is possible. Likewise, a rich man getting into heaven without accepting the laws of God is impossible. But with the miracle of the atonement, it is possible. Or as the Jesus himself said:
With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26)
Can a rich man get into the kingdom of heaven? Yes. But concocting complex stories about camels and gates cheapens the message that Jesus was giving us. The message that we are to learn is that a man can not be saved on his own. It is only through the love of God and atonement of Jesus Christ himself that we are saved. And with those two things in our lives, anything is possible, even putting a camel through the eye of a needle.