Today's passage is really just the continuation of the story of the rich young ruler. It is Jesus' commentary to his disciples standing around him. It is the lesson he wishes them to draw from what they had seen and heard.
You remember that the rich young ruler, very eager and sincere in his quest to become a disciple of Jesus, wanted to know what was still missing of the things he had already done to qualify him to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus, recognizing that what the young man had already achieved by his own efforts was actually hindering him from accepting both God's free gift of forgiveness to the undeserving and facing the demands that discipleship would eventually impose upon him, put him to the acid test. He told him to divest himself of his wealth, give it all to the poor, and become a penniless disciple in Jesus' band.
And you remember that the young man was saddened to hear this (v. 23). For he was unwilling to give up the wealth and social position that he had won by his hard work. There is no one who has more difficulty with accepting God's "charity", than someone who has risen from comparative poverty by his or her own efforts—unaided. What used to be called "a self-made man". I remember years ago, trying to explain to my own father, who was such a person, that—in terms he could understand—God requires us all to declare ourselves bankrupt in order to qualify for his gift of eternal life. As long as we consider ourselves "deserving", as long as we proudly claim that we "need no charity", we shut ourselves out from the gracious gift of God. I'm happy to say that my Dad eventually took the step of asking for God's "charity".
If the man was saddened to hear the condition that Jesus set up for him (v. 23), so also were Jesus' disciples. They were disappointed that this young, bright, wealthy and influential man, who actually wanted to join them, had decided against it after talking with Jesus. They thought that Jesus would make it easy for him, to attract him into the group and teach him self-sacrifice later on.
Jesus' mysterious comment in v. 24-25 was said as he watched the rich man walk away. Only Luke mentions this detail, but it makes the picture so much richer. I suspect that Jesus' eyes were sad as they watched the man with bowed head walk away from discipleship and real life.
The comment itself was amazing in two respects. It was generally observed in Palestinian Jewish society in Jesus' day that the most scrupulously righteous and observant Jews were those with leisure time: wealthy people who could devote much time to reading the Scriptures and to allocating their tithes and giving to charitable endowments. From this class were drawn all the members of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. The priests too—and not just the high priests—tended to be wealthy, despite the fact that they were supported largely by tithes and offerings of the whole people. The accepted wisdom of the Jewish sages and opinion makers of the day was that only a rich person could achieve great merit in God's eyes. This may not have been the universal opinion, but it was the dominant one. For Jesus to say the opposite—that it was exceedingly difficult for a rich person to even enter the Kingdom of God—was utterly astounding!
The second mysterious thing was the metaphor of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Now, I should say that I am very familiar with what was once a popular explanation: that there was a gate in Jerusalem named "the Needle's Eye Gate", and that for camels passing through that gate their owners had to dismount and remove loads from their back. It made a nice explanation. But this explanation has little to help us in understanding this word of Jesus. It somewhat misses the point. For according to this interpretation it was possible humanly speaking for a camel to pass through that gate. Whereas Jesus' disciples understood his words to mean that it would be impossible. This much is clear from the disciples' response: "Then who can be saved?" The implication of this rhetorical question is that if the wealthy cannot be saved, then no one can! But the actual point of Jesus' statement is that it would be totally impossible unless God intervened. He replied, "What is impossible for men is possible for God". Jesus knew that humanly speaking there was no way that a rich person would voluntarily choose to do what he told that rich young man to do. It made no sense. The man could do more to help the poor by managing his own wealth and disbursing it wisely, than by giving it all away now. And there was no assurance that the recipients would not spend it on liquor, just as today drifters may spend money solicited for food on drugs instead.
But human logic and efficient economics were not the point of Jesus' demand. He was more interested in healing the rich man. Feeding the poor people to whom he might give his wealth was indeed a secondary benefit, but not the first goal in his mind. That was why Jesus too was sad to see him walk away.
His disciples were grappling with this new idea. And as they did so, they quite naturally thought about their own condition. Some of them had left behind their businesses (for example, the "Zebedee and Sons [Peter & Andrew] Seafood Company" on the Sea of Galilee, with its boats and employees) in order to give themselves "full-time" to learning from Jesus and following his direction. They had made a considerable sacrifice. But was it enough? Should they have divested themselves of their businesses and given the proceeds to the poor, not just left them behind, perhaps thinking that they might eventually need to return to them? You can almost hear the wheels grinding in their heads! Maybe also in your head too -- and mine! How much is enough? Is there such a thing as too much?
Down through history thoughtful Christians have debated these issues in their minds. Many have sought peace and satisfaction in the monastic life, owning nothing. For them it was necessary to rid themselves of the temptation of riches, like an alcoholic knowing that he cannot ever stop with one "social drink". Others have run businesses, taking very little of the profits and disbursing most to feed, clothe and house the poor and needy. Only God can answer the question for you personally, how much time he wishes you to devote to money-making work and how he wants you to use what it accrues. But lest you think that this is all so "relative" and subjective, that there are no fixed principles, read what Jesus now said to the disciples (v. 29-30; see also Luke 22:28-30):
"There is no one who has left house, wife, siblings, parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, who will not receive much more in this present life, and in the age to come eternal life".This is not new in the teachings of Jesus. We have seen this principle before. This present life is a time for investing and for wise living in view of eternity. Not only is the saying "You can't take it with you" true (remember Lazarus and the Rich Man?), but Jesus promises "much more in the present life" as well! That doesn't mean more money. But it means more "brothers, sisters, parents and children"! The more you invest your life in serving Jesus and helping others, the more dear and intimate friends you will make. Remember Jesus' words after telling about the dishonest business manager? "Use the money that might otherwise be used for unrighteousness to make friends who will welcome you into eternal homes in heaven".
In Luke's gospel we see Jesus' disciples making the initial sacrifices. In his second book, the Acts of the Apostles we read of their further sacrifices which led them to leave Palestine itself and travel far and wide, suffering hunger, exposure, threats to their lives, all in order to serve Jesus as missionaries. How many "friends" do you suppose the Apostle Paul made as a missionary that he never would have had by staying at home in a comfortable life in Palestine? How many new brothers and sisters will you make if you truly give your time and money liberally to following Jesus?