Kids, camels, needles, and the righteousness of the law.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
Something my dad has said many times before, and something that I don’t think I’ll forget anytime soon, is that the keys to good biblical interpretation happen to also be the same 3 basic rules in real estate: Location, Location, and Location. Or to put this in hermeneutical terms, we might say, Context, Context, and Context! Context is king when it comes to reading, studying, and applying the Bible. (My dad should know a think or two about this, as he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the same subject.) This is a main reason why I am such an endorser for the ESV Reader’s Bible, which removes paragraph headers, verse markers, and cross references, putting the words of God in simple block text or poetic structure, making Scripture much more readable. I believe this allows the reader to get a better grasp of the message and purpose of a passage. Instead of grabbing hold of a singular verse — which is often just a small phrase in the contexts of a larger conversation — and using that to misrepresent what the Bible actually says, one is allowed to see the previous and subsequent thoughts in their natural order and thought-structure.
(Quick sidebar: Verse markings aren’t inspired, nor are chapter divisions. Many times where we have separated chapters and verses, we’ve divided thoughts that were meant to go together. This is crucial for any reader of the Bible to recognize, as there are many familiar passages that are grossly distorted from their genuine meaning.)
Rich in faith?
One such passage is surely that of Matthew 19. There are several odd references in this chapter, all of which appear disjointed at first. Looking at the chapter from the top down, it seemingly jumps all over the place, with subjects ranging from divorce, to children, to a pious young ruler, to camels and needles. Each of these illustrations have produced a number of diverse sermons, each with their own interpretation on what exactly Jesus’s point was in all of this.
Near the end of the chapter, though, Christ has a curious statement, in which he says, “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:24) On the surface, this would appear to be a clear indictment of the wealthy, substantiating the idea that having a lot of riches is in itself sinful, somehow equating a lack of money with a surplus in faith. Such a notion, though, misses the entire point Jesus is making by this illustration. God’s Word never condemns wealth, just the love of it more than anything else — the exaltation of it to godlike levels. (1 Tm 6:10) Jesus’s intent by this insightful picture is not a diatribe against one’s financial station but their soul’s justification. This remark has much more to do with one’s spiritual condition than their fiscal state.
To truly understand this verse, we have to begin with verse 13 of the same chapter, as throughout this section, Christ is making a crucial point regarding the manner and means of a man’s justification. By historical context, the scenes in Matthew 19 occur as Christ is making his final journey towards Jerusalem, towards the cross. As he does so, his insistence upon what Episcopal priest Robert Capon calls lastness, leastness, and lostness only intensifies. These three heads — according to Capon, and in this sense I am in wholehearted agreement — form the fulcrum upon which the entire ministry of Christ rests.
Reorienting and reforming.
Indeed, if you were to take a bird’s-eye view of Christ’s earthly ministry, you would find that he often moves from scene to scene dispelling the common myths and understandings regarding religion. Not every discourse, mind you, but the vast majority of the Savior’s messages revolve around these themes. Christ’s ministry really was a reorientation and reformation of people’s thoughts and attitudes towards the God’s Law and God’s Kingdom. Where most had deemed that all amount of sanctimonious vigor was necessary for honest spirituality, Jesus spoke a radically different message. Not a message that disregarded the inflexibility of the Mosaic Law, rather, one that enhanced and intensified its unaccommodating ordinances, making it painfully obvious that no amount of human effort would ever suffice.
In Matthew 19, Christ zeroes in on the religious elite’s insistence on their own righteousness. Fabricated from their own religiosity, the Scribes and Pharisees thought themselves to be the spiritual aristocrats, superior to the common Jew because of their knowledge and devotion to the law. But in just three scenes, Jesus disproves this notion in the most sobering way.
All the children of the world.
Christ begins by talking about kids — rather, children are brought to Him and an opportunity is presented for Him to make an important point. The parents of these kids surely knew the power and prominence of this prophet from Nazareth, as they sought blessings from Him. (Mk 10:13) But the disciples weren’t having it. They “rebuked” the parents, turning them and their kids away. (Mt 19:13)
You can almost here Christ let out an audible sigh as his disciples miss his point entirely (yet again). Mark’s Gospel says that Jesus not only saw this action of the twelve but includes the detail that he was “indignant” with them, uttering the retort, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Mk 10:14; Mt 19:14; Lk 18:16) Christ was displeased and disgusted with the disciples at their continued ignorance of the gospel. You see, this is very much a gospel-moment.
Kids were not well-viewed in this society. The notion that children are innocent and angelic creatures is an invention of Victorian Era philosophies. Before that time, kids were seen as imperfect, as losers or lesser adults — perspectives which often resulted in their being cast aside and forgotten. In fact, children born into Spartan homes underwent a rigorous infant inspection program wherein they were either deemed useful for military service or thrown into a ravine to die. Similarly, Roman children were frequently abandoned, abused, and enslaved.
(Another sidebar: As much as we might gasp and shudder at such accepted behaviors by an entire society, American culture is none too different. While we may not be tossing babies into a ravine, we are selling their leftover parts after we decide they’re unwanted or unhealthy. Let’s not be too quick to call the kettle black.)
