Good God?! … Yes … that means Jesus!
17 And as [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:17-31 ESV)
The story of the rich man who wanted to follow Jesus and didn’t and the account of the disciples who followed Jesus but always struggled are stories of discipleship. I think they are two aspects of the same topic and should be heard and considered together – precisely because they happened together – and so I am again ruffling the feathers of the lectionary compliers and combining today’s and next Sunday’s Gospel. As with much of what Jesus said and did, a lot of ink has been spent on whether we should sell all we have and give to the poor or leave home, family, and country for Jesus and the Gospel. Whether we should do such things depends on how we regard today’s Gospel – how we answer the question, ‘How is it God’s Word for me?’.
Let’s consider the first scene, a man interrupts Jesus’ departure – Jesus has been blessing the little children – and asks a question that is weird in two ways. Firstly he says ‘Good Teacher’ – a term not used for Jewish Rabbis – and it is significant that Jesus reminds him that only God is good. And secondly, he is asking about inheriting eternal life but talking about earning it when an inheritance is a gift. Matthew and Luke describe this fellow as a ‘young’ man and I think it is easy to imagine his youthful zeal – his self analysis that he hasn’t done wrong according to the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Commandments – and Jesus looks at him carefully – and loves him, Mark records – and specifically says to him in that moment – ‘sell everything and come, follow me’. The issue is not commandments 4-8 per se but the 1st Commandment. Who really is his God? He needs to have empty hands to receive the gift of eternal life. Such a gift is never a wage. The man departs disheartened because to follow Jesus is to lose a sense of control, power, autonomy, to be in a relationship with someone else before his relationship with himself. The power of wealth is to give us the means to do what we want when we want and to be able to respond with some control to circumstances thrown at us. The god of wealth in his heart is more important than the God who stands before him.
And I say ‘God’ to describe Jesus – who said that only ‘God is good’ – because at this point Jesus is a bad Rabbi! No other Rabbi would have said what Jesus had said! At most they may have recommended that one fifth of possessions could be given away. The rabbis rejected poverty as a lifestyle pleasing to God – ‘It is worse than all the plagues of Egypt (Babha B. 116); then all other miseries (Betsah 32 b); the worst affliction that could befall a man (Shem. R. 31)’ (Cited by A Edersheim (1945). The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Vol 2: 342.) The young man makes no link with the 1st Commandment because his affluent world though blessed by God and gives him the space to be religious and zealous for God but blinds him to do so on his terms and Jesus has just told him ‘follow me’, which is blasphemy because you only follow God with this intensity … unless Jesus is God – and therefore good!
We imagine the man knows how to use and trust his wealth but can he trust Jesus? Can he follow Jesus? He leaves disheartened. And it is Jesus who points out what is happening to his disciples – that it is hard for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God because those who hold onto things don’t have space left to receive the gift God wants to give.
If the eye of a needle is a gate that only an unladen camel can go through, one won’t enter the Kingdom of God with all one’s goods and assets. Even the world knows “you can’t take it with you”. But now the disciples are stunned because wealth was regarded as God blessing you! “Then who can be saved?” they ask. And the same answer is given – if one has ears to hear – as Jesus looks at them just as he looked at the young man, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God”.
God makes discipleship possible. God makes it possible to follow Jesus.
Something clicks in Peter’s mind, “See, we have left everything and followed you” and he’s seeing things from his human perspective, from his actions. Is it also from his righteousness? But we don’t know the full details here and by that I mean did the disciples stay on the road with Jesus for three years, never going home or did they, like other disciples, spend time with their Rabbi and time at home – usually earning money to go back to their Rabbi? We don’t know the details but that they spent time with Jesus when they could have been home is undisputed.
And now Jesus gives a thumbnail sketch of what following him is like – that when you are away from home – you are never alone! In fact you receive hundredfold home and family – Jesus says, “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” – and they are not based on blood or DNA but in him. By the way, did you notice that there are no fathers mentioned – because we all have a heavenly Father – and persecutions are mentioned – and we’d all rather they weren’t. Discipleship will not be unnoticed in the world and the world will not congratulate you for following Jesus.
Jesus is silent about spouses. If you have one, you don’t leave them – you are one flesh – and that means that following Jesus for a married Christian couple is about being disciples together, supporting each other, particularly if they are going away from home and family – in a way that might be similar to a military service that involves both the military person and her or his family – they all are serving their country.
Why is there such support for those disciples particularly who follow Jesus away from home and family? Because there are persecutions too. This may surprise you but Jesus is usually pretty scathing about families – often they are a hindrance almost in the Kingdom of God because they claim an allegiance above God himself – so Jesus here isn’t saying that the Church is like a family but rather it works the other way that families should be like the church – following Jesus, receiving forgiveness, living in that forgiveness, and working to serve one another – whether at home or away from home, even in a foreign land.
So what do we get from listening to Jesus today and his response to the young man and to his disciples? Are we to sell everything? Are we to leave father and mother and move somewhere else?
In both scenes, Jesus makes it clear that life in the Church – and eternal life – is a gift from God. The question becomes, ‘Are we beggars – do we have empty hands to receive the gift – do we trust Jesus?’ Do our possessions, our assets have power over us or we over them? Of course, the ultimate power is being able to give them up, sell them, use them as we follow Jesus. When and how we might do so is between you and Jesus.
And when it comes to following Jesus whether we are 17 or 77, where will we go – suburb-wise, work-wise, situation-wise? – are questions we can ask whether that means a physical move or not. For Christians all our life decisions remain ours but with the added questions, ‘Jesus, what do you want me to do? Where do you want me to serve?’. Discipleship is not about Sunday only but about every day.
And why would we want to give Jesus such a priority, such importance, in our lives? Should we? If he’s not God, this is idolatry at worst and delusional at best giving Jesus such importance in your life.
Why indeed? Because Jesus is good! That is what his life on Earth, and his crucifixion, and resurrection reveal – that this good God has come not to be served but to serve – us – you and me – and yes, he is the one to follow, the only one to hold onto, and to go wherever he leads and we will never be alone!
- Mark 10:17 - 31