Even though it is a challenging reading, even Jesus is blunt and even though what Jesus asks seems impossible. I really like this reading from Marks gospel. It begins with someone looking to go deeper into his faith and looking to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give it to the poor and follow him. It’s a hard request – especially when we have so much in this part of the world. But even though it hard, there is something special about the it. Woven through the challenging parts is good news for us. We hear the same story in Matthew with one important difference. It happens in verse 21. “Jesus, looked at him, loved him...” The starting place for Jesus’ challenge is love. That’s what makes the good news good. Jesus looks at him … looks at us and loves us. Everything after that is somehow manageable even it is hard, even if it seems impossible.
In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus is leaving – likely at this point a reference for Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and crucifixion. When a man comes up and kneels before Jesus and says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) Jesus reminds him that only God is good and then says, “‘You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’” (Mark 10:19) I imagine the man in our reading creating a check list in his mind, going – do that, do that, do that. Then he tells Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” (Mark 10:20)
It is then that we have the all important verse 21. “Jesus, looked at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) I’m guessing that Jesus knows before the words are out of his mouth, that the man is not going to be able to follow through. I’m guessing that Jesus knows his big ask is going to diminish this man’s desire to take the next step in his quest for faith. What Jesus asks is counter cultural and demanding. And it doesn’t even matter the time period – then or now it is hard.
Then and now wealth and prosperity are viewed as blessings from God above. If you have a lot then somehow God is smiling down upon you. You don’t need to look very hard today for signs this understanding of God. I’m sure you’ve heard it. “If you work hard enough, if you pray hard enough, then God will grant you the gifts of success and wealth.” In the world of the spiritual but not religious you hear the same kind of messages, people say things like, “You just need to visualize success and it will come to you because you’ve focused your positive energy on success and wealth.”
It’s a nice theory. But we’ve all met people whose faith is deep and abiding whose lives aren’t filled with success and wealth. We’ve met people who’ve visualized a better life and it never happens. So there is a problem with seeing wealth and success as a sign of God’s blessing. God’s love is for everyone not just a select few.
What Jesus does in this reading is turn the idea of wealth as blessing upside down. Instead of being a blessing, wealth is what is keeping you from taking the next step in faith. I’m not sure that Jesus’ problem was necessarily with young man’s wealth so much as with what happens to people who choose wealth as their master. When something like wealth becomes your master then the priority becomes accumulating more, instead of looking inward at faith and looking outward to the people who need help. Jesus’ teaching in the previous chapters have focused on storing treasure in heaven and reminding people that you cannot serve two masters.
When the rich man walks away shocked and grieving, because he has many possessions, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “How hard will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23) And the disciples can’t understand what Jesus is saying. Perhaps they are thinking if the wealthy – in their mind the blessed ones—can’t get into heaven then what chance do we have? Jesus, notices their confusion says, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” (Mark 10:26) You can imagine what the disciples’ reaction is going to be. “What are you talking about Jesus?” Especailly when you remember that many of the disciples left everything behind to follow Jesus. So they ask “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus then gets to the heart of the story. Jesus looks at the disciples and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Mark 10: 27) Jesus is pointing us to something bigger. It is God who makes the impossible possible. When Jesus looked at the rich man and loves him before he tells him what he must do, changes the story. Jesus doesn’t tell the rich man to go and sell everything because he is testing him or because he is trying to make a point about wealth or set an impossible task for him. Jesus loves him right then and there as he is. Jesus knows that grace will be offered and that even though he walks away grieving, God is still at work. And if this man is willing to keep asking deep questions of faith, who knows what will be possible in the future.
Jesus then offers one last teaching. He says, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive hundredfold now in this age houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecution and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:29 – 30) Sometimes I’ve heard the news of the first being last and the last being first as challenging or unfair. When I was listening to the Pulpit Fiction podcast this week, I heard something I’d never heard or thought about before. Even if you are last in the kingdom of God, you are still in the kingdom of God. It opened my eyes to the amazing good news that is offered to each one of us. Jesus says to the disciples, whether you are first or last everyone has the gift of eternal life in God’s kingdom. It is not about who is getting left out because everyone has a place in God’s kingdom.
There are no exceptions to this. It doesn’t matter if we walk away grieving because we can’t seem to go the next step in our faith. It doesn’t matter that we can’t quit seem to give up everything to follow Jesus. The most important thing is that we strive to follow Jesus by caring for the world and helping others. As we travel the road of faith, we have the promise of grace which makes all the difference. The good news is for us all – the first, the last, for you and for me. God’s grace makes the impossible possible. And it is by God’s grace means we all find our place in God’s kingdom. What remains is to give thanks for this grace each day. Thanks be to God. Amen.