The greatest and the least.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that this was the mindset behind the disciples’s rejecting these kids, I only mean to put forward that this action was instinctual given the society they were living in. Surely none of the disciples wished death upon these kids, but in that moment they denigrated them to lower levels of existence and not worthy of the Savior’s time. “Jesus has more important things to do and say and accomplish than to spend time with these kids,” they must’ve thought. Very dissimilar to today’s ideologies, where youth is praised and prized, these youths were shunned. Christ seizes this moment, though, to teach his closest followers the truth about the gospel and this thing called “religion.” This isn’t the first time that Jesus has used kids to make a pivotal point regarding Jehovah and his disposition towards mankind. (Lk 9:46–48; Mt 18:1–5; Mk 9:33–37)
Here in Matthew 19, as in the other Synoptic Gospels, there is a repeated assertion by the disciples that they are superior. A lot of the time, it seems, they were all clamoring to see who would be “greatest” in the Kingdom. But the same intuitive response is made by Christ, flipping the script on spirituality by affirming that it is not the greatest that are accepted but the least. “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me,” Jesus says. “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” (Lk 9:48) This is nearly identical to the Savior’s sentiment in our current chapter: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 19:14) There’s a great point to be made here, but before I get to the crux of this whole matter, let’s keep moving and look at the next scene.
Pious or pretentious?
Afterwards, we find another famous interaction of the Messiah’s, one from which we’re often guilted into giving away more of ourselves in order to “prove” our spirituality. A young man, often referred to as “The Rich Young Ruler,” comes up to Christ and asks the question we’re all thinking: “God, what do I have to do to ensure my salvation? What more do I have to do to guarantee my place in heaven?” Or, as he puts it, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16) The question of eternity is the one that lingers in everyone’s minds. Whether admitted or not, the thought of an afterlife is what drives much (if not all) of mankind’s decisions — even those who would outright deny the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Creator are crossing their fingers and holding their breath in hopes they’re proven right by entering oblivion (which is rather bleak if you ask me).
Yet, this young man wasn’t thinking in those terms. He was a winner, a success in all the ways you’d want a young man to be. He’s your “model Christian,” a rule-follower, with verses and catechisms all memorized, life put together, and “Most Likely to Succeed” in his Twitter bio. This query of his isn’t so much a search for what he lacks as it is a probe for affirmation that his performance is already enough, that he’s won the right to be righteous and, thus, enter the Kingdom on his own merit.
Pomp and circumstance.
Can’t you hear his pomp oozing as he inquires, “What must I do? Because I’m pretty sure I’m keeping everything to the letter of the law.” And he’s right, you know. His testimony went before him, as all three Synoptics refer to the man as young and rich, in no certain terms. (Mt 19:16–29; Mk 10:17–30; Lk 18:18–30) Christ sees this ostentatious adolescent, beaming with pride and potential, and acquiesces to his advances. Jesus retorts not with a stern correction or lecture on how he’s failing but with a comment on the law. Look at Jesus’s reply to the question: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” (Mt 19:17)
This legalistic youngster hears this and, I’m sure, was elated. “Exactly, I’ve done those things. ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’” (Mt 19:20) Do you sense this young man’s goading of Christ, his further prompting of Jesus? He wants Christ to say the words, “Of course, you’ve done it. You’re more than righteous enough to enter the Kingdom. Good job!” The young man’s résumé is impeccable. He’s never lied (egregiously), he’s never murdered anyone, he’s never stolen anything (of real significance), he’s never physically been promiscuous; plus, he gives of his time and money to charity. He’s a moral man with a serious desire to prove to the world and to Jesus Himself just how religious he is, how much better he is.
Christ’s reply, then, is right up his alley. “If that’s all it takes to get in, then where’s the door? ‘Keep the commandments?’ I’ve done that, I’m good, I’m perfect.” But he, like most of us, miss the context. This young ruler had either forgotten or ignored all the teachings Christ spent three chapters of Matthew discussing in the Sermon on the Mount. (Mt 5:1—7:29) He had heard, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), and determined to do just that: be perfect. But the point in Matthew 5, as it also is in Matthew 19, isn’t that keeping the commandments and being perfect is something we can pull off. The point between lines is that we can’t!
All of you.
The law is so much greater and deeper and more rigid than we ever imagined. Its unflinching demand for righteousness never relents. There’s always more to do. The law doesn’t demand some of us, it demands all of us! Jesus even says this. As this youngster boasts in his religiosity, Christ pierces his delirious righteousness with a scathing enhancement of the law this rich young ruler wasn’t expecting. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mt 19:21) Jesus’s reprimand of this young man, and those in earshot, is another instance of “You have heard it was said . . . But I say to you,” that is, another indication of the shear inflexibility of God’s Law. Loving your neighbor as yourself doesn’t just mean being generous and volunteering in a soup-kitchen. It means full-on, absolute sacrifice and surrender of self. This saddens the young man, and he goes away “sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” (Mt 19:22) And again, here we’re tempted to harp on the wealthy, but Jesus isn’t finished yet — his true point has still yet to be made.
