The Parable of the Camel and the Needle

The Parable of the Camel and the Needle

Thoughts on the Parable of the Camel and the Needle – Please read Luke 18:18-30.

THE CONTEXT. A rich man, probably the up and coming young rich ruler in the synagogue, approaches Jesus and asks the same thing the uppity lawyer asked Jesus in the prelude to the Good Samaritan story. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus eventually gave those two men different answers. In both cases, Jesus first responded by referring to scripture. Then he gave them different answers to the same question. The Lord wanted to zero in on what each particular questioner needed to hear. This rich ruler loved his wealth and all the trappings, so Jesus centered on that. After their brief conversation, Jesus followed up on that exchange with a simple little parable about a camel and a needle.

UPDATING THE SCENE. Jesus is purposefully wandering around as usual, with his customary retinue of common fishermen, devoted women, noisy children, uptight Pharisees, and any number of needy oddballs and misfits. And here approaches a well-heeled flock indeed, dutifully following a handsomely turned-out young man, a ruler in a local synagogue. He enjoys a self-assured air of authority, an upper-crust aura of success. The glints of light reflecting off his jewelry are not exactly hidden under a bushel. The newly downloaded IPhone is tastefully tucked into a side-pocket. His loyal posse is busy doing its job: taking dictation, clearing the path of riff-raff, putting his callers on hold, and setting tomorrow’s schedule. Truth be told, this young man is a respected pillar in his community, a talented leader with a bright future, proud of his polished resume.

This rising star respectfully approaches Jesus, they exchange a few pleasantries, and proceed to get down to business. After all, he does have a tight schedule. “Jesus, ever since I’ve heard about you and your message, I’ve been waiting to ask you a question. I figure I am  leading a good life. I’ve obeyed all the rules. I go to church and school faithfully, perfect attendance. I support my parents and give to the local charities. I don’t swear, smoke, drink to excess, lie, cheat, steal or gamble. I don’t even have a wayward eye, if you know what I mean.” Warming to him, Jesus smiles while the man continues. “I have lived with virtue and excellence, I am proud to say. So, is there anything I have missed? It’s obvious to me that God has rewarded my goodness with money and power. Is there anything else I need to do to inherit eternal life?”

Well, Jesus really took to this earnest, well-meaning fellow immediately. Who wouldn’t? This fine young man is the next Big Thing in politics and high society. But Jesus looks through all those impressive externals, and peers with a jeweler’s eye straight into his heart. Jesus sees a man with great gifts, good intentions, and an empty life. So Jesus uses the direct approach, with none of those confusing stories or difficult metaphors that leave people scratching their heads. “I congratulate you!” exclaims Jesus. “You’re almost there! In fact, I’d say you have only one more thing to do to gain eternal life.” Jesus hesitates now, to make sure the young man and his senior staff were truly listening. “It’s quite simple,” continues Jesus. “Give away everything you own.”

The silence was deafening. You could almost hear a penny drop. The well-spoken man was speechless. “Why so dumfounded?” Jesus asks. “You’ve been reading the Law and the Prophets all these years, and missed the whole point? Let’s look at the Big Picture, son. God the Father invests His considerable gifts and goodness into life and matter through creation for no other reason than love. And here I am, like Father, like Son, in the form of a servant, giving away my glory because of love. What’s mine is His, what’s His is mine. We have kept nothing for ourselves. We’ve been giving everything away, emptying ourselves since Day One! And here you are, wondering what to do?” Jesus is only warming up.

Speaking with intense tenderness to the befuddled leader, Jesus rolls up his sleeves and lays it all on the line. “Here’s what you should do, sir: Give your hilltop mansion to the homeless shelter; your fancy clothes to Goodwill; your furniture to the Salvation Army; your gold to the local synagogue; your side business to the Rescue Mission; your savings account to the orphanage; your checking account to the nursing home; and your seaside cottage to the Retired Fisherman’s Union. Oh, and one more thing to give away… maybe the most important.” The young man gulps, wondering if there’s anything left. “Give your future to me. Follow me with no baggage.”

The young man could only stare in amazement, turn on his heels, and walk sorrowfully away. He couldn’t do it. It was too much to ask. Jesus’ heart breaks for him as he sadly watches the impressive success story disappear around the bend. With a sigh, Jesus decides to tell a little parable…

JESUS. After the conversation with the rich ruler, Jesus turns to his wider audience, made an observation, and told this parable: “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” The camel was the largest known animal in Palestine, and the needle’s eye was perhaps the smallest opening known. The biggest animal going through the tiniest opening. Jesus loved using hyperbole, a popular Jewish teaching tool. Biblical researchers now say that there is no historical confirmation of there being a gate called the eye of the needle or some such. That appears to be more of a myth.

THE AUDIENCE. They were perplexed. If that rich, law-abiding ruler who could afford to do more good deeds than anyone they know of, couldn’t enter the Kingdom, then who could possibly be saved? Anyone? God has rewarded and blessed him with wealth and power and status, and even with all his best efforts he can’t enter the Kingdom? What hope is there for us, then?

JESUS. Jesus is saying that perhaps without knowing it, the rich man was worshipping wealth. It became too important to him. He chose money instead of God, when it came down to it. Jesus is also saying that there’s nothing that someone does, even if they are honorable and generous, to earn the Kingdom. Inheritance is not a right, it’s a gift. Love God, and accept His free grace. Too, those with wealth tend to think they need to earn what they get. For so many, they tragically can’t set this tendency aside. Raw human effort and giftedness does not lead to inheriting eternal life. And that’s very difficult for the wealthy to accept.

FINAL THOUGHTS. a. Salvation is impossible by man’s efforts. The rich man would have needed Jesus to do what he asked. It is only possible by God’s gift of grace. Salvation is a miracle. Good works through wealth, and keeping the law through earnest determination, are actually stumbling blocks to a person’s humble acceptance of the miracle of grace. Our good works alone are not good enough. God must come to the rescue and enable us to demonstrate true goodness. We can’t earn salvation, we aren’t good enough. Only God is. If you’re wealthy, and you’re used to earning your keep, and you hold tight to religion, be careful about what you truly worship. You must become like a child, vulnerable and trusting, and receive God’s gift of salvation to life everlasting.

b. Those who are wealthy are more likely to live with the delusion of self-sufficiency. Jesus tried to poke a hole in the rich man’s inflated sense of independence and goodness, by asking the ruler to give up everything and follow Him. The rich ruler couldn’t do it. He was addicted to his wealth, his identity, his self-reliance, his self-sufficiency. He chose to worship the wrong thing. His identity was so wrapped up in his wealth and all the trappings, he couldn’t see himself doing what Jesus asked. His wealth kept him from a new identity.


  1. Quite a stark observation of Jesus: You obviously can’t stuff a camel through the eye of a needle. That’s how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. In other words, without God’s help, it is literally impossible for a wealthy person to reach heaven. Really? Where does that put most of America?
  2. The rich young ruler had obeyed all the rules since childhood, a pure model of morality. Yet somehow he was still far from the Kingdom. Where does this put all those churches who emphasize keeping all the rules? What are those churches missing?
  3. Evidently it is possible for a perfectly moral person to miss out on following Jesus. So what is the point of being so virtuous? What are we missing here?
  4. There was a wealthy man walking down the street. Suddenly a thief with a gun sneaks behind the man, sticks his gun against his back, and says, “Your money or your life!” The rich man hesitates, considering his options. That might seem comical, but is it true in spirit for you? Is there anything you can’t let go of, even if your life depended on it? What would make you hesitate like that wealthy man?

Resources: A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; K. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes; J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus.