The big dramatic challenge to this story about a rich man asking Jesus what he had to do to obtain eternal life was the odd response of the disciples to Jesus saying it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. (By the way, I did no research and made no issue of whether the phrase “eye of a needle” referred to a sewing needle or, as I once heard it “explained”, a small opening in the city gates that a camel could conceivably pass through, though only with great difficulty. I never understood why this phrase should be a problem to anyone in the first place. Either way, the meaning is clear: it’s very, very hard!)
The usual Sunday School gloss on this is that, “in those days,” people believed that wealth equaled moral virtue, and so the disciples were shocked that Jesus considered the rich man unsavable. And the text itself absolutely supports this interpretation. The disciples were astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” So the problem for me is not the conventional interpretation of this exchange. Instead, it’s the very plausibility of the exchange itself.
In the first place, it’s hard to believe that people really believed this about the rich. I’m sure the rich have often believed it, but have the poor ever? I’m sure the poor have often wanted to become one of the rich, but I can’t believe their motivation was spiritual. I’m sure there are historical texts that report that the poor held the rich to be morally superior, but I’m guessing those texts were written by the rich or their apologists.
In the second place, at least one of the disciples, Matthew the former tax collector, ought to have already been thoroughly inoculated against the idea that wealth equaled virtue.
Third, at the time of the exchange, the disciples had already witnessed the rich man failing Jesus’ test. Jesus tells him that, in order to secure eternal life, he must sell all that he has and give the money to the poor, and the rich man is crestfallen and walks away. At that point, why would the disciples, who had given up all that they had to follow Jesus, still be clinging to the idea that the rich man was their moral superior?
Often, stories that make perfect sense when taught in Sunday School suddenly become problematic when I need to assign their dialogue to real human characters in my plays. In this case, my workaround was to assign the implausible sentiment to just one of the disciples, the youngest and most naive of them. It wasn’t an ideal solution, but it enabled me to proceed with the writing of the play.
The big dramatic highlight of this play comes from three words that appear in Mark’s account of the story, but not in Matthew’s or Luke’s. Jesus tells the rich man he must obey the ten commandments, and the rich man says he’s done that all his life. Then Jesus looks at him and says that he must also sell all that he has and give it to the poor. Or this is what happens in Matthew and Luke. In the Marcan account, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”
Wow. Talk about your built in stage directions! The real delight of writing this play figuring out how to make those three words happen.