NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
So again, Jesus reiterates a principle that spoke of fulfilling the law to its fullest degree. But this young man should have realized that in order to be perfect under the Law you had to keep each and every commandment, precept, statute, etc., each time and every time without fail. If you were able to do so for a full day or a whole week or a complete year, just one slip, one mishap, one error would cancel out all you had done up to that point and you’d have to start all over again. Oddly enough, after Jesus enumerated the Ten Commandments and then added the eleventh of loving your neighbor as yourself, this person, now identified as a young man, brashly stated, “I’ve done all that! What else is there for me to do?”
Here’s where it gets tough for the young fellow. We shouldn’t criticize him because most of us would not have gotten as far as he did. But neither he nor we are thereby left helpless or hopeless because this salvation is not by works, but by faith. It is a gift from God. If Jesus had advocated that eternal life could be bought, He would have told the young man to sell everything and give it to Him. But this was not the case, he was to give it to the poor. The focus here should not have been on what it cost this young man to follow Christ, but what he would gain by doing so. The same is true for anyone today who wants to follow Him wherever He may lead them. It doesn’t mean you will have to give up your job or home or family, but you must be willing to.
Another thing, do not read into Jesus’ last statement about the difficulty of rich people complying with what is required to enter the kingdom of heaven as black-listing everyone who has become wealthy or amassed a fortune so they can never enter. What our Lord is emphasizing is how challenging it is for those who’ve put all their hopes and dreams into material things to give them up simply for a promise, and then live by faith that they will be rewarded as promised. And obviously, the more they have the harder it is to part with it.
This request by Jesus should not have come as a shock to this young man. After all, even his own Jewish teachers told the following story that illustrates this principle. They said: “The members of the Academy of Heaven appeared before the Holy One and declared: ‘Master of the world! You are called Compassionate and Gracious. May Your Compassion be stirred up for Your children!’ He answers them: ‘Does not everyone know that I founded the world solely on love? I have said, “The world is built by love.'”1 It is love that sustains the world! The angels on high then declare: ‘Master of the world! Look at so-and-so who is eating and drinking his fill. He could share something with the poor but he gives them nothing at all!’ Then the Accuser steps forward, claims authority and sets out in pursuit of that human being.”2
Verse 22: But when the young man heard Jesus tell him to give away his wealth, he was sad. He didn’t want to do this because he was very rich. So he walked away.
The reason for this young man’s sadness and disappointment was because he came to Jesus to go higher in society, not lower; he came so he could be known as being good, not being generous. He wanted more from Jesus but didn’t anticipate what Jesus might want more from him. The righteous in Jewish society were those who lived comfortable lives but were charitable according to the law. It was hard for him to imagine changing his status from being a big shot to becoming a nobody on the street.
Early church bishop Hilary gives his impression of what happened here. He writes: “When the young man heard this, ‘he went away sorrowful.’ For he put great trust in wealth. And in him, we observe the rational working out of a metaphor. This was a young man. He himself said that since his youth he had obeyed the commandments that are contained in the law. Yet an arrested adolescence remains within his youth, whatever age he may be.”3 In other words, he was proud of having grown up as a law- abiding young man, but he failed to see the opportunity to grow up in Christ as an adult believer. Therefore, says bishop Hilary, he remained a child in his understanding.
What bishop Hilary says can be applied to many Christians today. After they come to Jesus they are told that God is like a doting Father and Jesus is like a compassionate big Brother, and they both will do anything for them to make their lives happy and satisfied here on earth. But forgotten is the fact that God loved this world so much He sacrificed His own Son. And His Son loved those He came to save so much He freely gave His life on the cross. So doesn’t it follow, that with God it’s a matter of what we are willing to give and sacrifice for Him that counts?
The Father got His Son back after He raised Him from the dead. And Jesus got His position back with the Father after He ascended into heaven. Likewise, whatever we may surrender for the cause of Christ and the Gospel will be returned to us, packed down, and running over.4 Not just for a season, but for all eternity.
Verse 23: Then Jesus said to His followers, “The truth is, it will be very hard for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
After the young man walks away disappointed that he could not earn his way into the kingdom of God with good works, Jesus turns to His followers and comments on why it was so difficult for this gentleman to accept the invitation to become His disciple. This rich young community leader seems to have read all about Levitical law, but apparently he missed perusing the Book of Job where we hear Job say to God, “I have never trusted in riches. I never said even to pure gold, ‘You are my hope.’ I have been wealthy, but that didn’t make me proud. I earned a lot of money, but that is not what made me happy.”5
One of the members of the Korah family, wrote this in his Psalm, “You will never get enough money to pay for your own life. You will never have enough to buy the right to live forever and keep your body out of the grave.”6 And Solomon, one of the richest kings in Israel made this observation, “Those who trust in their riches will fall like dead leaves, but good people will blossom.”7 A reporter once asked Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, what he thought the average person wanted most in this life to be comfortable? The genius inventor said stoically, “Just a little bit more.”
