18:18-30 A ruler asked Jesus, "Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? There is none good except one God. You know the commandments--do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honour your father and your mother." He said, "From my youth I have kept all these." When Jesus heard that, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! Follow me!" When he heard these things he was very sad, because he was exceedingly rich. When Jesus saw him he said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Those who heard him said, "And who can be saved?" He said, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God." Peter said, "Look you--we have left our private possessions and have followed you." He said to them, "This is the truth I tell you--there is no one who has left house, or wife, or brother, or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not get it all back many times over in this time, and, in the age that is coming, eternal life."
This ruler addressed Jesus in a way which, for a Jew, was without parallel. In all the religious Jewish literature there is no record of any Rabbi being addressed as, "Good teacher." The Rabbis always said "there is nothing that is good but the law." To address Jesus in such a way savoured of almost fulsome flattery. So Jesus began by driving him and his thoughts back to God. Jesus was always sure that his own power and his own message, came to him from God. When the nine lepers failed to return, his grief was, not that they had forgotten to come back to say thanks to him, but that they had not come back to glorify God ( Luke 17:18 ).
It was indisputable that this ruler was a good man, but he felt within his heart and soul that in his life there was something lacking. Jesus' command to him was that if he wanted to find all that he was searching for in life he must sell all his possessions and distribute them to the poor and follow him. Why did Jesus make this demand specially from this man? When the man whom Jesus had cured in the country of the Gerasenes wished to follow him, he told him to stay at home ( Luke 8:38-39 ). Why this very different advice to this ruler?
There is an apocryphal gospel called the Gospel according to the Hebrews most of which is lost; in one of the fragments which remain there is an account of this incident which gives us a clue. "The other rich man said to Jesus, 'Master, what good thing must I do really to live?' Jesus said to him, 'Man, obey the law and the prophets.' He said, 'I have done so.' Jesus said to him, 'Go, sell all that you possess, distribute it among the poor, and come, follow me!' The rich man began to scratch his head because he did not like this command. The Lord said to him, 'Why do you say that you have obeyed the law and the prophets? For it is written in the law, "You must love your neighbour as yourself," and look you--there are many brothers of yours, sons of Abraham, who are dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, and not one single thing goes out of it to them.' And he turned and said to Simon, his disciple, who was sitting beside him, 'Simon, son of Jonas, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.'"
There we have the secret and the tragedy of this rich ruler. He was living utterly selfishly. He was rich, and yet he gave nothing away. His real God was comfort, and what he really worshipped were his own possessions and his wealth. That is why Jesus told him to give it all away. Many a man uses such wealth as he has to bring comfort and joy and good to his fellow-men; but this man used it for nobody but himself. If a man's god is that to which he gives all his time, his thought, his energy, his devotion, then wealth was his god. If he was ever to find happiness he must be done with all that and live for others with the same intensity as that with which he had so long lived for himself.
Jesus went on to say that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Quite often the rabbis talked of an elephant trying to get through the eye of a needle as a picture of something fantastically impossible. But Jesus' picture may have one of two origins.
(i) It is said that beside the great gate into Jerusalem through which traffic went, there was a little gate just wide and high enough for a man to get through. It is said that that little gate was called the needle's eye, and that the picture is of a camel trying to struggle through it.
(ii) The Greek word for a camel is kamelos ( Greek #2574 ). In this age of Greek there was a tendency for the vowel sounds to become very like each other, and there was another word which would sound almost exactly the same--the word kamilos, which means a ship's hawser. It may well be that what Jesus said was that it would be easier to thread a needle with a ship's hawser than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Why should it be so? The whole tendency of possessions is to shackle a man's thoughts to this world. He has so big a stake in it that he never wants to leave it, and never thinks of anything else. It is not a sin to have much wealth--but it is a danger to the soul and a great responsibility.
Peter pointed out that he and his fellow disciples had left all to follow Jesus; and Jesus promised that no man would ever give up anything for the kingdom of God but he would be repaid many times over. It is the experience of all Christian folk that that is true. Once someone said to David Livingstone, thinking of the trials he had endured and the sorrows he had borne, of how he had lost his wife and ruined his health in Africa, "What sacrifices you have made!" Livingstone answered, "Sacrifices? I never made a sacrifice in all my life."
For the man who walks the Christian way there may be things the world calls hard, but, beyond them all and through them all, there is a peace which the world cannot give and cannot take away, and a joy that no man takes from him.