Daily Reflection
August 17th, 2004
Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Theology Department
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“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

This saying of Jesus is so stark that some commentators and preachers have tried to find ways to soften it. Some repeat an old rumor that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “The Needle’s Eye” because it was so narrow that you could barely squeeze a camel through it. But if you unloaded your camel, the rumor went, and greased it down on the sides, you could with effort pull the animal through. Well, that is reassuring, but unfortunately there is no evidence that there ever was such a gate by that name in Jerusalem (and Jerusalem, believe me, has a long and detailed memory).

The other attempt to take the bite out of Jesus’ saying has to do with a variant reading for the word translated as “camel” (kamēlon). Some manuscripts have a similar sounding but quite different word here—kamilon, which means “rope.” It is only the difference between an eta and an iota, but quite a difference in meaning. If you have a really large needle and a very small “rope” (maybe something more like a sturdy string), it is not too hard to imagine getting that string through the eye of a needle. But no, that dodge won’t work either. The manuscript scholars are convinced that kamēlon (“camel”) is the original word, because it is likely that a scribe, wrestling with the challenge of the saying, decided that some prior scribe made a mistake and that Jesus really was talking about a small “rope”; the other possibility, that a scribe would have changed an original “rope” to a “camel,” seems highly unlikely.

If Jesus really meant “camel” and there was no Needle’s Eye Gate, that puts us right with the disciples, asking “Who can be saved?” The punch line is really Jesus’ response: “For man it is impossible; but for God all things are possible.” For no one saves himself; God does the saving. And that is precisely where wealth becomes dangerously threatening to one’s spiritual health. Riches, history and experience tell us, make a person feel very powerful and independent. The temptation of wealth is to begin to think like the Prince of Tyre that Ezekiel addresses in the first reading. That rich and powerful man is accused of saying, “I am a god; I occupy a godly throne in the heart of the sea.” That sounds extreme, but great wealth tempts one in that direction, the direction of losing one’s sense of being a creature, not the Creator. That’s why Jesus congratulates the poor, because they have the advantage of knowing their need for God, taught by painful experience that they are mere creatures.

How about all the good wealthy people who have managed to keep perspective on their creaturehood and have become great benefactors of the church and of their communities? That is always a matter of grace. Nothing is impossible for God. Next time you see the motto on your paper money,
IN GOD WE TRUST, think of it as an echo of this Gospel. Parallel to the warning on our cigarette packs, this saying means something like, “Watch it! Wealth can be harmful to your (spiritual) health.”

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