Eye Of The Needle
“God helps those who help themselves.”
Have you ever heard someone quote this popular “Bible verse” to you? Maybe they meant it as a positive motivation for you to study for a test, or save your money for the Xbox 360 you were dying to buy. Perhaps they even attributed it to Proverbs, or Jesus himself.
“God helps those who help themselves,” of course, does not come from the Bible, but from Poor Richard’s Almanack – a 1758 book that also introduced sayings like “A friend in need is a friend indeed” and “fish and visitors stink in three days” to our culture.
The phrase is also distinctly not written by anyone Biblical, but by the Almanack’s author Benjamin Franklin, the American founding father who mythically flew a kite in a thunderstorm to study electricity and less mythically invented bifocals.
Despite its non-spiritual origin, the phrase expresses an idea that has been variously popular with religious people for thousands of years: God helps the people who work for it. Conversely, those who seem especially blessed by God must have done something to deserve it.
In today’s story, found in Matthew 19:16-30, Jesus encounters a wealthy young man, colloquially referred to as the “Rich Young Ruler.” We don’t know why this young man was wealthy. Maybe he inherited his money from his parents. Maybe he was born to nobility. Maybe, like the 20-something Silicon Valley millionaires of today, he invented a revolutionary new amphora or oil lamp and then used his newfound wealth and influence to run gain political power.
All we really know about this young man is that he was a faithful Jew – and that his wealth mattered more to him than following Jesus. When the young man asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life, Jesus replies: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
We don’t even have a reply from the young man – he simply walks away, saddened “because he had great wealth.” Jesus takes this as an opportunity to reinforce the nature of the Kingdom of God to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, it is harder for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” He reinforces the difficulty with a colorful image: “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.”
Jesus tells his followers again and again that they must be generous and unmaterialistic, and stop worrying about how they will provide for their own needs. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…” he says. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:21, 24 NIV).
Despite these blunt words, many Christian leaders today promote the Prosperity Gospel: the idea that following Jesus will bring you wealth and success, and that earthly prosperity is a sign of heavenly favor. While their end goals may seem contrary to Jesus’ teachings, they do to have Biblical precedents: Solomon, for example, pleased God by asking for wisdom, and so God showed his favor by also bestowing untold riches upon him (1 Kings 3:1-15).
Looking at society today, however, it’s hard to believe that wealth is the result of God’s favor. Millions of people are trapped in cycles of systemic poverty. Meanwhile, billionaires, massive companies, and overstuffed banks hold most of the wealth, regardless of their ethics or intentions. To be sure, inequality is a serious problem.
In the face of Jesus’ interactions with the Rich Young ruler, how should we approach money today? If wealth usually leads to dissatisfaction and greed, why does God sometimes use it to indicate blessing in the Bible? Doesn’t being a good steward of God’s gifts include being responsible with money?
- Is it wrong to live a comfortable lifestyle? Is it wrong to spend money on luxuries? Should money be a priority in your life? What if you want money to provide for your family? What if you want it to improve your community, or create art?
- Should Christians vote for policies that aim to increase wealth? Should their attitudes towards wealth affect their politics? Why or why not?
- Does Jesus' instruction to the young man to "sell your possessions and give to the poor" apply to all those who want to follow Jesus? Does it seem to you that Jesus meant for the man to liquidate literally everything he owned in order to give it all to charity?
- If so, what does that mean for Christians today?
- If it doesn't apply literally for all time, then still what does it mean for Christians today? Why did it matter that the man be willing to part with all his material wealth?
- In 19:24, Jesus 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." What counts as rich? Should this statement be worrisome for Westerners who are moderately wealthy, "average", or even "struggling" in their own society, but extraordinarily rich when compared to other parts of the world?
- Read first 19:16-22 and observe the question about salvation.
- Normally, most Protestants speak of salvation in terms of being saved by grace, not by works. What is going on here? Is Jesus teaching salvation by works?
- Read the rest of the interaction again (19:23-30). Does this give any clarification to the earlier question? What about Jesus' statement that "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible"? Does that indicate more of a "salvation by faith" model?
- In 19:30 Jesus says "But many who are first will be last, and the last first." How does this idea relate to the rest of the story about the rich young man? How does this idea relate to Jesus' humiliating death on the cross, and his subsequent resurrection? Does it have something to do with "giving up everything?
- Read last week's blog about Mary and the bottle of expensive perfume. What connections do you seen between this story and that one?