20 PENTECOST, PROPER XXIII - B - 15 MARK 10. 17-31
Jesus is on his way to the region of Judea, and from there to Jerusalem, and the cross. His disciples are accompanying him. It seems that with every step he takes, every town or village he enters, every individual he encounters, an opportunity arises to teach his disciples about the true nature of the kingdom of God and how one is to enter it; the young man kneeling before him being no exception.
The young man’s question of Jesus is not a test, as were the previous questions of the Pharisees, but a genuine seeking of spiritual advise. He is in a state of spiritual dissatisfaction. His practice of religion to this point has been formal. Formal observance of the commandments, however, does not make one righteous before God.
Jesus quizzes him and the young man gives the proper response. But he still feels something is missing, thus he presses Jesus for the answer. Jesus sees in his nature some lovable qualities, so much so, that he invites him to join the disciples and make the journey with him. But the invitation does not come without a cost.
Christ gives him a series of directives: “go, sell, and give away all that you have, then, come and follow me.” Selling and giving away were the easiest of Jesus’ directives; following him in all things is a far greater and more difficult challenge. Obviously Jesus’ response was not the answer the young inquirer was hoping for.
As many times as I have read this passage, cited it, and preached on it, there is a most profound aspect that continues to stand out, at least to me, and that is the fact that Jesus gives this unnamed young man the same call as he gave to Simon and Andrew, James and John and Matthew. They had left all and followed him, and they would one day receive in return life eternal, the very thing this man aspired. But he could not brace himself to answer the call, for his wealth was more to him than his aspirations. So he goes away sorrowful, as I imagine Jesus was to see him go.
The lesson to the rich young man having ended, Jesus now turns his attention to his disciples. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” To make his point, Jesus uses a well-know proverb. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he quotes, “than someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples are “dumbfounded” at Jesus’ comment about the rich inheriting the kingdom. For the disciples, along with much of the society of the day, assumed that wealth made possible the performance of religious duties. Thus they question among themselves “if not the rich, then who?”
Jesus’ use of the camel going through the eye of a needle was obviously a proverbial and paradoxical expression for something so difficult as to practically be impossible - at least from a human standpoint. Not so for God. Jesus is not saying that Christians cannot hold property. What he is saying is that we must be aware of the “temptation of wealth.”
Wealth often deadens spiritual aspirations and desires, and acts as a great deterrent to discipleship. Christ used the “eye of the needle” to magnify the impossibility of salvation for those who are attached to riches or anything else in this world; for to cling so tightly to earthly things inhibits one’s ability to draw close to God and in the end leaves one spiritually dissatisfied.
The answer for “spiritual satisfaction” does not lie in strict obedience, even if it could be done. The essential requirement is complete “renunciation” of all worldly dependencies and complete dependence and trust in God. The “law of the kingdom” is undivided allegiance whatever hinders that must be given up. Salvation is a gift from God not something we can earn, obtain on our own, or even deserve.
At the close of the passage Peter, having recovered somewhat from the shock of Jesus’ comments, reminds Christ, as if he needed reminding, that he and the rest of the disciples had done what the rich young man refused to do, viz left everything and followed him. Jesus assures Peter, and the rest of his disciples, that their willing sacrifice will be rewarded.
To “renounce” means to voluntarily give up. Jesus is acknowledging that they have done just that. One must be willing to sacrifice all and follow Christ. Nothing is gained unless the sacrifice is freely given. The specifics, however, of how one follows Christ will be different for each of us. Because wealth had such a grip on the rich young man, his only hope was to sell and give away all of his possessions.
There is always a cost to discipleship. There is no “cheap grace.” Once the initial cost has been made, the requirement for sacrifice continues as Jesus so aptly reminds his disciples. Sacrifices and even persecutions, in some cases, are to be expected in following Christ. We need not look beyond the recent mass shooting in our own country to see that this is true today.
Entrance into the kingdom is not only difficult for the rich, but for all who choose to follow Christ and walk the way of the cross. The “compensation,” however, for such sacrifices and persecutions in this life is already laid up in “the age to come” for those who remain faithful to the end. AMEN+