An old textual conundrum regarding the New Testament, frequently revisited by those who fret over every jot and tittle, is whether Christ was really talking about a camel or only about a very thick rope. My money is on the camel, and not only because I am fond of both camels and outlandish metaphors; but it is a very old question what Jesus really said had a better chance of passing through a needle’s eye than a rich man had of entering God’s Kingdom. Many have suspected—even a few church fathers, like Cyril of Alexandria—that the Greek word kamelon (camel) might be a scribal error for kamilon (a heavy rope, a nautical cable), if only because the latter seems to make for a somewhat more symmetrical trope. Some have even made the argument that the Aramaic word gamla can mean either a camel or a rope, and so the error may antedate the written texts of the gospels altogether. On the other hand, the image of some large beast passing through a needle’s eye, as a piquant figure for something impossible, is found in other ancient Near Eastern sources, and the vastly preponderant weight of textual evidence still favors the contortionist dromedary over the elastic hawser.
Anyway, however diverting a question it is, it is not a very important one. The lesson imparted by the passage is just as uncompromisingly severe in either case. As a commentary on the plight of the rich young ruler who cannot bring himself to sell all he has, give the money to the poor, and follow Christ, it leaves little room for doubt that Christ is not merely rebuking one wealthy man for a lack of proper spiritual commitment, but is saying something very disquieting about wealth as such.
Of course, putting the matter that way invariably provokes murmurs or howls of protest, and down the years Christians have found a number of ingenious ways of getting around the plain meaning of Christ’s words. The silliest of these is the old myth—which I used to think was the invention of some nineteenth-century Protestant clergyman, but which is in fact considerably older—that the “Needle’s Eye” was a particularly low gate in the walls of Jerusalem, through which a laden camel could not pass without being unburdened or even (as one zoologically illiterate version has it) crawling through on its knees. There was no such gate, and camels are not that nimble, but it has often proved very comforting for affluent Christians to imagine that Jesus was really talking about adopting a proper attitude of humility or detachment rather than about submitting to actual dispossession.
A more nuanced strategy for rescuing Jesus from his unseemly radicalism has been to treat his words in this instance as an ironic castigation of those who vest their hopes in good works. John Calvin managed to invert the lesson of the passage almost entirely: The young ruler, he claimed, had asked an inept question, supposing that one could secure eternal life through works, and thus Christ’s metaphor was meant as an illustration of the impossibility of anyone fulfilling the requirements of the law, and of the need therefore for a total reliance upon faith.
This, it should be needless to say, is an entirely uncompelling gloss on the episode. It merely superimposes a traditional Augustinian reading of Paul’s language regarding grace and works of the law (one that competent New Testament scholars know to be erroneous) upon a text clearly irreconcilable with its premises. The teaching of Christ in the gospels is full of exhortations to “works righteousness,” however inconvenient they may prove for certain established strains of Christian dogmatics, and the episode of the young ruler is wholly lacking in the sort of exegetical ambiguities that might allow for reassuring evasions of that sort. Simply said, Jesus was not terribly encouraging about the spiritual condition—or prospects—of the rich.
I am not trying to start a theological debate here, however. I really just want to say something charitable about the Occupy Wall Street protestors, at least the most morally serious among them, because I have come to find a certain conservative critique of the movement painfully tiresome. By the time this column appears, the harsh winds of winter may already have scattered the demonstrators to their several lairs and subdued the clamor of their detractors, so this may come across as an exercise in l’esprit d’escalier.
But a few weeks back, in a nearly empty cafe at a small regional airport, I overheard a radio discussion in which two very loud men and an even louder woman were soundly excoriating the Occupy protestors for supposedly spreading contempt for “wealth creators” and for the industrious rich. All three interlocutors attested that they had been raised by pious parents to respect the wealthy and to emulate “those who’ve made something of themselves through hard work” for the sakes of their “families and investors.”
The larger issue of whether that quite exhausts the story of how great wealth may be legally acquired in our economic system was not raised, but there was not much room for subtlety in the narrow crevices between commercial breaks. In any event, it was all fairly conventional, merrily venomous talk-radio ranting, and I would probably have forgotten it a moment afterward if, at the end, the woman speaker had not opined that this “Occupy business” was all a part of the decay of the “traditional Christian values that built this nation”—a judgment to which the other two assented vigorously.
It was an oddly jarring moment. The ease with which Americans often confuse their civic and fiscal values with Christian virtues is always a little baffling, granted, and I realize that every Christian people has tended to confuse the interests and ideals of its class or nation or ideology or empire with the moral commands of the gospels. Many American Christians, though, have a special talent for elevating the blandest and most morally nugatory aspects of social and economic life to the status of positive spiritual goods, essentially laudable, and somehow all of a piece with the teachings of Christ.
Obviously there is nothing wrong with producing real goods and selling them at a fair price; it is admirable to labor diligently to care for one’s family and neighbors; to build a business that gives honest employment to those who need it is a worthy accomplishment. That, however, hardly consecrates everything that happens on the floor of the stock exchange as something continuous with Christian principles.
After all, when Christ talked about private wealth, he certainly seemed to associate it with spiritual impoverishment. In addition to his advice to the young ruler, there was his clear injunction to store up treasure not on earth but only in heaven, his rather pointed remarks on the impossibility of dual service to both God and Mammon, his parable about the rich man and Lazarus (which was not, I think we can grant, merely a warning against dissipation), and so on. As for imitating the personal industry of the rich, Christ enjoined his followers instead to take no thought for the morrow but to contemplate, emulously, those notoriously indolent lilies of the field. The New Testament as a whole, truth to tell, is fairly clear that the accumulation of great private wealth, even when honestly acquired, is spiritually perilous and, as a rule, morally unjust.
So, make what one will of the Occupy protestors—their stated aims are certainly amorphous enough to allow one to love or despise or ignore them as one chooses, and they are far too various a group to characterize uniformly, in any event—but I cannot really see how their actions constitute an assault on “Christian values.” Setting economic arguments aside for a moment, surely any Christian should acknowledge that at the heart of Christ’s teaching there was a prophetic critique of the pursuit and preservation of material wealth, and that it is hardly fitting then for Christians (even American Christians) to view these protests with simple self-confident disdain.
There is, I should add, no room for sanctimony in such observations. Certainly I cannot claim to have lived the life of the heroic renunciant, and no one can deny the force of the disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?” But it is wise to recall that the Christ of the gospels has always been—and will always remain—far more disturbing, uncanny, and scandalously contrary a figure than we usually like to admit. Or, as an old monk of Mount Athos once said to me, summing up what he believed he had learned from more than forty years of meditation on the gospels, “He is not what we would make him.”
David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things. His most recent book is The Devil and Pierre Gernet.