So, after this pretentious yuppie leaves in his sadness and sanctimony, Christ continues by making a comment that has served to make many a believer stumble. “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven,” the Messiah says. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:23–24) This couplet of seeming curses laid down upon those who are rich has caused its own mess of difficult and delirious interpretations. On the surface, we read and see this as a clear indictment on wealth, to the point where the mere possession of it warrants exclusion from the Kingdom.
Christians sometimes have a macabre outlook when it comes to finances, deeming wealthy as faithless and the poor as faithful. In our own twisted logic, we’ve conjured a system in which having less is inherently more spiritual and “Christlike.” I believe such notions, though, fail to see the point — much like this rich young ruler. Certainly, an unhealthy dependence and desire for wealth is condemned in Scripture and, likewise, should be resisted by those who claim Christ. But the real indictment of this chapter isn’t our finances but our faithfulness. Jesus’s point is that those who are rich in wealth and rich in faithfulness have an equally difficult time entering the Kingdom — both are inclined to think of themselves as sufficient and responsible for where they are.
Faith vs. faithfulness.
It’s important to note the vast distinction there is between “faith” and “faithfulness.” As is often the case, believers and readers of Scripture see the word “faith” and perk up, determining that obviously the faith part is their part. We like the passages on faith because we see them as clear charges on what we’re “to do”: “Have faith!” “Be faithful!” “Where’s your faith?” We especially like the apostle Paul’s testimony of “fighting the good fight” of faith. (2 Tm 4:7) Seeing the words “fight” and “faith” and our eyes widen with adrenaline as we sprint to perform the task. The truth is, though, that faith is as much dependent upon God as everything else in salvation. Faith is as much a gift from God as grace is. (Eph 2:8) Faith doesn’t equal faithfulness — no one in the Bible was ever saved because of any righteousness they produced. If we understand the scripture that way the entire construct of the gospel collapses. We, like the Pharisees in Jesus’s day, have fabricated massive mazes of spirituality and faithfulness, all which establish a system wherein in the winners are the faithful ones and the losers are the ones who keep running into dead ends. It’s a system that’s predicated on soaring spirituality and success, intuitively creating another law by which to measure ourselves: winning.
The bad news for winners.
Winning, in the religious sense, is not good news. In this realm, to win would mean to say, “Okay, I’ve accomplished that — check! — what more do I have to do?” Spiritual winning sees Paul’s “good fight” as one for our faithfulness, one which is keepable and winnable. We scratch and claw over each other to prove we’re the faithful ones, we’re the successful ones, we’re the “winning” Christians. And yet, all we really prove is that we, like this young ruler, have missed the entire point of the gospel completely. As long as we’re fighting for our own success, we’ll never be satisfied with the deliverance of a defeated Jesus.
You see, Paul’s good fight, Jesus’s compassion for children, and his subsequent scathing of the wealthy are all tied together by faith — not faithfulness but faith. Where faithfulness is seen as something we accomplish, the Scriptural idea of faith is the admission of weakness, dependence, and death. Perhaps the best explanation of biblical faith can be found in the life and ministry of John G. Paton. Paton was a missionary to the New Hebrides islands in the late 1800s. He began translating the Scriptures into the colloquial tongue as soon as he arrived. He quickly noticed that there was no native word “belief,” “trust,” or “faith.” One day, though, after a long, grueling hunt, Paton and one of the islanders sat down in chairs overlooking the ocean. “My, it is good to stretch yourself out here,” said the islander. At first, Paton was caught off guard by the phrase. But soon, he became so inspired by it that he used that picture to convey the idea of “faith” to the natives. So, then, John 3:16 would read, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever stretches himself out upon the Savior, shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.”
Dying to faith.
And so it is that we understand the faith and belief of the Bible. Faith has nothing to do with you and everything to do with God. Faith is this acknowledgement that you can’t be small enough, low enough, or good enough to live up to the righteousness of the Law. It’s the turning away from everything in ourselves to cast ourselves upon all that Christ has done. It’s stretching yourself out on God’s gospel and crying, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” (Lk 18:13)
A delusional righteousness contends that one’s works are enough for justification. Trusting in our own faithfulness is the acceptance of a mechanistic justification or meritorious salvation. “Fighting the good fight” is resisting these and admitting that you’re small, incapable, even dead. Therefore, you’re unable to merit any semblance whatsoever of righteousness. The life of faith in Christ is the death of one’s own faithfulness. Through his Word, Christ isn’t calling for us to see the checkboxes and rigorously check them off. He calls for us to see that we’re dead, lifeless losers who haven’t won anything at all, except more death. As we keep trying to protect our lives with our systems and our scorecards and our success stories, Jesus simply invites us to bask in his death.
The righteousness of the law is not something we can pull off. And so long as we dupe ourselves into thinking that we can and that we are, we’re losers already. The battle of the Christian life is a battle for belief. It’s a battle for accepting the fact that we’ve already lost everything. But — thanks be to God! — a better Loser has come and won it all, for us!
See this treated at length in Robert F. Capon’s Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. Consequently, much of this post is inspired by Capon’s discussion of this particular chapter.