A Matter of Interpretation
Again I tell you, 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. – Matt. 19:24
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 10:25
Indeed, 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. – Luke 18:25
The disciples hear this and see the impossibility of it and respond with a reasonable question, “then who could be saved?” Along with them, I want to know, what is Jesus saying here?
As a young child, I remember reading this passage and assuming that it meant there wouldn’t be very many rich people in heaven. But now as an adult, I’m able to think and reason and wonder if there could be a different meaning. Does it point to God’s ability to perform miracles, since it would be impossible for a literal camel to pass through a literal needle? Perhaps this is a real life lesson in trusting God to perform miracles in my life. I kind of like thinking about it in this way – that God is showing us the impossibility of a camel going through the eye of a needle to point us towards the fact that there’s a miracle that happens when Jesus intercedes for us sinners.
On the other hand, Daniel A Helminiak helps us understand a cultural reference that I had not previously known,
some scholars have pointed out that in Jerusalem there was a very low and narrow gate through the city wall. When a caravan entered through that gate, the camels had to be unloaded, led through the gate crouching down, and then reloaded inside the city wall. That gate was called ‘the eye of the needle’.
This second way of looking at this passage asks us to consider the meaning of it in light of it’s historical context. In other words, what was going on in the lives of the disciples and Jesus when it occurred. When the disciples and Jesus were alive there was a literal gate, where literal camels had to be unpacked to get through and it was literally called ‘the eye of the needle.’ If they were reading this passage they’d quickly assume, “of course, this is in reference to the small, city gate!” and in this way, we see it as a lesson that we should give our riches away if we want to get into heaven. Seeing this other way of interpreting this passage leaves us with two very different messages to apply to our lives.
Helminiak expands on this by helping tease out what these differences mean for the way we understand God.
One interpretation appeals to miracles. It portrays God who intervenes to suspend the laws of the universe, and it sees Jesus as teaching faith in such a God. This interpretation presents a picture of people entering heaven because God stepped in to work a miracle in their lives. The other interpretation appeals to Divine Providence. It portrays a God who works through the ordinary functioning of the universe, and it sees Jesus calling us to live responsibly in this world. This other interpretation presents a picture of people entering heaven because they unloaded the false concerns that burden their lives.
These differences have large implications for the way we apply the message of this scripture in our lives. Do I need to live a certain way in order to get into heaven, or can I just trust in the miraculous power of Jesus?
I’m not here to try and convince you there’s one right way of interpreting this passage, but the difference in meaning is worth pondering. If the Bible is a book with many messages, I wonder why there’d be mixed messages in some parts? Conflicting storylines? Could it be that the Bible has not one message but many, because those of us reading the Bible understand it through our own lens? There is no question that our own life stories inform the way we understand the Bible, and thus must affect the interpretation we lean towards. We the readers cannot be divorced from the interpretation as if there is some “true” decontextualized meaning. Stripping everything away from scripture to get to the “true” meaning as if we, today, can finally “recover” what scripture really means robs it of the life and breath behind the words.
I think some people resist this because they think it somehow takes away from the Bible and what God intended. But surely God understood (and still understands) humans better than we do. He knew there was no way for us to read it without seeing it through our specific life experiences. How glorious that God meets us in the pages of the Bible with where we’re at and who we are!
Still, this takes me to an even deeper question. Could it be that this idea that we all understand the Bible according to our own lens was the Holy Spirit’s way of trying to ensure we’d be flexible and gracious with it, rather than harsh and dogmatic? What if it was a safety net that God intended for dogmatism? I can almost hear God reasoning, Surely people will understand that if we put conflicting elements in the Bible that we don’t mean for this to be applied dogmatically, but with grace and flexibility.
But if believers aren’t thinking this, how are we to understand these differences?
I’m not quite sure.
What I am sure of is that God is all about helping me to love those around me deeper and in more true ways. It makes sense that He’d even use the differences we find in the Bible to increase our openness to loving the other. For me, this idea humbles me and challenges my holding onto my interpretation of the Bible. I must hold it more with an open hand. It calls me to not only consider the many different ways of interpreting the Bible, but also to respect those who do it differently than I do. I’m so glad God was smarter than I and did His best to create a book that would help us love and accept those who are different than us. Brilliance!