Digging into the Text:
Let’s face it, according to Jesus, lots of our congregations are not fertile ground for the gospel. They are rich, at least by the world’s standards, probably middle to upper middle class, and immersed in a consumer culture that glorifies getting more. Here Jesus comes along this Sunday and urges us to tell them, “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a humped camel to get into the kingdom of God.” Uhm, Jesus, could we lighten up on the rhetoric just a bit?
William Willimon used to be the Dean of the Chapel at the prestigious Duke University where most of the students come from rich and upwardly mobile families. He commented that “preaching not only to the young, but also to the affluently young, is about as easy as shoving a fully loaded dromedary through the eye of a needle.”
But that’s our job this week. So how do we go about it?
Well, it’s not as hopeless as it seems. We have this rich man (Matthew describes him also as young) coming to Jesus, actually, kneeling in front of him, asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How often do you get rich people, or anyone for that matter, asking you that kind of question? Not much, I suspect. But here’s a live one.
Jesus picks what seems a strange way to answer, “Why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone.” Jesus is not denying his own goodness, but is affirming that all goodness comes God. Jesus own goodness has its source in the Father’s goodness.
And then Jesus takes the man to Jewish Sunday School. “You know the commandments, don’t you? Like you shall not murder or commit adultery, or defraud. or lie, not to mention honor your father and mother.”
It’s easy for us, steeped in the Reformation’s “salvation by faith alone,” to think that Jesus mention of the Ten Commandments was just a foil to get around to salvation by faith. But Jesus never saw the commandments as a disposable step toward salvation by grace. He took them seriously, and expected that this man would too.
“Oh, yes,” the man says, “I was steeped in the commandments and have observed them since I was a boy.”
“Jesus looked at him and loved him.” There was something about this guy– his earnestness, his eagerness to please, his passion? Or maybe it was the dissatisfaction he was obviously struggling with. Why else would he come to Jesus with such a question, except that he had found his law-abiding but comfortable life less than fully satisfying. .
Jesus just loved him, this rich guy with his searching question. As tough as Jesus might get in this conversation, it’s not for lack of love. Jesus is not trying to put down the rich, demean them, or push them away. He loves them, and, if you want to have any influence with them, you should too.
The problem, of course, is what Jesus now says to him out of this great love. “‘Well, it looks like there’s only one thing left for you to do. Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Let’s face it. This is shocking and there will be some in your congregation who will be tempted, if not to walk away, at least to ignore this whole thing as too radical and demanding. And maybe you’re wondering how in the world you’re going to preach this text without alienating those people, especially the ones who are the backbone of the yearly budget.
It’s important to see that Jesus response has two aspects that belong together. Sell and follow. The sell part indicates the law aspect, and the follow part indicates the faith aspect. And you can’t have one without the other.
“Sell what you have and give it to the poor,” Jesus says. We may like to think that this is merely some spiritual advice given to avoid the idolatry of money. But for Jesus, as with the Old Testament prophets, economic justice is foundational for the Kingdom of God. Abundant wealth next to grinding poverty is unacceptable to God. From a public policy perspective, there may be a number of ways to move toward economic justice. But from a personal perspective, facing Jesus like this rich man, it demands divestment and sharing.
The problem is that Jesus doesn’t say, “You should give some of that money you have away, after all, you don’t need it all. Give some to the poor, and then come and follow me.” If he had said that, no one would blanch or feel depressed about it. Maybe the benevolence budget would have an uptick the next week.
But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says “Give it all away, everything.” The question is, does Jesus demand this of us all? Some commentators make the point that Jesus is talking to this one man. It says he looked at him and loved him and then says exactly what this man needs to hear.
It may be that Jesus saw that this man was trapped in his riches, that it had become an idol that needed to be cast away. On top of that, as many have pointed out, what is the man supposed to do after he impoverishes himself? It’s exceedingly tempting to use these practical issues to blunt the demand itself.
But entering the kingdom of God is not a moderate, sensible thing. It’s a radical new way of life that demands our all. The early Christians pictured in Acts understood this. And in the post-apostolic age, preaching on poverty and wealth was much more commonplace than it is today. Following Jesus always calls for some radical divestment.
The rich guy sadly walks away. And Jesus doesn’t run after him. “Wait, let me explain. It’s not what you think.” No, Jesus lets him walk away shocked and depressed. Jesus has enough sense to let people struggle in their problems rather than give them any easy answer.
