The Eye of the Needle

Binding30 years in and Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (1988) is more relevant than ever. This week’s commentary homes in on Mark 10:17-31.

Mark’s wry joke about the camel and the needle in particular has received ingenious “manipulation at the hands of bourgeois conscience-tranquilizing exegetes” (Jose Miranda). The famous medieval assertion that the “eye of the needle” referred to a certain small gate in ancient Jerusalem through which camels could enter only on their knees (!) is only one of the more obvious ways devised to rob this metaphor of its class-critical power. The proposition is plainly an impossible one. Bailey points out that the Babylonian Talmud records a similar hyperbole–an elephant going through the eye of a needle–and comments that “the elephant was the largest animal in Mesopotamia and the camel the largest in Palestine.” Mark’s stinging sarcasm is perhaps more recognizable in Frederick Buechner’s contemporary paraphrase: for wealthy North Americans it is harder to enter the kingdom “than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank!” 

Mark has again used a statement about “entering the kingdom of God” to reinforce his alternative ideology: solidarity with “the least” is extended from the family system to the economic system. The disciples’ incredulity (10:26) shows that it is not at all clear to them that anyone can be saved if not the pious at the top of the social ladder. This assumption would have been based upon the dominant ideology, which indicated that wealth = blessing from God. It is this that Jesus repudiates, contending instead that the only way to salvation for the rich is by the redistribution of their wealth–that is, the eradication of class oppression. The way in which this ideology legitimates the symbolic order will later (12:41-44) come under direct attack, in a temple episode that similarly juxtaposes the rich with the poor.

Once again, the social world has been turned upside down in Markan narrative–but can this status reversal ever actually be realized? For the first time Jesus addresses this terrible question, which has loomed throughout the story. His answer: “What is humanly impossible is not for the God for whom all things are possible” (10:27). Again, this saying anticipates Jesus’ direct confrontation with the political economy of the Jerusalem temple, which exploits the poor; for after calling for its overthrow, Jesus will once again remind his disciples of the “possible impossible” promised by this God (11:23).


2 thoughts on “The Eye of the Needle

  1. My experience exactly corroborates Myers’ criticism of the traditional interpretation of the “eye of the needle” passage. Here’s how I addressed it in my blog:

    Like the disciples we are incredulous at Jesus’ teaching about wealth: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark10:25)

    As a high school student in the 1960’s, I learned to interpret this parable quite conveniently. The needle’s eye becomes a gate to the city of Jerusalem that a camel could get through only by crawling on its knees. And that’s about how hard it is for us rich folks to get into heaven. In other words, we can do it if we just get down on our knees.

    Someone in the Middle Ages thought up that one about the Jerusalem gate, and it’s been comforting rich people ever since. That couldn’t have been what Jesus meant to say to the rich man who asked him how he could inherit eternal life. If that’s what Jesus meant, the man wouldn’t have gone away with fallen face. (Mark10:22)

    What Jesus asks of the rich man is to give his possessions to the poor. If that statement needs interpreting for today, it goes something like this: Correct the economic conditions that cause some people to be extraordinarily rich and others mired in poverty that they can’t escape. Christian communities in the first century actually tried to do that.

    Thank you Ched Myers. You helped me understand this passage and many others.

  2. Oscar (Oz) Cole-Arnal

    Thanks Ched & Jack:

    As a high school born again “fundy”, I too avoided the bluntness of the text through utilization of the Jerusalem gate & the standard Lutheran “cheap grace” syndrome. Since then I have heard numerous sermons on this stark text, but only two had the courage to face how radical the call of Jesus is in our mostly middle-income churches & their comfortable pews. I herald the quote: “for wealthy North Americans (& that includes my family’s joint annual pension income of c. $70,000 annually) it is harder to enter the kingdom than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank.” David Bentley Hart’s “Christ Rabble” piece in “Comonweal” grasps both the urgency and radical character of Jesus’ call to all of us. One last comment: I do not have the courage to follow Christ in this fashion, but just as Jesus loved the rich young man, I know that he loves me just as fiercely. And it is a fierce and relentless love. Consequently I flee this love & then come back–one foot out, one foot in. As I have begun the task of divesting (mainly books, my most cherished possession, but also struggling with redistributing funds to those in our ALLIANCE AGAINST POVERTY group, who live the life), I discover slowly but painfully surely that this text is more liberating than harsh. I find weight falling from my shoulder, a smile crossing my face more often, a stronger commitment to societal transformation, This is no harsh command, no call to wallow in guilt (a far too easy way to avoid the text) but rather a call to walk freely and faithfully behind Jesus. I experience this to be true, but yet…, but yet… I follow way too far behind Jesus to the point that I can barely see him in the distance. Sigh!

    In Solidarity,

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