Then Jesus looked around at his disciples and said, “How hard it is for those who are materialistic to enter the sanctuary of God!” The disciples were surprised at his statement. But Jesus replied again and said, “Children, how hard it is to enter into the sanctuary of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a materialistic person to enter into the sanctuary of God.” (Mark 10:23-25)Most sectarian translations of Jesus' statement use the word "rich" or "wealthy" instead of "materialistic." Which is more correct?
The word "materialistic" in these verses is derived from the Greek word χρῆμα (chrēma). This can mean, according to Thayer's lexicon, "whatever is for use, whether one uses, a thing, matter, affair, event, business." This can refer to "money" or "riches" in the case of a business because money is used for business. But in the context of Jesus' statement, he is not discussing business. He is discussing life. Life in the physical world. In the physical world, money isn't the only object. Material possessions as a whole are utilized in the physical world.
Furthermore, to assume that Jesus said, "riches" or "wealth" would be nonsensical. Wealth or riches is relative. A person with no money would consider someone who has $50 to be wealthy, whereas a person who only has $50 would consider a person who has $1,000 in the bank to be wealthy. And someone with only $1,000 in the bank would consider someone with $10,000 in the bank to be wealthy. Most certainly, wealth is relative to the beholder.
And while Jesus did not carry money, some of his disciples did. And some of them were not poor, relatively. Some had houses, and some were considered wealthy. For example, Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy disciple. He supplied the tomb for Jesus' body after his crucifixion.
The more appropriate translation in the context of Jesus' teachings relates to being materialistic. This is captured by the word "matter" in Thayer's lexicon. Why? Because being materialistic means being attached to the things of this world. It means that our life and consciousness revolves around the things of this world. This includes money, but also possessions, fame, family, and other elements that revolve around the physical body.
This is a very different concept than simply having wealth or riches. One may, in fact, have wealth or riches and not be attached to their wealth or riches. Or one may utilize that wealth or riches to help others spiritually. As such, a person can be wealthy but not materialistic.
Do we own anything in this world?
Material possessions are temporary. We can see this as we reflect on things we have been given in the past. We might have been given a paycheck for work, and after a week or two, that money is gone. We might have bought a car in the past, but then that car was later sold or broke down and taken to the wrecking yard. We might have purchased a house in the past, but then later sold the house and moved away.
We might have had money invested in the stock market at some point, and when the market went down, we lost a bunch of that money. In modern society, a person might work hard over a lifetime and at the end of their career have nothing left - or a few dollars saved in an IRA account.
Whatever the scenario, at some point the body will die and we will lose everything.
Whatever our body may possess at the end of our lifetimes will be taken away at the time of death. Everything - all the money, the house, land, car, name, reputation, family - everything - will be taken from us at the moment of death.
This means that we do not own any of it. Material possessions are fleeting.
True ownership requires control
In order to own something, one must be able to control it. This is the hallmark of ownership. Therefore, since we cannot control money or material possessions we might obtain during this lifetime, we do not own them.
One might say, 'well, I will leave my possessions in my will for my family' and thus think we own our wealth. Yes, some of the wealth may end up in the hands of family members.
But we still will not be able to control it. We might have been conservatively saving that money, but our family members who inherit it may blow all the money as soon as they get it. The use of that money will be out of our hands. We will have no control over it. Therefore we don't own it, and never owned it.
The reality is that whatever material possessions we receive during this lifetime is on loan to us. It is sort of like throwing a ball to a dog. The dog might think that the ball is his when he runs and clutches it in his mouth. And the dog might chew on the ball as he retrieves it. But eventually, the dog will have to relinquish the ball to their 'owner' who threw the ball. And once the ball-throwing game is over, the dog 'owner' will either store the ball in the garage or perhaps throw it away. Regardless of this reality, the dog will feel extremely possessive of the ball as he is retrieving it. The dog will really feel that the ball is his - even though it will be taken from him within minutes.
In the same way, we each become possessive of things within the physical world that will soon be taken away from us.
This means that none of us - regardless of how much we may temporarily possess - actually owns anything. Ownership of material possessions is simply an illusion.
Since we are temporarily occupying these physical bodies, nothing in the physical world actually belongs to us. Everything is on loan.
How materialism blocks entrance into the sanctuary of God
This is an issue of shelter. When we take shelter in the things of this world - feeling that our money or possessions or material family will provide us with refuge - we are being materialistic. As we've discussed, since material possessions are temporary, they provide no long-term shelter or refuge.
But when we take shelter or refuge in the Supreme Being, we receive eternal protection. Eternal shelter. This is what Jesus is speaking of with the phrase, "sanctuary of God."
The phrase "sanctuary of God" is being translated from the Greek phrase βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. The word θεός (theos) refers to God - the Supreme Being. The word τοῦ means "of" or "in" or "by" or "from." The word βασιλεία (basileia) means, according to the lexicon, “royal power, kingship, dominion, rule - not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom.”
Since βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ is not referring to a physical place, what does such a “royal power, kingship, dominion, rule" offer one? Remember that this was being spoken of by Jesus and prior Prophets in a culture where a king's rule or dominion offered his citizens protection. Offensive armies would frequently invade neighboring nations, cities, and towns, and the king of those regions would protect his citizens by assembling armies and fighting off invaders. Thus, the king offered protection - shelter - to his citizens.
Jesus is speaking of refuge. Shelter. Sanctuary.
Taking shelter in God
Taking shelter in God means putting our complete trust in the Supreme Being. It makes accepting His protection. It means that we do not trust in the fickle nature of the physical world and these temporary physical bodies.
This provides the key element of understanding of Jesus' statements regarding materialism. Jesus is speaking of how difficult it is to take shelter in God if someone is taking shelter in materialism. Getting a camel through the eye of a needle is pretty difficult.
This is the same proposition Jesus gave when he said:
"No one can serve two masters: Either he will hate one and love the other or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and materialism." (Matt. 6:24)The Greek word μαμωνᾶς (mamōnas) is often translated to "riches" or "mammon" in sectarian translations. But "mammon" is not simply money - it is materialism in general.
This confirms the opposing forces of God and materialism (or mammon).
Why are they opposed?
Materialism means taking shelter in material possessions. Trusting in material possessions.
And when one trusts in or takes shelter in material possessions - since we do not truly own these things since we cannot control them - we are simply trusting or taking shelter in an illusion.
And trusting in or taking shelter in material possessions makes it extremely difficult for that person to also take shelter in the Supreme Being.
We might compare this to being out in a rainstorm. If we are caught in a rainstorm we might be able to take shelter under an umbrella. However, an umbrella is quite flimsy and doesn't provide total protection. The umbrella might fold up in the wind and become useless. Or leak. Or allow the wind to blow the rain in from the side.
Instead, we can wait out the rainstorm in a strong building to stay dry. But we cannot do both. We can't run into a building with the umbrella open. We would have to leave the wet umbrella at the door as we go in.
In other words, we have to choose what to take shelter in.
In the same way, we must choose our protection while living within this world. We will face many challenges and tests during our lifetime. Where will we take shelter? Should we take shelter in the temporary things of this world? Or should we receive the eternal protection of the Supreme Being?