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Monday and Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time. The reading is from the gospel of Mark 10:17-31.

The Rich Man and The Eye of the Needle – Mark 10:17-31

As he [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’”

He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

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.”

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

Peter began to say to him, “We have given up everything and followed you.”

Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.

But many that are first will be last, and [the] last will be first.

The eye of a needle is the section of a sewing needle formed into a loop for pulling thread, located at the end opposite the point. These loops are often shaped like an oval or an “eye”, hence the metaphor. Wikipedia (The Free Encyclopedia)

I can still vividly remember Father James telling us sixty four years ago, when I was 7 years old, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Isn’t it ludicrous to contrast between the size of a needle’s eye and the largest indigenous animal.

All three Judaic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam use this aphorism or Midrash in their teachings.

In Judaism

Midrash is used by rabbis to interpret biblical stories that are beyond explaining in simple terms, the religious, moral or legal teachings. They help to fill many gaps left in the biblical narratives regarding events and personalities.

The Jewish writings use the phrase “eye of the needle” as a denote of a very small place,

  • “A needle’s eye is not too narrow for two friends, but the world is not wide enough for two enemies.” (Source not traced but cf. Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 1.3)

The Babylonian Talmud applies the aphorism of the “eye of a needle” to unthinkable thoughts. The rabbis say that dreams reveal the thoughts of a man’s heart, the product of reason rather than the absence of it:

  • They do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle.

A Midrash on the Song of Songs uses the phrase “eye of a needle” to speak of God’s willingness and ability beyond comparison, to accomplish the salvation of a sinner:

  • The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?].

In Christianity

City gates and other entrances had these eyes as a way to let people through after the big gate or door is closed for the night and before it was opened in the morning.

When I was twelve, I was taught in my catechism class that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle”, through which a camel could not pass easily unless it first had all its baggage removed. After dark, when the main gates were closed, travelers and merchants would have to use smaller gates, as depicted in the above illustration, through which only small camels could enter only by crawling on their knees!

However, there is no evidence that such a gate existed. This I understand now as a wishfully interpreted gate in Jerusalem brought forth by Sunday school teachers.

In Islam

We find in Surat Al-‘A`rāf (The Heights) – سورة الأعراف 7:40

Surat Al-‘A`rāf (The Heights) – سورة الأعراف7:40

  • Indeed, those who deny Our verses and are arrogant toward them – the gates of Heaven will not be opened for them, nor will they enter Paradise until a camel enters into the eye of a needle. And thus do We recompense the criminals.

In Apocryphal Literature

I came across this very interesting piece of Apocryphal literature – Acts of Peter and Andrew vv.13-21 from The Apocryphal New Testament, M R James, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924, p459.

The “Acts of Peter and Andrew” is a short 3rd-century text from the New Testament apocrypha, not to be confused with either the Acts of Andrew or the Acts of Peter. The text is unusual in apparently containing no attempt at espousing doctrine, and is likely simply to have been a work of literature rather than theology.

The text consists of a series of extremely long tales of miracles, such as Apostle Andrew riding a cloud to where Apostle Peter is, and Peter literally putting a camel through the eye of the needle, turning the traditional metaphor (it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven) on its head. The text appears to have been aimed to be a continuation of the Acts of Andrew and Matthias (which was a portion of the Acts of Andrew that was sometimes found as a separate work).

Acts of Peter and Andrew vv.13-21

13 There was a rich man named Onesiphorus who said: If I believe, shall I be able to do wonders?

Andrew said: Yes, if you forsake your wife and all your possessions.

He was angry and put his garment about Andrew’s neck and began to beat him, saying: You are a wizard, why should I do so?

14 Peter saw it and told him to leave off.

He said: I see you are wiser than he. What do you say?

Peter said: I tell you this: it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Onesiphorus was yet more angry and took his garment off Andrew’s neck and cast it on Peter’s and haled him along, saying: You are worse than the other. If you show me this sign, I and the whole city will believe but if not you shall be punished.

15 Peter was troubled and stood and prayed: Lord, help us at this hour, for thou hast entrapped us by thy words.

16 The Saviour appeared in the form of a boy of twelve years, wearing a linen garment ‘smooth within and without’, and said; Fear not: let the needle and the camel be brought.

There was a huckster in the town who had been converted by Philip; and he heard of it, and looked for a needle with a large eye, but Peter said: Nothing is impossible with God rather bring a needle with a small eye.

17 When it was brought, Peter saw a camel coming and stuck the needle in the ground and cried: In the name of Jesus Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate I command thee, camel, to go through the eye of the needle.

The eye opened like a gate and the camel passed through; and yet again, at Peter’s bidding.

18 Onesiphorus said: You are a great sorcerer: but I shall not believe unless I may send for a needle and a camel.

And he said secretly to a servant: Bring a camel and a needle, and find a defiled woman and some swine’s flesh and bring them too.

And Peter heard it in the spirit and said: O slow to believe, bring your camel and woman and needle and flesh.

19 When they were brought Peter stuck the needle in the ground, with the flesh, the woman was on the camel. He commanded it as before, and the camel went through, and back again.

20 Onesiphorus cried out, convinced and said: Listen. I have lands and vineyards and 27 litrae of gold and 50 of silver, and many slaves: I will give my goods to the poor and free my slaves if I may do a wonders like you.

Peter said: If you believe, you shall.

21 Yet he was afraid he might not be able, because he was not baptized, but a voice came: Let him do what he will.

So Onesiphorus stood before the needle and camel and commanded it to go through and it went as far as the neck and stopped. And he asked why.

‘Because you are not yet baptized.’

He was content, and the apostles went to his house, and 1,000 souls were baptized that night.

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