I'm struggling to figure out the significance of the rich man in Matthew 19:24. If the point is that "For mortals it [entering heaven] is impossible, but for God all things are possible," then why specify that a rich person can't enter heaven? Is this a comment on greed as well?
Yes, it is a lesson on greediness. But more that the nature of greed, and the lust for wealth above all things is itself idolatry, removing us from God's commandments.
"for a root of all the evils is the love of money, which certain longing for did go astray from the faith, and themselves did pierce through with many sorrows;" (1 Tim. 6:10, YLT)
Luke 16:1-15 tells of the parable of the dishonest steward, or manager who was wasting his employer's goods / resources. After correcting some of the bills owed to his employer (master), the conclusion is read in vs. 8-10.
"8 The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world[a] are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon,[b] so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.
10 “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. (RSV)
So, the first half of the chapter tells of being honest in business dealings with others, and that sharing the "wealth" is better than hoarding it. And, as the Pharisees who heard Christ's warnings loved money so much, they rejected the warnings, scoffing at Christ.
Then, the last half shows the ultimate end of those who do not share the wealth with the contrast of a rich man who loved money more than God, and Lazarus who had been a poor man. There are several lessons to take a way from Luke 16:19-31. There is the picture outlined of the two parts that had existed in Hades - Abraham's Bosom, or Paradise; and the place of torment which the Greeks called Tartarus.
The rich man could have made Lazarus' life easier, but had walked by him every day without any concern for another man's life. He did not share the wealth. As all that we have is a blessing from God (Num. 6:24-26; 2 Cor. 9:8-10; James 1:17-18; Luke 6:38-40; etc.), then we must know that all blessings are a responsibility to be used wisely.
"30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well." (Matt. 6:30-33)
Christ was not saying that a rich man cannot enter into heaven, only that it is very hard for a rich man to do so. Those who have great wealth many times come to depend only upon themselves, and forget or do not know where all blessings originate. That self-dependence condemns them as they have removed God from their knowledge and do not the things they should. They have their reward (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16).
The rich man was told in vs. 25,
"25 But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Laz′arus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. " (RSV)
because the rich man had no thought for those less blessed, or in dire circumstances and did not help those he saw in need.
"37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’" (Matt. 25:37-10, RSV)
The model of Jesus life was of total reliance on his Father. He consistently said he could do nothing of himself, his words were the Father's and his lead in all things was the Father. Jesus models the epitome of humility.
A rich man, which is a 'type' of men who are reliant on themselves, in this case wealth, which according to the 'world of deception and self-centredness' is of more value than God. Pride, the opposite of humility robs one of seeing things God's way.
Jesus' whole (chapter/life) narrative is that of seeing God's purposes in life, he then expresses this 'vista' in scenarios about children, marriage, and money!
Wealth (the love of money is the root of all evil - 1 Timothy 6:10) is perhaps one of the toughest things to hand over to God in order to enter the kingdom. He said it was 'hard', not impossible.
We are willing to give God much in our lives, some their very life. But to part with what we value most (money, wealth, power...) and express total reliance on God for our needs is only possible by God granting the repentant heart that eventually leads to Him - in this life or the next.
It was a common belief that God blesses the righteous and causes calamity to the wicked. We can see this paradigm in Job's three friends (who take his calamity as direct evidence of his iniquity), and of Jesus' disciples when they notice the man blind from birth (John 9:2).
With this in mind, unless there was direct evidence that a man was wicked (that being direct knowledge of some wrong done), this paradigm led people to believe that rich people were more or less righteous in God's eyes, and their wealth was the mark of God's favor.
So when Jesus said that getting into heaven was especially difficult for the rich, this was a game-changer for His listeners. If even the people who bear in this life the marks of God's favor have a hard time entering heaven, then the people who do not have this favor must have very little chance at all.
We have the curious phrase referenced in the title of the post, and on the surface it does look like it is impossible for a rich man to enter heaven, and that is how it is understood by the hearers of that time. But if Jesus had wanted to say that it is impossible, He could have said so plainly and directly.
But he didn't, because it is possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. If you first cut the camel into exceedingly small pieces, the camel can be threaded through.
This is a radical transformation of the camel, and the camel would not be recognizable once this operation was completed.
And that's the point. To turn a man who has lived entirely for this world into a man who is ready to enter heaven is a transformation so radical that getting a camel through the needle is a minor operation by comparison, and those who deal with such a man after this transformation will agree that in his conduct they recognize nothing of the man they knew before.
Such a transformation is impossible for a man to carry out on himself by his own wisdom. But if that rich man will allow God to bring about the transformation, it can happen.
Rich Man in Matthew 19:24
Matthew 19:20-26 (NIV)
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
The young man went away sad, unable to think about losing his wealth. Obviously he loved his possessions more than he loved God.
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus then turns to his disciples and says something odd, that astounds them.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus certainly did not mean that no rich person will enter the kingdom of God, for he went on to say, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”(Vs 26)
24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
It is evident from 1 Timothy 6:17 below that with the help of God, some wealthy people in the first century did become worthy to enter the kingdom of God.
1 Timothy 6:17 (NET Bible)
17 Command those who are rich in this world’s goods[a] not to be haughty or to set their hope on riches, which are uncertain,[b] but on God who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment.
Jesus was obviously giving a warning, the rich young man was attached to his worldly possessions, such possessions could become a barrier to worshipping God wholeheartedly. Wealthy people may tend to place more trust in the protection and the comfort that their wealth provides them, and may even feel that they do not need the support of God, thus making them less conscious of their spiritual needs. (Mat.5:3)