Progressive Proof-texting: Rich People and the Eye of a Needle

eye-of-the-needle

by John Ellis

The charge of proof-texting is one of the sharpest pejoratives inside Progressive Christianity’s rhetorical toolbox. It’s often used to support the accusation of legalism. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not denying that Progressive Christians have a point; conservative Evangelicals are not immune from the temptation to pull a passage of Scripture out of context in order to support a specific pet issue.

One of the more egregious examples that I’ve heard from Christian fundamentalists is the use of Psalm 40:3 to support the contention that rock music is sinful. Whether or not rock music is sinful, “He [God] put a new song in my mouth”[1] doesn’t prove anything either way. In fact, lifting the verse out of context for ideological reasons obscures the beautiful truth that Psalm 40:3 actually reveals.

Briefly, the “new song” of Psalm 40:3 is the response to a salvation event that “is one additional chapter in a long series of God’s involvements with his people.”[2] This is seen in the larger context of the chapter in which David is recounting how God has rescued him in the past, and, hence, the nation of Israel by covenantal extension. The Psalm then transitions into recognition of the continued need for God’s rescue. The recounting of God’s past and future salvific acts of chapter 40 sandwiches a song of praise to the God who saves. Through His acts of salvation, God is continually filling His people’s hearts with praise.

But trotting out “new song in my mouth” during anti-rock music sermons is a quick and handy way to try and convince Christians (usually teenagers) that listening to certain genres of music violates the holy standard of a perfectly righteous God.[3]

However, as often as the accusation of “proof-texting” flies off the lips of Progressive Christians, their tribe has a penchant for ripping passages from the Bible out of context, too.

Unfortunately, the words of King Jesus are some of the favorite targets for proof-texting by Progressive Christians. One of the most-oft maligned passages is Matthew 19:24. Because they worship at the altar of power dynamics, Progressive Christians like to contend that Jesus was an advocate for the redistribution of wealth as a means for bringing fairness/justness to the poor and oppressed. According to them, income inequality is a sin, and the salvation that Jesus brought was a salvation from all forms of economic and social oppression.

Confusing the Bible for an economic textbook, Progressive Christians obscure God’s beautiful story of how He works through history to save a people from their sins unto Himself. In their reading of Matthew 19:24, Jesus’ point was that it’s wealth and the refusal to redistribute it that keeps the rich from entering the Kingdom of God. But that violates an appropriate interpretation that’s grounded in the context of not only the larger passage but the Bible as a whole.

When King Jesus told the twelve disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24),” he wasn’t stating that it’s easier for poor people to enter the kingdom of God. He was challenging the legalism of Second Temple Judaism that had good works/obeying the law (and extra man-made laws, to boot) at the heart of its soteriology.

This counter-culture claim from Jesus elicited the shocked response from the disciples, “Who then can be saved?”[4] As products of their time and place, the twelve bought into the belief that material riches were the evidence of righteousness. Within the disciple’s cultural framework, if someone who is so evidently righteous can’t get in, what hope is there for the poor? And that was Jesus’ point. He is the only hope for everyone – rich and poor.

Even in conservative circles, Jesus’ metaphor of a camel fitting through the eye of a needle is misunderstood. It’s often taught that in ancient Jerusalem there was a gate called “the eye of a needle.” According to Sunday School tradition, camels needed to get on their knees in order to fit through the gate. It was tough going; salvation is hard, albeit synergistic. On the other hand, many progressives, who also adhere to the tradition of a gate called “the eye of a needle,” claim that the camel had to be unloaded before it could fit through the gate – in other words, rich people have to “unburden” themselves of their riches before they can enter the Kingdom of God. One problem, though; no such gate existed[5].

The phrase is an early first century Jewish idiom. In fact, scholars puzzle over whether the word should even be translated “camel.” Many believe that the word is best translated “rope.” Regardless, the idiom’s point remains. A rope can’t fit through the eye of a needle. And, a camel, well, if a rope can’t fit, I doubt a camel will. And whether “rope” or “camel,” Jesus’ point still stands; no matter whom you are and what you’ve accomplished, it is impossible to enter the Kingdom of God. Which is exactly why King Jesus had to take on human flesh and come to earth.

