‘Eye of the needle’

Question: I heard a preacher on the radio say recently that when Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to be saved, he was actually referring to a short, narrow gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle.” Is this so?

Lawrence Elliot, Cromwell, Connecticut

Answer: No, not likely. There is a tendency to “over-explain” certain texts of the Bible. This is especially the case with odd or idiomatic expressions that come down to us from biblical times. Such expressions are seldom to be taken literally.

Consider that in English we have idiomatic expressions such as “It was raining cats and dogs” or “The world is upside down” or “I’m living in a lunatic asylum!” Thousands of years from now it would be fruitless for linguists to look for literal or physical explanations for these phrases, and we’d probably have a good laugh if we could overhear them doing it.

Expressions like these are odd, but they do not mean that actual dogs and cats are falling from the sky, that the planet has reversed its axis or that a given speaker actually spent time in a mental institution. These are examples of hyperbole, a form of exaggeration used to emphasize the point being made. The hyperbole of these expressions is meant to emphasize that the rain was very heavy, that the world is dramatically changed and that there is a lot of “crazy” stuff going on. Looking for explanations other than “this is hyperbole” is to over-explain them and, thus, miss the point.

In this case of Jesus’ image of a camel going through the eye of a needle (Mt 19:24), the simplest explanation for Jesus’ expression based on the context is that he is using hyperbole. He is saying that it is very difficult for us in our richness to enter the kingdom of God. Indeed, it is so astonishingly difficult to save us in our stubbornness, pride, resistance and obtuseness that only God can do it. Our only hope is to surrender to God’s grace and mercy by recognizing our utter poverty of the holiness needed to find heaven.

Looking for some sort of low gate in the ancient walls of Jerusalem misses the radicalism of the point Jesus is making and seems an attempt to soften a teaching that ought not be softened: We are in absolute need of God’s grace to be saved. Further, there is no evidence of this explanation from the ancient world that small or narrow gates were often called “the eye of the needle.” This explanation seems to have emerged fewer than 100 years ago.

Liturgy of the Hours

Question: I am a seminarian and am troubled by some of the older priests I have been assigned with for the summer who do not pray the Liturgy of the Hours. When I ask, they say it is monastic prayer and they are not obligated. This does not seem right, does it?

Name withheld, Location withheld

Answer: They are obliged to pray it. Canon Law states, “Priests and deacons aspiring to the presbyterate are obliged to carry out the Liturgy of the Hours daily according to the proper and approved liturgical books” (No. 276).

Further, every priest at his ordination to the transitional diaconate affirmed the following promise: “Are you resolved ... in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours for the Church and for the whole world?”

They are obligated.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN, 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.