Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 11, 2015

Mark 10:17-31 Commentary

Comments and Observations:

Don’t forget, bracket out, or lose sight of verses 10-13!!  This Lectionary text may include only Mark 10:17-31 but trust me: the four verses prior are the kicker.

Here’s why:

Picture the scene:  Jesus has just lifted his hands off the heads of the little children he had been blessing.  His words are still hanging in the air: “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom like a little child will never enter it . . .”  Picture like a cartoon word cloud hanging over Jesus’ head.  Jesus had just said that.  He had just removed his hand from the precious brows of those little kids.  Then he turns around and immediately this well-to-do young man plunks himself down in front of Jesus to ask his question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

You half expect Jesus to say, “Funny you should ask!  I was just talking about that very thing.  See those little ones scurrying away holding their parents’ hands or being carried by their mothers?  Go and be like those little ones and you’ll be on the right track.”  But Jesus doesn’t say that, of course.  Instead he takes what surely he himself knew to be a wrong-headed question and simply addresses it head on.

Well, almost.  Jesus will get there but he takes a bit of a roundabout way to get to the point.

“Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.”  Near as I can tell, this means one of two things (and maybe it can mean both at the same time when you get right down to it): it means either that if this title of “good” fits Jesus, then he is himself true God in human form OR it means that if being good by doing good—the premise of the young man’s question—is the way to inherit the kingdom, then a person had better be as good as God or else he could have no hope of ever getting into the kingdom.

Either way or both ways, it looks like a focus on “good” from the human side of things might very well not advance anyone’s cause when it comes to kingdom membership or entry.  Even so, Jesus proceeds to tick off some of the commandments, eliciting from the earnest young man the response, “All these have I kept since I was a boy.”

Since I was a boy.  Since I was a boy.  In other words, ever since he left childhood and infancy behind; ever since he had exited that rotten stage of life when the only thing he had been able to produce was dirty diapers—ever since he had ceased to be like those urchins whom Jesus had just blessed and whose status in life Jesus had just highlighted as somehow necessary for inclusion in the kingdom—ever since that loser period of his life had been put behind him, this young man had done it all right.  His whole life was like one big shiny bauble to be presented to God, who would then reward the man according to all he had done.  Of course, he had had to leave childhood behind to do all that but, thanks be to God, he had indeed done so.  There was nothing of the child left in him now!  He was his own man—a self-made man at that!

This young man was less interested in inheriting the kingdom and more interested in earning it.  Indeed, he was pretty sure he had earned it already.

To be honest, if I detected the kind of moral hubris I suspect characterized this young man, my jaw would tighten a bit.  A slew of unflattering adjectives for describing his life would start to rise up in my mind.  Arrogant.  Cocky.  Pompous.  That’s what I would have thought.  But Mark 10:21 is one of those (many, many, many) passages in the New Testament that nicely reminds me of at least some of what differentiates me from my Savior.

Because Mark tells us that Jesus looked at this man and flat out loved him.  Jesus knew the truth.  Jesus knew the man was no plastic saint.  Jesus knew that although this was a good moral specimen he was not a perfect moral specimen (there is no one who is truly good after all; viz., God) and so the young fellow was just deluding himself if he thought he had a 4.0 moral GPA going, a peerless moral credit rating, a life of virtue greater than which none could be conceived.  Jesus knew all that was silliness (and anyway that it had nothing to do with entry into the kingdom).

But he loved him anyway.

Jesus loved him so much, he couldn’t bear to let him persist in this backward way to gain the kingdom.  So he goes for the chink in the man’s moral armor and tells him to do the one thing that the man would find pretty tough—if not impossible—to do.  Sell it all.  Give it all up.  At this the man’s face fell so far so fast that Jesus probably winced.  And if the man walked away sad, you can be sure Jesus felt sad, too.