In other words, if you find a homeless person sleeping in a plastic bag under a bridge and ask him what he’d like to have, he may reply, “A nice sleeping bag.” So he gets the sleeping bag and you come back a month later and ask the same question. This time, you get: “A little shack to put my sleeping bag in so I’m warmer at night.” So you build him a little shack and come back a few months later and ask again. This time, he informs you that it would be nice to have electricity in the shack. You can see where this is going. Once he ends up living in a four-bedroom home with a two-car garage and fine furniture throughout, he will only want another new car to go along with his new house to give him a little more mobility.
Verse 24: “Yes, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
Here our Lord uses a maxim that sounds strange at first. There is no source in the Old Testament where this impossibility of putting a camel through the eye of a needle is used. However, we find an incident in Jewish literature where some Jews were arguing over the law on who may take possession of an estate when someone is taken captive or dies. Says one Rabbi: “Perhaps you are from Pumbeditha8 where they pull an elephant through the eye of a needle.”9 And curiously enough, in the Islamic Qu’ran, we find this reference, “Indeed, those who deny our verses and are arrogant toward them – the gates of Heaven will not be opened for them, nor will they enter Paradise until a camel gets through the eye of a needle.”10
Therefore, with the “gates of Heaven” not being open, as used here, and entering the “kingdom of God” as mentioned by Jesus, it becomes apparent that the “needle” had something to do with getting through the gate when it was closed. A highly respected British theologian commented: “…the eye of the needle is a small door fixed in a large gate and opened after dark. To pass through, the camel must be unloaded. Hence the difficulty of the rich man. He must be unloaded, and thus the proverb, common in the East. In Palestine, it is the ‘camel’, and in the Babylonian Talmud, it is the ‘elephant’.”11
But the idea of a large animal going through such a small opening was also part of the teaching of one Rabbi who was talking about the interpretation dreams. He says: “A man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts.” And to prove that these thoughts are not beyond a person’s comprehension, he notes: “This is proved by the fact that a man is never shown in a dream a date palm of gold, or an elephant going through the eye of a needle.”12
British scholar John Gill tells us that this is repeated in another Jewish writing where it talks about how the authors of this writing had to overcome great difficulty to produce it. And they say: “In the name of our God, we have seen fit, ‘to bring an elephant through the eye of a needle’.”13 Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Jesus was speaking of the small gate in a large gate of any walled city.
Early church writer Cyril of Alexandria points out the understanding he had in his day (c. 400 AD). He writes: “By ‘camel’ here He means not the living thing, the beast of burden, but the thick rope14 to which sailors tie their anchors. He shows this comparison to be not entirely pointless (as a camel would be), but he makes it an exceedingly difficult matter; in fact, next to impossible.15”16 This explanation is also offered to explain Jesus’ saying, because the Aramaic word for “rope” sounds very much like the word for “camel.”
Verse 25: The followers were amazed to hear this. They asked, “Then who can be saved?”
Notice, the disciples did not ask about the meaning of the camel going through the eye of a needle, so apparently they understood its significance. Their concern was on any limitations as to who could be saved. After all, if anybody had a chance at being righteous through good works, it was those with the most wealth. How then could a poor man or beggar be able to fulfill the law of righteous works?
Chrysostom had this commentary: “Jesus was not criticizing money itself but the wills of those who are taken captive by it. If it will be difficult for the rich, how much more so for the greedy! For if stinginess with one’s own wealth is an impediment to gaining the kingdom, think how much fire is amassed for taking someone else’s’. But why does He say that it is hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom, to the disciples, who were poor and had nothing? He teaches them not to be ashamed of their poverty and, as it were, gives the reason why He did not allow them to possess anything. After saying it is hard, He also shows them that it is impossible, and not simply impossible but even in an exaggerated way impossible. He shows this by the comparison of the camel and the needle. Hence, Christ demonstrates that there is a significant reward for the wealthy who can practice self-denial. He also said that this had to be the work of God, that He might show that great grace is needed for anyone who is going to achieve it.”17
1 Psalm 89:2
2 Zohar on Genesis, An Offering to God
3 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew 19.7
4 Cf. Luke 6:38
5 Job 31:24-25
6 Psalm 49:8-9
7 Proverbs 11:28
8 Pumbeditha was the name of a city in ancient Babylon, close to the modern-day Iraqi city of Fallujah.
9 Rabbi Amram said to Rabbi Shesheth: Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Metzia, folio 38b
10 Qu’ran, Surat Al-‘A’rāf, “The Heights” Ch. 7:40
11 E. W. Bullinger (1837-1913), The Companion Bible, loc. cit.
12 Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani: Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berachot, folio 56a
13 John Gill, Exposition of the Bible Commentary, loc. cit., Quoting from the Zohar – Book of Light
14 The term here Cryil refers to is kamilos which is Greek for “rope”, and sounds much like kámēlos, which is Greek for “camel”.
15 The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says that kámēlos refers to: “A large animal and a small aperture are chosen to stress the impossibility.” Vol. III, pp. 592-93
16 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 219
17 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 63.2