In this weekend’s Gospel, we hear from Jesus: “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.” Jesus is using this striking hyperbole to show the necessity of grace for us to enter into salvation. You may have heard that a gate existed in Jerusalem called the eye of a needle. At night people would pass through this eye of a needle after they closed the main gates. To do this, the people would have to take off everything and climb down from their camel and enter the gate. There is some truth to this. I’m not aware of a proposed location in the old city of Jerusalem, but there is a door like the one explained above in Bethleham, the place of our Lord’s birth. The Church of Our Lord’s Nativity has this entrance, and a person has to duck down to enter the building. This small door prevented war animals from entering the Church. Someone who wanted to storm the Church would have to get off of his horse or camel to do so. The small door helped this church stay standing for over 1500 years. It is the oldest church in the Holy Land. (Note: many churches in the Holy Land were destroyed by wars while the churches you visit today in Israel and Palestine are on the same grounds they have been since around the 4th or 5th century. Some of the churches you visit are 2nd or 3rd rebuilds of the same church. These churches range from being built in the 20th century to the 11th century.) It is likely because of this small door that the Church of the Nativity has never been destroyed.
However, in my view, this is not what Jesus is explaining. There is no historical evidence a gate like this called the eye of the needle existed in Jerusalem. Jesus is likely referring to the actual eye of a needle, something familiar to the ancient world and even us. The camel is the largest animal in the Middle East, and the eye of the needle is the smallest opening we have seen. Jesus is using this hyperbole or an absurd phrase to make a point. No one can enter the kingdom of God without God’s grace.
However, I don’t think we should throw out the idea of the small gate in the ancient world or this Gospel passage. For those of us who have been baptized and saved by Jesus, the image of removing everything to pass through this gate can help us in our lives. If we have worldly attachments or if we have things we cannot let go, we may not enter the kingdom of heaven. However, if we completely trust in God and prefer him over everything else, even if that means selling everything we have, we can enter into the kingdom of God with his help.