“Kingdom entry is hard on the rich” Jesus said.  But it’s not really about the money as it turns out.  What’s hard on the rich is dispensing with the idea that they can buy their way in, that they can get into the kingdom the same way they’ve snagged everything else in life.  What’s hard is to dispense with the idea that being successful has something to do with everything, including being in good with God.  What’s hard, in other words, is for the people who have arrived at the top to go back down to the bottom to become like little children again.

Remember that theme song from the old TV show “The Jeffersons”?  The song was all about getting rich, making some money.

Well we’re moving on up—moving on up—to the East Side! 

To a deee-luxe apartment in the sky! 

We’re moving on up! 

We’ve finally got our piece of the pie.

That’s how it goes in life, and few know this better than the rich and the successful because they’ve spent their lives aiming at just this upward mobility, at arriving at the top of the rock, at the penthouse in the sky from which to look down on the sad masses below.

“Children” Jesus says to the disciples in verse 24.  Children.  It’s hard to get into the kingdom when you try to get in.  But you know how it goes for little children who don’t know how the world works yet and who don’t care.  They don’t try to do anything, they just exist and get all the love that comes their way.  They wake up in a loving family in which they receive grace after grace.  When you’re really little, you sometimes even think that the whole world was arranged just for you, and so it’s merely startling to learn somewhere along the line that there was once a time when it was just mom and dad and no kids, when “mom” was not “mom” at all but just Vicki, the wife of Rick (who was also not yet known as “dad”).  “You mean there was a time without me?”  (It’s even more disheartening to realize that mom and dad even had a lot of fun in those pre-you days!)

We can all look back at such childish thoughts and laugh at how silly we once were.  How childish to think that the little world in which you grew up and of which you slowly became conscious as a child had always existed!  How silly.

Then again, something of that naïve attitude, something of that wonderful ability just to receive what is given without worrying about how to build up your own set of accomplishments by which to try to become worthy of receiving anything good at all: there is something about all of that which is not really child-ISH at all.

It’s child-LIKE, and it’s how the kingdom comes, too.

Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:

Will a camel ever get through the eye of a needle?  Is this about effort?  I once read a commentary that claimed that surely here Jesus referred to something in Jerusalem called “The Needle Gate.”  It was narrow enough to make things tough on a bulky camel but if this is what Jesus meant, then a stripped-down, lean, mean camel who’s been on a diet and practicing a really steady walking gait for hours on end might make it through the gate.  In this case Jesus’ words were the equivalent of “If you try hard enough, you’ll make it.”

That, however, was most assuredly not Jesus’ point.  We’re talking real camels and real needles here and if this was an example of hyperbole from our Lord, it’s hardly the only one.  Jesus loved talking about logs in people’s eyes and swallowing camels whole.  But every time Jesus used such a hyperbole it was in service of a pretty important point.  Jesus used the ridiculous—someone’s walking around with a tree protruding from his head yet worrying about a speck of sawdust in another person’s eye—to convey important theological truths.

In the case of Mark 10 the point of the ridiculous image was to say that those trying to leap-frog into the kingdom under their own power needed to stop.  Getting the camel through the needle’s eye is not a matter of technique.  This is not some video game like “Angry Birds” where eventually you can go to a “cheat code” website to figure out the trick of where to aim that first bird to get the highest score possible.  This isn’t a matter of playing the odds as though the camel will get through the needle’s eye if only you try often enough the way you might eventually get the baseball to go through the small hole at the carnival arcade if only you keep throwing long enough.

None of that will work.  The point of this image is “Stop trying.”  Quit.  The point of the image is to create exactly the demoralization the young man in Mark 10 felt.

But was that to be the end of it for Jesus?  No, the hope was to have the young man come back to ask “Is there another way?”  Oh yes, there is.  It’s called the miracle of divine grace.

