Watching the rich man walk away sad, Jesus observes that it is very difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, in fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (19:23-24).
For many pastors, there is a concern here. These verses appear to say rich people are not going enter heaven, since it is impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle! In most churches (at any time in church history), there are affluent people who are generous supporters of the church. If a pastor preaches this passage and declares the rich people are not going to get into heaven, they might anger those wealthy supporters!
The common way to avoid the difficulty of this saying is to describe a gate in Jerusalem called the Needle Gate, which was so narrow a camel would need to squat down and work their way through the gate to enter Jerusalem. The problem with this common explanation is that there was no Needle Gate. If you google Needle Gate, there are pictures of some modern gate in Jerusalem with a small open door. This is not “the Needle Gate” and there was nothing called Needle Gate in the first century. Even if there were, it would be silly for a merchant to try and push a camel through a narrow gate since there were other, larger gates nearby. How did this “Needle Gate” idea become so common? This is a good example of pastors and scholars quoting other pastors and scholars without examining the actual evidence. Checkout this post by Vincent Pontius tracing the origin of the Needle Gate (this is also the source for the picture of the gate above).
A second way to avoid the difficulty of this saying is to take a textual variant in this verse which reads “camel” (κάμηλος) as “rope” (καμιλον). The difference is only the middle vowel sound. To pass a rope through the eye of a sewing need is also impossible but makes some sense as a metaphor. There is some textual evidence for this variant, but it is not strong. It is more likely some ancient copyists struggled with the metaphor.
A third possibility is Jesus really did say camel and really meant the eye of a needle. A camel is proverbially large, the eye of a needle is well known as a tiny opening. This would be an extreme hyperbole, something which is completely impossible in every way. For me, this is the best explanation: Jesus is making an extreme statement intended to shock his listeners using a ridiculous metaphor. Jesus will make a similar statement in Matthew 23:24, the Pharisees try to strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
There are striking parallels in the Babylonian Talmud:
b.Ber. 55B I.22.D Said Raba, “You may know that that is so, for people are not shown in dreams [such impossibilities as] either a golden palm tree or an elephant going through the eye of a needle.”
b. Meṣ 38b II.3.M “Perhaps you come from Pumbedita, where they can pass an elephant through the eye of a needle.”
Although the animal is different, the metaphor is the same (a big animal cannot fit through the eye a needle). The “eye of the needle” is therefore another way of describing “the narrow way” (Matt 7:13-14).
Does this mean the rich cannot enter heaven? Defining “rich” from a global perspective, all Americans will be left outside in the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth!
Jesus demands radical commitment from his disciples. They are called to give up everything for the kingdom of heaven. The twelve have given up a great deal to follow Jesus, and they will eventually give up their own lives. Yet Jesus’s words to the wealthy man were shocking to the disciples who have already given up everything to follow Jesus.