In a direct assault on our desire to be self-sufficient, the gospel tells us that apart from being in Christ Jesus, we are deserving of the eternal judgment that God is going to mete out to the unrighteous on the last day. There is nothing that we can do to change that. God’s law must be obeyed, and the unrighteous must be punished. King Jesus lived on earth in order to perfectly fulfill the law’s demands, and then to suffer the just punishment for the sins of those who through Holy Spirit given faith bow the knee in repentance before him. Apart from an individual placing his or her full sufficiency in Christ Jesus, he or she stands condemned already. King Jesus’ use of the “eye of the needle” idiom shocked the disciples who were still viewing the Kingdom of God in mostly material terms. With the idiom, King Jesus confronted his disciples’ belief in the value/power of self-sufficiency, and, by extension, confronts all of humanity’s self-sufficiency.

This understanding of Matthew 19:24 fits nicely in the through-line-of-action that runs through the entire story of the Bible. In Genesis 3:15, God promised to send a savior to crush the head of the serpent. We need a savior sent from God to overcome our ethical estrangement from our Creator. And this redemption isn’t found in ironing out oppression. Don’t misunderstand, the oppression of the poor is a sin, but it’s a sin that can only be covered by the blood of Christ Jesus. Even if a rich person were to give all of his or her wealth to the work of relieving the oppression of the poor, apart from bowing his or her knee in faith to King Jesus, that no-longer-rich person remains guilty before the throne of God.

Progressive Christian’s proof-texting reveals the sad reality that, like the disciples, they view the Kingdom of God in mostly material terms, just on the opposite side – instead of material wealth being evidence of God’s blessing because of righteousness, for the Progressive Christian, the gospel is social justice, the sharing of material wealth, and not redemption from personal sin. Denying the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:24 that all humans stand condemned before God irrespective of their wealth, Progressives Christians create a divide between humans. In fact, that divide holds the key to salvation in their religion. In their reading of Matthew 19:24, Jesus’ point was that it’s wealth that stands between the rich and God.

With the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus, God accomplished the salvation of his people. Regardless of his or her material lot in life, acknowledging their desperate need of a savior from their personal sins is the only way for an individual to enter the Kingdom of God. Material riches are no more a sign of God’s blessings than they are a sign of sin. Humans’ ultimate problem isn’t the need for clean water or a safe place to live; humans’ greatest need is restoring relationship with a holy God, a relationship that was severed because of personal sin, and the problem of sin was solved in the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus. Any system that has material goods at its soteriological heart is denying the efficacy of God’s plan to send His son as the suffering servant to redeem His people from their sins. Religious materialism, whether named the Prosperity Gospel or the Social Gospel, denies Jesus.

Proof-texting is tempting because it allows us to define God in ways that tickle our ears. It’s not human nature to admit that the problem is inside of us. Proof-texting allows us to put the problem wherever we like it; which is usually somewhere other than ourselves. And proof-texting isn’t solely the self-righteous playground of conservative Evangelicals. Progressive Christians have their own rebellious ways of perverting the gospel.


 

[1] Psalm 40:3, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 987.

[2] William A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 318.

[3] Expounding Psalm 40 threatened to hijack this article (I deleted almost 500 words). In an attempt to keep an opening illustration brief, I have willfully given an abbreviated exegesis of the passage. I trust that acknowledging the incompleteness, if you will, of my exegesis will protect me from accusations of proof-texting by cultural fundamentalists who use Psalm 40 to encourage teenagers to dispose of their rock music (I almost wrote “throw away their CDs,” but teenagers don’t have CDs anymore, right?)

[4] Matthew 19:25, ESV Study Bible, 1862.

[5] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 493.

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One thought on “Progressive Proof-texting: Rich People and the Eye of a Needle

  1. […] I originally pitched this to my editor at PJ Media, but was told that it probably wouldn’t find readers at the site. It didn’t find readers at my blog, either. Regardless of the lack of views, I’m proud of this article and believe that it can be of help to those struggling with a proper view of the Lord’s Day. You can read it here. […]

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