THE PERIL OF RICHES
Jesus said to the disciples, “This is the truth I tell you–it is with difficulty that a rich man shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Again I say unto you–it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” When the disciples heard this, they were exceedingly astonished. “What rich man, then,” they said, “can be saved?” Jesus looked at them, “With men,” he said, “this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The case of the Rich Young Ruler shed a vivid and a tragic light on the danger of riches; here was a man who had made the great refusal because he had great possessions. Jesus now goes on to underline that danger. “It is difficult,” he said, “for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
To illustrate how difficult that was he used a vivid simile. He said that it was as difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as it was for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Different interpretations have been given of the picture which Jesus was drawing.
The camel was the largest animal which the Jews knew. It is said that sometimes in walled cities there were two gates. There was the great main gate through which all trade and traffic moved. Beside it there was often a little low and narrow gate. When the great main gate was locked and guarded at night, the only way into the city was through the little gate, through which even a man could hardly pass erect. It is said that sometimes that little gate was called “The Needle’s Eye.” So it is suggested that Jesus was saying that it was just as difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as for a huge camel to get through the little gate through which a man can hardly pass.
There is another, and very attractive, suggestion. The Greek word for camel is kamelos (GSN2574); the Greek word for a ship’s hawser is kamilos. It was characteristic of later Greek that the vowel sounds tended to lose their sharp distinctions and to approximate to each other. In such Greek there would be hardly any discernible difference between the sound of “i” and “e”; they would both be pronounced as ee is in English. So, then, what Jesus may have said is that it was just as difficult for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven as it would be to thread a darning-needle with a ship’s cable or hawser. That indeed is a vivid picture.
But the likelihood is that Jesus was using the picture quite literally, and that he was actually saying that it was as hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as it was for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Wherein then lies this difficulty? Riches have three main effects on a man’s outlook.
(i) Riches encourage a false independence. If a man is well-supplied with this world’s goods, he is very apt to think that he can well deal with any situation which may arise.
There is a vivid instance of this in the letter to the Church of Laodicaea in the Revelation. Laodicaea was the richest town in Asia Minor. She was laid waste by an earthquake in A.D. 60. The Roman government offered aid and a large grant of money to repair her shattered buildings. She refused it, saying that she was well able to handle the situation by herself. “Laodicaea,” said Tacitus, the Roman historian, “rose from the ruins entirely by her own resources and with no help from us.” The Risen Christ hears Laodicaea say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (Rev.3:17).
It was Walpole who coined the cynical epigram that every man has his price. If a man is wealthy he is apt to think that everything has its price, that if he wants a thing enough he can buy it, that if any difficult situation descends upon him he can buy his way out of it. He can come to think that he can buy his way into happiness and buy his way out of sorrow. So he comes to think that he can well do without God and is quite able to handle life by himself. There comes a time when a man discovers that that is an illusion, that there are things which money cannot buy, and things from which money cannot save him. But always there is the danger that great possessions encourage that false independence which thinks–until it learns better–that it has eliminated the need for God.
(ii) Riches shackle a man to this earth. “Where your treasure is,” said Jesus, “there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). If everything a man desires is contained within this world, if all his interests are here, he never thinks of another world and of a hereafter. If a man has too big a stake on earth, he is very apt to forget that there is a heaven. After a tour of a certain wealthy and luxurious castle and estate, Dr. Johnson grimly remarked: “These are the things which make it difficult to die.” It is perfectly possible for a man to be so interested in earthly things that he forgets heavenly things, to be so involved in the things that are seen that he forgets the things that are unseen–and therein lies tragedy, for the things which are seen are temporal but the things which are unseen are eternal.
(iii) Riches tend to make a man selfish. However much a man has, it is human for him to want still more, for, as it has been epigrammatically said, “Enough is always a little more than a man has.” Further, once a man has possessed comfort and luxury, he always tends to fear the day when he may lose them. Life becomes a strenuous and worried struggle to retain the things he has. The result is that when a man becomes wealthy, instead of having the impulse to give things away, he very often has the impulse to cling on to them. His instinct is to amass more and more for the sake of the safety and the security which he thinks they will bring. The danger of riches is that they tend to make a man forget that he loses what he keeps, and gains what he gives away.
But Jesus did not say that it was impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Zacchaeus was one of the richest men in Jericho, yet, all unexpectedly, he found the way in (Lk.19:9). Joseph of Arimathaea was a rich man (Matt. 27:57); Nicodemus must have been very wealthy, for he brought spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus, which were worth a king’s ransom (Jn.19:39). It is not that those who have riches are shut out. It is not that riches are a sin–but they are a danger. The basis of all Christianity is an imperious sense of need; when a man has many things on earth, he is in danger of thinking that he does not need God; when a man has few things on earth, he is often driven to God because he has nowhere else to go.
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