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?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 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.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 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.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
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!” 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! 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.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 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, 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:17-31 ESV)
Today’s Gospel presents us with Jesus’ comments on discipleship after his encounter with the man who ran up to him, knelt before him and asked about eternal life. The man’s question and Jesus’ response and the man’s reaction was last Sunday’s Gospel but we’ve heard it again today so that Jesus’ message to his disciples has a context. In his teaching at this time, Jesus gives a picture of discipleship that doesn’t talk so much about behaviour but about relationships.
The man has interrupted Jesus’ departure after blessing the children. Mark gives us no additional details – it is Matthew and Luke who tell us that he is a young man and that he is a ruler of some sort. Whereas the questions Jesus gets asked – think of the earlier ‘Is lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ from the Pharisees – often have a sting in the tail designed to trap Jesus into trouble, in this case, the question seems genuine – like that an idealistic young man would ask – someone zealous for the kingdom of God – who had become aware that a teacher – a rabbi – was nearby who gave sound answers that enriched the soul. His zeal causes him to make a faux pas as he calls Jesus ‘Good Teacher’ – a term not used for Jewish Rabbis – to which Jesus replies by reminding him that only God alone is good.
Jesus then cites the second table of the 10 Commandments – the ones focusing on our relationship with others. He might have summarised it all as ‘love your neighbour’ but in this case he enumerates them and the man ticks them in his head as he reviews his life. The younger we are the more shallow or superficial we look at things – and maybe especially ourselves; with age comes an awareness of depth as the men who held stones to throw at the woman in adultery discovered when Jesus said to them ‘Let he is who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’ (John 8:7) and they departed one by one, beginning with the eldest. I don’t read duplicity here in the young man, just idealistic ignorance which meant he could genuinely put his hand on his heart and say that he hadn’t murdered, committed adultery, and so on. Jesus looks at him and sees him as he is and Mark records – loved him – and replies to his question of inheriting eternal life (which by the way is strictly a gift because you don’t earn an inheritance) by confronting him with his god – what he holds dear – what he trusts above all else – and tells him to sell all he has and give to the poor and follow Jesus.
All the other rabbis would never have said anything like this! 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 man makes no link with the first commandment because his affluent world is blessed by God and gives him the space to be religious and zealous for God but on his terms. Remember his question begins ‘What must I do …?’. Sadly however he is blind to what is in front of him – or better still, who is in front of him. The man doesn’t make the connection – he calls Jesus ‘good’ which he should only do for God, asks about inheriting eternal life and Jesus’ reply can be summarised ‘Come, follow me’ which is blasphemy … unless Jesus is God!
And as the man departs disheartened and sorrowful, we might imagine the cameras panning back and we suddenly realise that this isn’t just a scene between two people but there have been onlookers up to now out of sight. We notice them because Jesus actually turns to them and comments at the difficulty for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. Those who hold onto things don’t have space to receive the gift God wants to give. The camel can’t go through the eye of a needle! However wealth is regarded usually as a blessing from God so now even the disciples are stunned – what is the cost of eternal life? ‘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.’
There’s that echo again … all things are possible with God … and what did Jesus simply tell the man? ‘Follow me.’ These links between Jesus and God are blasphemous if Jesus isn’t God but if he is then the world is changing because God is present. Peter makes a connection of sorts but – as it is with human beings, he sees it from his perspective, from his works, from his righteousness – ‘See, we have left everything and followed you.’ he begins to say and we’re not sure what he wants to say – or for that matter what exactly he meant. It is obvious that the disciples – not just the 12 – but also at some stage the 70 – and we know from Luke 8 that various women journeyed with them and helped them with the wherewithals of living – spent considerable time with Jesus. I wonder whether we just have this view that they were a sort of hippy band travelling around the countryside for three years but there are references to Jesus going home, to Peter going home (otherwise Jesus couldn’t have healed his mother-in-law) and the fact that the fishermen among them left their nets doesn’t mean that they never went back to them. Jewish pupils did spend long times with their rabbis but not all the time. The truth is that we don’t know the precise details of the time spent with Jesus compared to time at home but that they were with Jesus when they could have been at home is not disputed.
Jesus replies – or counters perhaps Peter’s claim of works righteousness – by giving a picture promise of what discipleship looks like – it’s a thumbnail sketch of the church – a picture Christians who have travelled for the last 2000 years often identify with. Christians who live in the same place for most of their lives probably see this less but it is still there. When you follow Jesus you’re never an island – never alone – and what you leave – traditionally described as home and family – is now given a hundredfold. This may surprise you but Jesus is usually pretty scathing about families – often they are a hindrance almost in the kingdom 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 backwards that families should be like the church – following Jesus, receiving forgiveness, living in that forgiveness, and working to serve one another.
Jesus’ picture of discipleship however is interesting to me in the relationship he doesn’t mention leaving and in the relationship he doesn’t mention receiving a hundredfold.
‘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, 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.’
I find it interesting that spouse isn’t mentioned in leaving – one’s husband and wife if you’re married is part of you – one flesh – and so I believe it is implied in this picture that married couples work together in their discipleship – in agreement – supporting each other if one of them does serve the church in some way but it is for a time and any separation is just geography because they’re both involved. It would be similar to a military deployment where not only the deployed person is serving his or her country but his or her family is also.
I find it interesting that one doesn’t receive a hundredfold of fathers – even though you might leave one. Of course when you have a heavenly Father who isn’t absent but present and caring, one can understand this reality.
This support – this promise from God – is part of following Jesus – and together the members of the church face the world and receive from the world – two little words – that is a spiritual reality we’d prefer not to experience and we ignore at our peril – ‘with persecutions’. The world does not just go away despondent and sad but is quick also to turn and in anger attack the church. If the world can do what it did to Jesus, why do we expect anything less?! The fact that we might live in a time and place where persecutions are not open doesn’t mean they are not happening – for they come in many forms – insidious – with smiling faces even and urbane intellectual arguments – anything to get us not to follow Jesus – turn away from his cross – doubt his word. And so God brings us together to help and support each other as fellow disciples, fellow sinners, beggars together all holding out our empty hands for God’s grace – and living confidently in that grace given to us through words, water, bread and wine.
Jewish disciples didn’t want to always be one. The point of all that learning is to become a rabbi and have your own disciples. Not so in the kingdom of God – for those who live an eternal life beginning here on earth – want nothing more than to forever be disciples of this Jesus who reveals the face of God to us and shows us unmistakably his love. Jesus, crucified on a rubbish dump, shows us the way to live – serve others – in the church and the world – and that we are not alone.
- Mark 10:17 - 31