The incident with the rich young ruler prompted a brief message from Jesus to His disciples about riches. He used an idiom to communicate the difficulty some people may have entering into the kingdom of God. People have misunderstood the idiom and used it to teach contrary to the truth.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
24 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.
25 When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?
26 But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
Before we handle the orientalism about the camel going through the eye of the needle, let me digress and point out how preconceived ideas can shape how one recognizes and applies orientalisms in the study of the scriptures. The Bible Knowledge Commentary has an interesting remark on these verses. It says regarding the disciples’ astonished question:
“This showed the Pharisees’ influence on them, for the Pharisees said that God bestows wealth on those He loves. So if a wealthy person [i.e. one whom God loves] cannot make it into the kingdom, seemingly no one can! Jesus answered that salvation is a work of God. What appears to be impossible with men is what God delights to do.”
I thought God loves everyone. He “so loved the world….” Funny this commentary associated wealth and riches with the teachings of the Pharisees. It was obvious that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ comment. The difficulty doesn’t arise from the riches, but from the trust that the rich put in their riches. God wants above all things that we prosper and be in health. He wants wealth for all his people, and He has given us power to get it (Deuteronomy 8:18).
There is nothing wrong with wealth. However, loving it caused problems for the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22, and the church is warned about loving money in I Timothy 6:10. Often the rich must get past their pride, ego, and haughty self-sufficiency before they recognize and accept the salvation God has provided through His son. Apparently the rich young ruler treasured his riches more than the words of Jesus. His unwillingness to obey Jesus’ instruction kept him from the fullness of life that was made available to him.
From this context in Matthew, some have taught the “eye of the needle” as the “gate of the city.” Bishop Pillai recognized and taught the orientalism of the camel passing through the gate of the city. He also recognized the way people in the west have misapplied it.
“There is a narrow gate in Jerusalem through which camels struggle after being unloaded. The western idea is that this narrow gate is the needle’s eye and just as the camel must be unloaded to pass through, so must the rich man be unloaded to pass through the gate of heaven.”
However, he also taught that the phrase “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” did not refer to this orientalism. Instead he said the phrase was an idiom. The mistake in translation was made when translators chose the wrong homonym. Instead of using the proper one, “rope,” they chose another one “camel.” This incorporated the gate of the city orientalism and fit better with their theology. By using the “gate of the city” orientalism and ignoring the idiom, the meaning became tainted to convey that wealth was not conducive to receiving the true riches of God. This kind of distorted thinking evolved into “vows of poverty” and was used by the Roman Catholic Church to bring great wealth into the Vatican.
Bishop Pillai noted that the Aramaic word, gamla, has four possible meanings: 1) rope 2) beam 3) camel 4) something larger than the object spoken of. Only the proper understanding of the context and the usage of the idiom would allow for the accurate translation of gamla. He explained the depth of the idiom from the eastern culture saying:
“The rope is a very small rope. It fits through a big needle, which is used to sew bags—maybe the eye is one third of an inch wide. Needle is as thick as my thumb and four to five inches long with a big eye. If it’s a big rope, you have to twist it hard to go through. A rich man can enter the kingdom of God by twisting him a bit. It’s a little hard for him because he has to forsake the things of the world. He doesn’t need to unload his wealth, just get his heart right. Use your wealth for the glory of God. We have to live like an ambassador for Christ not poverty stricken.”
The key to receiving the true riches of God is getting your heart right with God, His Word, and the men who teach it rightly divided. One must reach the level of humility where one keeps God first in his life. When God is first in one’s priorities and motives and God’s Word is present to direct the individual in proper thought, then a rich man can enter into the kingdom of God.
In the Holy Bible, Translated from the Ancient Eastern Manuscripts. George M. Lamsa identifies this “camel” and “rope” discrepancy in one of the illustrations in the introduction to his translation. In the section of the introduction entitled “Words Resembling One Another” Lamsa states:
“Some Aramaic words are written and pronounced alike, [which is the true definition of an homonym] but their meaning differs according to the context.” (page xiii)
He then gives as an example of the mistranslation due to mistaking the homonymsgamla, “rope” mdgamla, “camel” used in Matthew 19:24 (page xvi). The illustration lists his translation, “… it is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle” and next to it the King James Version “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” Lamsa translates the homonym “rope” in all three verses containing the phrase: Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:25.
There are no works we can do which guarantee entrance into the kingdom of God. Neither is there any material possession that must keep one out. The only work worthy of consideration Jesus mentions in John 6:29. After the disciples ask, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said unto them, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” Rich or poor, young or old, male or female we all must believe in Jesus’ work on our behalf. He died so that we might live. Let’s so live that the world can recognize how we appreciate what God’s only begotten son accomplished on our behalf.
By Wayne Clapp