Which is an interesting thing for preachers like us to consider. How often are we willing to let people struggle with the tough demands of the gospel rather than sooth them with easy answers? Actually, good therapists do this all the time.
So, the rich guy walks away, and Jesus turns to the disciples, shaking his head, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And just to make it perfectly clear, he continues, “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.”
Now, a lot of ink has been spilled on that one. Is Jesus joking? Does he actually refer to some big gate called “the eye of the needle” through which a camel would have to dump some of its load to get through? That would be nice. But no, I’m afraid not.
Jesus means exactly what he says. The richer we are, the tougher it is to enter the Kingdom of God. That’s just the way it is. And we all understand why. Our God, the one from whom Jesus came, is a jealous God who brooks no rivals. If the rich man felt confident about some of the stipulations of the second table of the law, the real problem was the very first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” And money was such a likely god that it even had a name, Mammon.
I’m pretty sure that Jesus does not demand each and every one of us to totally divest, at least I hope not. On the other hand, I’ve seen it happen over and over, that once people get serious about following Jesus, you will start to see it in the bank account. They start to give away more money and refuse to surround themselves with more stuff. And it’s not because they are trying to buy their way into heaven, but because they are becoming fully devoted citizens of the Kingdom of God.
The radical, seemingly impossible demand of the Kingdom of God was not lost on the disciples. They were astonished. Contemporary Jewish belief had taught them that riches was a sign of God’s blessing, so maybe they looked at that likable rich guy walking away, and wondered, “Who then can ever be saved?”
They are asking our question for us; they are right with us here. “But that’s ridiculous, Lord. If you go around demanding people like that to sell it all, who then can be saved?” The disciples aren’t even sure they qualify.
As I imagine this scene, I think I see a slight smile on Jesus’ face at this point. “Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” What is that supposed to mean?
Notice that so far in this conversation it’s been all about the question, “What must I do?” and Jesus told him. And what Jesus told him turned out to seem impossible. The problem is that they haven’t yet seen it from God’s point of view. What seems impossible with us is possible with God.
It may be harder for the rich to enter the kingdom than shoving a dromedary through the eye of a needle, but it’s not impossible with God. This is where law and grace come together. The very God who demands our all, is the God whose love waits patiently while we struggle to get the point. God calls us to be all in with his Kingdom because he is all in with us.
I like to think that perhaps this rich man who walked away that day might have been one of those who, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension joined the church that Luke describes in Acts 4:32, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” After all, with God all things are possible.
Peter pipes up with the realization that perhaps he and the other disciples were now on the inside of the kingdom of God. After all, they had left everything to follow him. Jesus doesn’t disagree, but he makes the point that you can’t give without gaining. It’s not that we have to grit out teeth as we chalk it all up in the loss column.
No, Jesus says the disciples get back a hundred-fold whatever they lost. And he’s not just talking about heaven, but right here and now. The joy and fulfillment of following the way of Jesus outweighs any loss we might experience. It’s liberating, it’s satisfying, it’s a life of true wholeness.
How many people that you know, who are really sold out to Jesus, run around with sad faces and feel bereft and poor? As Jesus says in John, “ If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15: 11-12)
Preaching the Text
1). As is demonstrated above, the principle I follow in preaching a narrative text has been to follow the story line. It’s sometimes tempting to dig out the principles of the story and preach let them be the driving force of the sermon, but if you give the narrative the lead, the principles will have a better chance of hitting home. Following the story line gives you a chance to tell the story again in your own words, while touching on all the issues it raises. This is much more listenable for your congregation than statements of principle, no matter how true they may be.
2). It’s possible that this text may speak not only to individuals, but the the whole culture of far too many congregations today. Here’s how Eugene Petersen describes it:
The congregation is not about us. It is about God. The operating biblical metaphor regarding worship is sacrifice. But this is not the American way. The major American innovation in the congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise. Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting and requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know that we had. We are insatiable. It didn’t take long for some of our colleagues to develop consumer congregations. If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our churches is to identify what they want and offer it to them. Satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms— entertainment, satisfaction, excitement and adventure, problem-solving, whatever. We are the world’s champion consumers, so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches? (“Transparent Lives,” Christian Century (Nov 29, 2003): 24.
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 14, 2018
Mark 10:17-31 Commentary