For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Luke 18:25
In medieval times, this Biblical quote was often interpreted as meaning "It is impossible for a rich person to go heaven" for average camels cannot possibly be threaded through any eyes in any average needles. So if a rich person wants to go heaven, he needed to release a lot of his wealth to one of God's intermediaries, who then talk to God to open the gates of heaven for the rich person when the rich person passes away. A good deal for both parties: the rich person goes to heaven, the priests get the money.
This interpretation also had an impact on the common people. For starters, it convinced the poor to be satisfied with their poor existence. If the poor got rich somehow, they would lose their place in heaven, so there wasn't much point in trying to become rich. And if a poor person was oppressed by a rich person, that poor person could take comfort knowing the injustice proves who is going to heaven and who is not. So this interpretation helped keep the poor person happily in a poor state of affairs, which is good for keeping social order.
Then comes the Industrial Revolution. More Christians were becoming rich. And they were not so easily seduced into giving up much of their wealth away. So the interpretation became watered down such that the rich remain faithful and continue to donate some money to the cause. But not as much as before.
Here is another interpretation.
Back in the times of Christ and throughout the Levant, Arabian Peninsula, and the Silk Road, much trade was done by camel train. Traders would load up their camels and plod through hundreds of kilometers through the desert with their goods for sale. When a camel train came to a city, the train would rent some space and time at a facility called a caravansarai.
The caravansarai occupied a few acres of prime real estate in the city. It was a two-floored building that encircled the perimeter, with a wide open space in the middle. The ground floor would be lockers to store goods for each trader. The second floor would be a hostel for the trader and his staff. The camels roamed freely in the open area of the caravansarai. The traders stayed about a week and paid a small fee to the owners of the caravansarai. In that week, the traders would bargain with local merchants to sell their goods that city needed. When the traders got their money, they would then bargain with local merchants to buy goods to sell at a profit in the next city. Such was the life on the camel train.
As mentioned earlier, the camels roamed freely within the confines of the caravansarai. And often there would be multiple camel trains occupying the facility. The camels roamed freely and were never tied up. But they never left the facility. For some strange reason, camels really didn't like going through the portal, which was just a little shorter than the height of the camel. To get a camel through that portal, the traders had unload each camel, one trader pulling on the halter, a couple traders beating from behind, maybe another trader forcing the camel's knees to collapse to make it shorter. The camel would balk and complain and spit and bray and dig hooves into the ground throughout this whole process, and the traders did a lot of yelling and cussing. But once inside the caravansarai, the camel would never willingly go through that portal again on its own volition. And if someone tried to steal a camel, it would cause a lot of ruckus to alert a camel theft was happening. In other words, the caravansarai was a good place to store camels with minimal supervision, leaving the traders to focus on their trading. Every major city or town had at least one of these caravansarais for that was how "international" commerce was conducted in that part of the world at that time.
To digress at bit, the portals were also tall and wide enough for people and donkeys with carts to pass through quite easily, yet camels always stayed inside. There were no gates to open or close or lock, creating a certain efficiency for commerce.
So putting camels through these portals was a common occurrence. So common that the Aramaic speakers of Jesus' time made an idiom of the portal, calling it "the eye of the needle". It's not hard to envision similarity between putting the thread through needle eye and driving a camel train to small hole in a long wall.
So when Jesus talked about putting a camel through the eye of a needle, he was using an idiomatic expression that would have been easily understood by the people of his time and place. It is not impossible to force camels through the idiomatic eye, but it sure takes a lot of effort. In other words, Jesus was saying rich people have their own special challenge for seeking God's approval.
I would say that this challenge is two-fold. How did the rich person get his wealth? And what did the rich person do with his wealth?
I have gotten to know a few rich people in my life. While I don't want to stereotype them, a significant number of them got rich, in part, because they are not very generous. And successful rich people have a way of finding an edge with their employees, customers, and suppliers: they somehow know how far to push things, but back off at the right time. I'm not too sure God wants us to create all this stress in our own and other's lives. And I have known rich people who have worked hard at the expense of not nurturing their family and other relationships. And some rich people just don't like paying taxes. Is this what God wants?
And while it's easy for all of us to point those richer than we are and find fault with how they are putting their camel through the eye of their needle, my lower-middle Canadian income means I too am rich--relative many of the world citizens. I need to worry about my own garden before I criticize others.
Jesus' use of a popular idiom begs another question. If Jesus uses idioms, then would the New Testament not be as literal as many interpreters have made it out to be? If it not as literal, then we need to acknowledge that multiple interpretations are possible--and no Christian should profess that his or her understanding is superior to other interpretations.
If we insist that there is only one interpretation of any Biblical verse, then we need to take the camel going through the eye of the needle quite literally. If one is rich, one should give all their money away to secure a spot in heaven. I'm not there: that rich, that generous, or in heaven.