21 PENTECOST, PROPER XXIII - B - 18 MARK 10. 17-31
For the past several weeks in our gospel readings Jesus has been teaching his chosen band what it means to be a disciple. He is teaching them by what he says and what he is doing that obviously has the effect of changing the lives of those who encounter him, who hear what he saying about God and his kingdom, and who open their hearts to receive his word.
The disciple’s “on the job training” continues as they travel with Jesus from Galilee to Judea and the surrounding area. As they prepare for yet another journey a young man, I say that because he ran up to Jesus, and knelt before him, asks the question we all should be asking but assume we already know the answer. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The young man was serious in his quest but was not prepared for the answer he received. There is a cost to discipleship. That cost is different for each of us in terms of what it is we have to give up that is preventing us from following Jesus.
For this individual it was what he valued most - his earthly possessions, which according to Mark he had plenty of. Sadly, he estimated the cost of following Jesus to be much too high and turned away disappointed. Jesus can see that the disciples are dumb-founded. They don’t get it. If a rich man is unable to enter the kingdom, then who is?
Jesus admits that it is not that easy to enter the kingdom. Not because God does not desire that we should all be there, but because we make it difficult to enter by holding tightly to the things of this world we value even more than the heavenly riches that await us. It has to do with choice.
It calls for a total divestment of any and all that would hinder one from doing so. To make his point, Jesus uses an old proverb. “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.”
I never quite got the image of a camel trying to go through “the eye of the needle” until I was in Germany with Army several years ago. Among the various sights I visited were ancient medieval cities. They were built as fortresses for the most part with huge battlements and narrow entry gates.
On either side of the main gate were some small passageways that were made up of twists and turns and were short in height. They were intended to be defensive measures that would slow down an advancing enemy. Soldiers could only enter one at a time.
In order to do so they would have to drop whatever they were carrying, like shields, heavy armor, etc., anything that would prohibit their attempt to navigate the “eye of the needle,” as it is still called. In Jesus’ day, many of the cities in the region were also built with similar defensive measures.
The disciples get the message. It is impossible. They are well aware that a heavily laden camel cannot do it and now Jesus is saying that a rich man cannot do it. “Then who can be saved?” Jesus is not saying that Christians cannot hold property; the law of the kingdom is individual allegiance. What hinders that must be given up.
When it comes to the question of entering the kingdom, there are some of us who know we are not worthy to get into heaven. None of us is. Only by God’s grace will any of us obtain that goal. There are those, however, who like the rich young man who ran up to Jesus in today’s story and rattled off his religious report card, hope that is all they need to be guaranteed a seat at the heavenly banquet. Hope is the optimal word, for even he was not sure.
Obedience alone will not lead to salvation. The young man is a Jew, in whose heart riches are slowly dethroning God. In his case, the required cost of following Jesus was complete renunciation of all his worldly dependencies. In their place comes the acceptance of salvation as God’s gift in the form of Trust and Faith.
Alas, the value of his earthly possessions meant more to him than his spiritual aspirations. What Christ is trying to teach his followers is that to hold tightly to the things of this world which we deem valuable deadens one’s spiritual aspirations and desires and acts as a deterrent to discipleship.
Salvation is something that only the grace and power of God can accomplish. In this man’s case, the giving away of all his possessions is the least of Christ’ instructions to him - following Christ is a far greater challenge as it is to each of us.
After thinking about it for a moment, Peter speaks up and asks Jesus, “What about us? Lord, we have left everything and followed you.” Peter is claiming that he and the other disciples have done what the young man refused to do.
Jesus acknowledges their sacrifice with a promise. Those who have left everything for “my sake and the sake of the gospel” will receive their reward now and in the age to come will have eternal life. But remember, Jesus tells them, man’s values are not necessarily God’s.
Did the disciples finally understand? Do we? We can’t blame the disciples for being slow learners. They too, like all of us, were carrying lots of baggage as they traveled with Jesus. They learned as they continued to follow him what it meant to be a disciple.
Little by little, they began to give up their way of thinking about God and His kingdom and gradually began to see what Jesus was saying. In light of that revelation, they began to examine their own relationship to God. That is the way salvation comes to any of us.
Formal observation of the Commandments does not make one righteous before God. Think about it. If any of us were to run up to Jesus today and asked what we had to do in order to get into heaven would we be prepared for the answer?
Jesus saw in the young man great possibilities and gave to him the same call as he issued to Simon, Andrew, James and John and all the rest: “Come, follow me.” For he saw in each of them, as He sees in each of us, great possibilities.
However, if we hold tightly to earthly possessions we will not be able to open our hands to receive what God is offering. To be perfect one must be willing to sacrifice all to follow Jesus. In their place come the acceptance of salvation as God’s gift and with it the promise of Jesus of eternal life. AMEN+