AFTER JESUS’ INTERVIEW with the rich young man, he says to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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” (Matt. 19:23-24). The disciples, we are told, “were greatly astonished.” They exclaimed. “Who then can be saved?” (19:25).
Their question betrays a great deal. It is as if the disciples thought that if anyone could be saved, it would surely be the kind of moral, upright, and frankly wealthy young man who had just turned away from Jesus in some sadness. If even he could not be saved, then who in the world could be? Perhaps they thought that his wealth showed him to be blessed by God, while his publicly upright character confirmed their judgment.
Thus they betray how poorly they understood Jesus’ pronouncement. His point was that wealth easily becomes a surrogate god. It is extraordinarily difficult for a person who is attached to riches, not least riches that he or she has accumulated and therefore feels proud about, to approach God as a child might approach (19:13-15), and simply ask for help and receive grace. The disciples look on these things precisely the wrong way. Possessions are blessings, they reason, and come from God. If a person enjoys possessions, those blessings must find their origin in God. So, surely a person with many blessings has a greater likelihood of being saved than others who can boast of fewer blessings.
Jesus does not argue the toss. If at this point he were to talk about the greater or lesser likelihood of someone being saved, he would be supporting the legitimacy of their question, which is in fact singularly ill conceived. That is simply not the way to look at the matter. Take the group that the disciples think are closest to the kingdom: Shall they be saved? “With man this is impossible,” Jesus insists (19:26). And that means, of course, that from the disciple’s perspective, if the most fortunate can’t get in, then no one can get it. That’s the point: “With man this is impossible.”
Yet this impossibility can be reversed, for we serve a God who does many things that we humans cannot possibly do. Who shall be saved? “With God all things are possible” (19:26). That is where our hope lies: with a God who takes the most unlikely subjects, rich and poor alike, and writes his law on their hearts. Apart from God’s intervening grace, there is no hope for any of us.