“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” (Mt. 19:24). This comparison of Jesus sounds very strange to our ears, because it would actually mean that access to heaven is formally closed to all those who can be considered “rich”. Inter alia, a large part of the population of the rich west would then have little or no chance of a place in the heavenly kingdom. Moreover, the literal interpretation of this saying contradicts another statement of Jesus, in which he advises the rich to ensure their future salvation by making friends “through the unrighteous mammon ” (the money).
The words of Jesus become much more understandable and less fatalistic when one knows that in the Jerusalem of his time there were one or more gates that were so small that a loaded camel could not pass through. That is why they were called “the eye of a needle”. The camel first had to be unloaded and then could hardly pass through the gate. Jesus apparently meant that a rich man would have to abandon his attachment to material possessions before he can have access to the spiritual kingdom of God. He spoke these words, by the way, after inviting the rich young man to leave everything behind and follow Him, a task that proved too arduous for this most God-fearing young man.
Jesus’ own life was the perfect example of total detachment. He taught us that our earthly vanities, addicts, or excessive needs are in permanent conflict with the requirements of true love. The same tells us regularly our own conscience if that is really well formed. Who was never tempted to give the truth “a little push”, with the intention of tilting certain situations in his or her favor? Who never secretly or openly chooses for himself in choosing between satisfying his own needs and those of another? Who has the moral honesty to refuse a promotion, which can be obtained through relationships, but which comes at the expense of other candidates who are more competent? Who never acts, consciously or unconsciously, according to the “law of the strongest, most cunning or least scrupulous”?
The economic logic of the prevailing “free market system”, in which we as producers or consumers are one of the many cogs, uses as a basic idea the mutual competitiveness, which promotes a mentality of “first I and then the others”. In such a context, the ideal of Christian charity is only followed by a minority, while the majority are swept up in the rush for greater comfort and social prestige. The true humanitarian ethic is replaced by so-called “humanistic” norms and “human rights”, dictated by the ruling political class, the imperative requirements of appearances and the priorities of the “quality of life” to be pursued.
The resulting social picture shows us an increase in scale of what Jesus meant by the rich who does not get through the eye of the needle. It is the image of a crowd trying to squeeze through the narrow entrance gates to the highest possible social position and comfort of life, the actual norm-setting ideals of the majority. The more one imagines that one has made it to the other side, the higher the associated false ‘feeling of happiness’. However, the rising suicide rates in the prosperous countries contradict the optimistic results of the happiness surveys that our media regularly treats us to.
Since more than a century, the Catholic Church has increasingly distanced itself from the medieval power thinking and antisocial structures that were cultivated and propagated by the richer layers of society in their own interest. From Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in veritate in 2009, a whole series of encyclicals and an apostolic letter have systematically elaborated and clarified the Church’s social doctrine. The current Pope Francis teaches us with word and example that the Church must stand on the side of the needy and the weak. Our Christian mission today is to continue to show people the way to true incorruptible happiness: the way of modesty, servitude, and solidarity, shown to us by Jesus, our Savior.
This does not mean that wealth is necessarily sinful, but that its misuse is an injustice. Few have the wisdom to realize that the more one has, the greater the responsibility one assumes for the proper management of these material goods. Jesus has called wealth “the unrighteous mammon” because abundant material possessions are usually misused – that is, in a self-centered way.
God’s Son chose to be born in an abandoned stable, with a manger for its crib, and to die for us as an innocent convict, nailed naked to the cross by the political and religious establishment of his day. In doing so, He identified Himself with all those who “didn’t make it”. He lived the life of the dispossessed. To the extreme, He has suffered the suffering of all those who die in “inhumane” conditions, instead of dying “with dignity”, in accordance with the euthanasia standards cherished in the prosperous part of present humanity.
From the manger to the cross, the Son of Man gave the beatific example of a total self-denial in the service of his “neighbors”: his lost and blinded human brothers. He was the foretold Lamb who, for our spiritual salvation, let himself be led to the slaughter without resistance. He gave us the example of a complete surrender to God’s will and an unshakable trust in God. Especially the latter is sometimes hard to find, even among the most zealous and pious believers. If we begin to realize this, then we are well on our way to bearing our personal cross without murmuring, the almost inevitable hallmark of a fruitful life, in the service of God and our fellow human beings.