In a memorable sermon on the last line from John’s Gospel (“if everything Jesus said and did were recorded, the world could not contain the books that would be written”), Fred Craddock talked a lot about Jesus’ hyperbolic speech.  Along the way Craddock noted the sheer ludicrous nature of hyperbole but then brought things around to the point where you realized that some things—like the Gospel of salvation through Christ, for instance—simply require hyperbole.  Hyperbole might end up being a literal form of framing things after all.  In fact, since Jesus created and redeemed the entire world, maybe it really is true that the scope of Jesus’ work (if written down) would fill the whole world because it just IS the whole world!

So also here: with human beings, it’s impossible to get a camel through a needle’s eye.  And I am that camel.  So are you.  The point of Mark 10 is to stop trying, to let go and let God, and then to sit back in amazement when—beyond all comprehension or anything you could have ever predicted—we see that old camel slip right on through that needle’s eye!

This must be the kind of thing that gave rise to the old Fannie Crosby song “And Can It Be!?”

Textual Points:

Childhood really does seem to be a constitutive theme of this passage.  Indeed, from verse 10 through verse 24, Mark uses a battery of Greek words.  The little ones in verse 13 are PAIDIA, which is a typical Greek word for little kids.  In verse 20 when the young man says he had kept all the commandments “since I was a boy,” the Greek word there is NEOTETOS, which is a more generic word for “youth” or for someone of a young age.  Finally, by the time you get to verse 24 where Jesus addresses the disciples as “children,” Jesus uses the Greek word TEKNA.  This variety of words may not mean a lot all by itself but it does point to the fact that Mark is very cleverly working in the larger theme of youth, of child-likeness, of the humility of little kids.  It really is a theme of this passage and we will not understand Jesus’ words to the rich young man unless we weave in this overarching theme of humility and having the openness to receive the kingdom as a gift on account of our recognition that we can NEVER earn it on our own.

Illustration Idea:

Paul Scott Wilson once re-imagined the rich young man this way:

“In my mind I see a rich young youth pastor who has heard that Jesus is preaching at a small town, and he speeds over to try to catch Jesus before he leaves.  The young man is ahead of his time in that he drives a black BMW with tinted windows, the kind you cannot see through; low profile tires so they look like they are about two inches deep; low-ride suspension to make it no distance from the road; and a racing exhaust system that sounds like the name of its manufacturer: Vibrant Muffler.  In the trunk and where the backseat used to be are amplifiers and speakers that make the whole neighborhood throb with his Christian CDs.  Tddh, thddt, thddt-thddt . . .  Jesus hears the young man before he sees him.  When his car glides to a stop, the ignition is turned off; there is dead silence . . .  The young man emerges from the driver’s side wearing brand name sunglasses and designer shirt and shorts.  He goes over to Jesus: ‘Jesus, it is so awesome that you are here.  I can’t believe it.  It’s so cool!  What must I do to have eternal life?  I keep the commandments . . .  What must I do to have eternal life?’

This young guy has a sense that something is wrong with his life, but he figures it can’t be much since he has been so good.  He knows that something keeps him from being completely at peace with life, but since he is so good, he knows it cannot be much.  Something small in his life needs adjustment: a slight tweaking, some fine-tuning like he gets on his car, a minor correction in the timing, a slight adjustment in the idling speed.

‘You lack one thing for eternal life.’  The young man takes heart.  ‘Take your new sunglasses and your expensive jacket and exchange them for simple clothes; and take your Christian CDs to a pawn shop and sell your BMW in Auto Trader, and give the money to the poor.  And you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’  The young man is shocked . . . He was brokenhearted and went away grieving . . .  And he gets in his car and drives back down the same road he came, utterly dejected, the CD player off.  And he is never to be seen again in the New Testament.  The last we see of him is a small cloud of dust on the horizon as his BMW dips over the horizon into a valley.  But we know where he is headed.  He is headed for Heartbreak Hotel.”

From Broken Words: Reflections on the Craft of Preaching by Paul Scott Wilson, Abingdon, 2004, pp. 67-68.


Preaching Connections:
Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup