Soul Seeds: Casting Aside Your Burdens
“Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24)
Progress in the technology of defending a city did not change much up to Jesus’ time on earth. What cities could do in the first century AD to limit vulnerability to attack was just about the same as it was in Abraham’s day, back around 2100 BC.
One method goes back so far we can’t say for sure where or when it was introduced. That method was simply to disarm anyone coming into the city. Ancient weapons and armor were bulky, and easy to see. Any weapon which could be hidden in one’s clothing — usually a dagger — wasn’t too threatening when just about everyone had one. If the local guards alone had armor and bigger weapons, it gave them a serious advantage against a larger group of enemies with mere knives.
At the same time, a city could not simply stay locked up tight. It was the nature of a city that no significant food was grown inside the walls. It had to be brought in by traders, along with all sorts of other goods. The traders would surely come, because where else could one find such a convenient market? The trick was to allow normal trade and traffic while preventing importation of anything which threatened the current government.
Thus, during peacetime it was enough to casually inspect traffic at the city gates, with the occasional random search of animal loads and so forth. That’s pretty much the equivalent of methods used today, even on many military bases. If things get unsettled, or if the city in question is under some persistent threat, they could tighten things up a bit. The most advanced cities, with good solid walls, would build special portals for the incoming traffic. Humans would have to pass through a gate with a high threshold, narrow in width, and low enough to require most adults to duck a bit. Anyone fully armed would be at a severe disadvantage coming in like that; guards waiting inside could dispatch them easily. In fact, a single guard could hold off a large number of invaders if they all had to come through one at a time.
For loaded animals, there was a separate portal. Since most traveling merchants used camels in that part of the world, portals were made especially for them. That is, the camel could come inside the walls only if it was unloaded and made to crawl in on its knees. Thus, not only did the camel drivers have to coerce the ornery beasts to crawl in, which camels don’t like, they had to be ready to carry the whole load in by hand. This allowed for a few guards to conduct a leisurely inspection of the load, making sure no contraband — especially weapons — were brought in.
Any invading force would be better off taking the walls down first, which in itself was no small task. That so many cities took these precautions was part of the price they paid for being a city. Simple economics made cities very desirable to live in, but also made them prime targets for raids.
These tiny protective portals were called “the eye of the needle” as a figure of speech. When Jesus made His comment about how hard it was for the rich to yield to God, He was referring to this well-known security practice. If we were to take this image literally by modern standards, it would mean the rich simply could not be saved. How often have we heard cult leaders using this verse to extort wealth from their followers? The point is not how the wealthy never come to God. It was that they had a much harder time of it. It wasn’t just the wealth they had to unload, but the power which came with it.
Consider the opposite side of Jewish society in those days. The average Son of Abraham was rather poor. The middle class in ancient times was only slightly larger in numbers than the wealthy nobility and royalty. The majority of the population lived in varying degrees of poverty. Whom do you suppose was invited to sit on the front row in synagogues? Who had frequent access to cozy rabbinical teaching sessions? Who was allowed to actually get close enough to read and touch the sacred scrolls of the Old Testament books? Certainly not the poor average Joe Jew. They did well to be in a room where they got to hear someone else reading from the Word, though most could themselves read a bit.
Is it any surprise, then, Jesus made so much of the idea the poor had the gospel preached to them? See Matthew 11:15, Luke 4:18 and 7:22. They had little access to God’s Word and were left to live in relative ignorance and even silly superstition. For them, there was very little to lose by following Christ. They were already at the bottom of the economy, and were held in contempt by their rulers. It didn’t take much persuading for them to shift their loyalty from a government system which hated and abused them to one which brought them directly before God as family. In giving up their all — pitifully little as it was — they had the sure knowledge their sins could be forgiven and know they were worth something to God.
For a poor man to enter the secure city, the “eye of the needle” was no worse than the door to his own home, if he had a door at all. For the man of means, this was a major struggle. He had to divest himself of everything protecting him, everything which gave him power and comfort, everything which made being wealthy worthwhile. He had to crawl humbly and painfully through the tight entrance. The City of God offers more than any of us can comprehend, but the wealthy cannot know of that until they let go of what they have now.
This illustration from Jesus was a response to His encounter with the Rich Young Ruler. Actual wealth was no sin; one of Jesus’ closest friends — Lazarus — was never obliged to become poor. Rather, he was expected to use his wealth to promote God’s truth.
What will it cost you to enter the City of Heaven?