This is one of the most famous incidents in the Bible, if only because of the memorable nature of Christ’s comment about the camel and needle. But there are depths in this passage which we must carefully consider.
“And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? . . .” (Mark 10:17-31).
We learn the description of “rich, young ruler” from comparing the three synoptic accounts of this incident. The man is clearly distressed, clearly in earnest, and clearly in spiritual darkness (v. 17). “What good thing shall I do?” Jesus places the exchange in its proper context by pointing to the goodness of God (v. 18). The young man called Jesus good, and plainly thought himself good, and needed to be reoriented.
Presented with an opportunity like this, we would have invited the young man to “here, pray this prayer, repeating after me.” But Jesus points him to the second table of the law (v. 19). What are the commandments? The notable exception is the tenth commandment — the law that points directly to the heart.
The young man then exhibits his complete self-ignorance (v. 20). He has kept all that. Having received this confident report, Jesus gives him an assignment which reveals how he had not kept the law from his youth. A covetous man could not do what Jesus told this man to do (v. 21). The man was downcast and went away because he had great estates (v. 22). Was he ever saved? We do not know, although we have already addressed the possibility that this was Mark himself.
We are a wealthy people, and so we cannot afford to mute the force of Christ’s words in any way. Three times He mentions those who with great difficulty enter the kingdom of God. They are the rich (v. 23), those who trust in riches (v. 24), and a rich man (v. 25). This astounds the disciples, as it does us (v. 26).
Jesus looked around at them and taught them as His children (v. 24). In doing this, He draws a cartoon, a preposterous picture. Much ingenuity has been expended on the interpretation of this, largely because we have missed Christ’s sense of humor. Forget what you have heard about camels and needle gates, or cables and needles. The image is that of a large, surly animal trying to get through a tiny and delicate opening (v. 25). So who can be saved? In the Jewish mind, wealth was a clear sign of God’s blessing. This was based on reading of just a portion of the Old Testament. If the rich cannot be saved, then who can be (v. 26)? God can do the impossible; God can even save a rich man (v. 27).
People with a low view of the law have a low view of grace. Evangelists who do not actively employ the law in their evangelism are not imitating their Lord. Evangelism is more like farming than it is like closing a sales deal. We do not have to get the signature now.
And the Bible does not condemn riches per se, but we too often grasp at this truth as though it were a lifeline for our idolatries. We say God does not mind His people having money, but He does mind money having His people. This is wonderfully true, but recall the nature of spiritual blindness. How many people who are owned by their goods think they are owned by them? This should make any wealthy sinner nervous.
So what is the other side of the needle? Peter, perhaps with a touch of self-awareness, points to the sacrifice that he and his companions have made (v. 28). Jesus does not rebuke him, but rather praises by implication. Everyone who leaves what he has for the sake of Christ will receive a great return (vv. 29-30). On the other side of the needle, Christ promises three things. First, there is a one hundred fold return in this life—of family, friends, fields and houses. This strikes us as curious. Secondly, He promises persecutions. We see in the Christian life a gracious mixture of earthly blessing and suffering. And third, the Lord promises eternal life. So use right judgment — there are many who look as though they would be a fine addition to the kingdom of God, but they go away, shut out at the gate. Others (like Saul) look like they could never come — but they do (v. 31).