There are two important strands to pull from the last part of this pasage for folks who live here in the United States.
The first is that when Jesus talks about it being hard for the rich to get into heaven, he means most of us. Not many people will admit they're rich or even think of themselves as rich. Partly that's because of some of the people who do admit they're rich. Who wants to be identified with Paris Hilton or Donald Trump? They bring to mind the old Jewish saying that if you want to know what God thinks of money, look who He gives it to.
And partly because we don't really understand how good we've got it in the USA. More than 60 percent of the homes in the US where the annual income was under $20,000 owned more than one television. Almost a third of the poor families in America own two or more vehicles. Compare that with most of the rest of the world, where owning a car or even a single television set is beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest in the country.
Or put it in historical terms. I see people who come into the local food bank where our church serves each month who have smart-phones and bluetooth headsets. That doesn't mean they're not really poor; who knows what their circumstances are? But they own things that Howard Hughes, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford could never buy, because they hadn't been invented yet. The reality is that living in America in the 21st century almost automatically makes us rich, which means Jesus is talking about us when he says it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to get to heaven.
The reason's not hard to see. Wealth is a tool for getting things done or getting things we want. People who have more wealth can do more things. They can move. They can upgrade their cars. They can hire lawyers or doctors who help them if they make mistakes. A wealthy young woman who has a baby out of wedlock can hire nannies to help her care for her child while she finishes school or goes to work. A nanny who has a baby out of wedlock probably has to quit her job and may have to go on public assistance or drop out of school.
But the more we rely on our own abilities and qualities such as wealth, or maybe fame or power or intelligence, the less we will tend to rely on God's grace. It's not so much conscious as it is a way of thinking that infiltrates much of our lives. Very few wealthy people would say they could buy God's grace. But their unconscious assumption is that their sin is something they can handle, because they've been able to handle anything else that's come their way. It takes a lot of prayer and discipline and effort -- and maybe even more grace than usual -- to depend on God for salvation.
The other strand to pull from this part of the story is this. We, having read this story many times, understand that rich folks have a problem with entering heaven, according to Jesus' words. During his time, though, wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor. If you had money and good health, that meant that you were a good person and God liked you. If you were poor and sick or handicapped, that meant God was punishing you for your sin. In other words, the rich were considered more or less a lock for heaven. God already liked them!
Not so, Jesus, says. They're not a lock at all! In fact, camels can go through needles more easily than rich people can get to heaven! Some folks suggest that Jesus was referring to a particular small gate in Jerusalem's wall called the Needle that you could only get your camel through if you were willing to leave some of the animal scraped off along the sides. Maybe, but it seems more likely to me that Jesus was using a figure of speech designed to show something impossible.
Look at the reaction of the people: Who then can be saved? If the folks who are supposed to have the inside track don't make it, who does?
Reframe his words. Think of the people you believe are locks for heaven. It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Billy Graham to get into heaven. It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Mother Teresa to get into heaven. The idea is that we can't get to heaven based on any of our own abilities, qualities or good works. Graham and Mother Teresa would probably agree they couldn't get in on their own. Their good works weren't their path to heaven. They're a part of a lifetime of thanks that God's grace is available to do what they can't.
But remember how Jesus closes the saying: What is impossible for people is possible for God. So if God wants to thread his needle, he can tell the camel to hold the thread in its mouth. And if he wants us to be with him in the life to come, he will use the immensity of his loving grace to make it possible. In spite of our efforts to the contrary.