Riches, a Camel and a Needle

Reflection: Mark 10: 17 – 31

Jesus’ ministry is replete with hard sayings. One such is in His encounter with a sincere young man, who is both materially well-heeled and possesses an upright character. It surfaces a tight conversation where the perceptions of moral goodness (v.18) and wealth (v.25) stand corrected. In any earnest dialogue with God, we know He will not be fudging the issue, whatever it may be, and He gets to the heart of it promptly and with clarity.

The Lord drew out from this enquirer an admission of his impeccable moral rectitude since his youth (vv.17-20). Was he expecting the good teacher to affirm him for being an exemplary Jew, and award him accordingly? Instead, Jesus questioned first his definition of ‘goodness’ (v.18), sweeping aside any ideas he may have that a person can actually do something to gain life eternal. Then, without theologizing further, He looked at him with love, and identifies his gravest entrenched blind-spot to salvation, “…go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me” (v.21). He goes away grieving. This young man is so engrossed with himself and his wealth that a total exchange for heaven’s treasure to give up everything for the poor is not an option. Perhaps donating a smaller proportion of his wealth to the poor is more acceptable? Or was it a question of the loss of security, control and power that money held for him? How can he ever forgo the pleasures he gets out of his material possessions? Or was eternal life just another item to his acquisitive obsession? How can he live by faith and trust this teacher, he looks like he is close to the poverty line! … He is, after all, being honest with himself in his own values toward money. In contrast, Zaccheus willingly parted with half of his estate for the poor, and reparations for his unrighteous gains, and money was not even raised with affluent Nicodemus.

The Lord then expounds on the spiritual danger of wealth; in fact, He repeated the peril twice (vv. 23-24). And just in case His disciples still thought that wealth and heaven remain positively correlated, He follows it by an impossible camel and needle analogy that elicits their astonishment (vv. 25-26). Finally, they got it: then who can be saved? It was customarily accepted in Judaism that a wealthy person signified God’s blessing, and poverty indicated unrighteous living. Therefore, God’s evident rich blessings guarantee Divine preference in eternity! This is the argument that Job’s friends proffered through his sufferings. However, Scripture is quite clear that money has enormous spiritual dangers attached to it (Luke 12:16-21; 16:19-25; 1 Tim 6:9-11; 1 John 2:15-17), and it cannot be a believer’s defining factor, as it will eventually be an idol, supplanting God in his heart (Matt 6:24). But the rich do not have an exclusive claim to the love of money. The lesson for the disciples is that nothing in and of themselves will ever qualify for salvation, and there can only be one distinct treasure in their hearts if they are to follow after Jesus.