Ooops! There goes Jesus again—saying things that totally challenge all that we good American Capitalists hold dear. So inconvenient when the Son of God calls you out on your idols.
This week we look to Mark 10:17-31, and you will all recognize the passage with the rich young man asking Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life. Jesus’ answer doesn’t play well with our typical modern understanding of economics—sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor.
Now I know what you are hoping here. Seth has this way of talking through the scriptures and illuminating some other way to understand this passage that doesn’t challenge us quite so much. Surely, the pastor can make this a bit more palatable…
I have bad news for you. I can’t. This is what Jesus said to the rich young man, and then he goes and makes it worse by saying: “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!…Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
Now at some point in your life you probably heard some well-meaning pastor reveal that the eye of the needle is a small gate in the Jerusalem city wall that was used at night. If you were a merchant that came after the main gates were closed, you would have to unload the camel, convince it to kneel down and scooch through the doorway. That well-meaning pastor probably then turned this into a sermon about humility. It is so much more palatable to think that I can still be rich and just learn some humility and still obtain eternal life—right?!? WRONG! Here is the thing—if you wanted to carry that metaphor out, you would think that what this young rich man was lacking was humility, but if you read the beginning of this passage it is abundantly clear that the young man shows great deference to Jesus, and is humbly seeking Jesus’ wisdom. The young man even kneels before Jesus and refers to him as the “Perfect Teacher.” Those aren’t the actions of a man lacking in humility. [side note here—this is not in reference to any particular pastor, I am responding to something that many of you have brought up this week in Bible Studies. Don’t read this as a critique of anyone—I have given that same sermon myself!]
While the Camel through the Eye of the Needle Part is important, it is not about humility. It is about the other thing a merchant had to do to get the Camel through the eye of the needle—not kneeling humbly, but unloading the camel. In other words, It reaffirms what Jesus already told the young man—sell all your stuff and give it to the poor—UNLOAD!
Alright, I know what you’re thinking at this point—I’m supposed to be making this more palatable and yet, I am only making it worse! Well how about this—Jesus also makes it clear that our access to eternal life has nothing to do with anything we do—it is all about God’s Grace. A cornerstone piece of reformed theology is well stated here by Jesus: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.” The whole eternal life thing is none of our business–it’s God’s.
Jesus is teaching two important things here—first, the young man has done a great job of trying to live a life of faith (even says Jesus looked at him and loved him), but now it is time for him to take the next steps in a life of faith—start fully living as a disciple! Give up the stuff that has come between you and God. Use those gifts to serve others. More on this idea in the sermon on Sunday.
The other important teaching is that eternal life is not something we can achieve by doing. As Jesus said, “It’s impossible with Human Beings.” You aren’t going to get there by playing by all the rules, or even giving away all your stuff, or believing the right things, or going to the right church, or anything else. The point is, eternal life is not up to us. It is up to God.
Jesus even seems to affirm our inability to affect eternal life in the last part. The disciples want to know what they are getting out of this deal where they gave up everything to follow Jesus. The response is both reassuring and disconcerting—you’ll end up with ten times the brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and friends (all the children of God you meet along the journey), but it will also come with persecution/harassment.
This might be the point at which our good capitalist minds are inclined to have a word with Jesus about his approach to marketing. So wait…Doing all this disciple stuff means I have to give up everything and follow you, and I don’t even get eternal life out of the deal? What gives? Jesus, you could be selling this better.
Well, here is what I think is the pay off. Your life will be different. Your life will be more meaningful. Without those things between you and God, you are going to live a different quality of life and you will see the world differently. Suddenly challenges like getting a camel through the eye of a needle don’t seem so tough. Suddenly the persecutions and harassments we will face (and everyone faces) will not seem quite so daunting. As a disciple, the world will look very differently and that is a very good thing.
So, I am not letting you off the hook this time. Good capitalist, Jesus is not! Jesus is telling the young man to sell everything he owns and follow Christ. Jesus is prescribing the kind of life that doesn’t allow stuff to get in the way between us and God. However, that has nothing to do with eternal life—that ball is in God’s court. And oh by the way—that is a very good thing too! To paraphrase Romans, if God was willing to give up his Son Jesus on our behalf, then you can just imagine how God is gonna come down on that eternal life thing.