Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Mark 10:17-31 The Rich Man
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, 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.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘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.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
I have been trying to remember how many times I’ve heard conversations about this reading get bogged down in one particular part of the reading: that business about a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. It is such a powerful metaphor that people seem to have this impulse to figure out if Jesus really meant to say that it was easier for a camel, which the internet tells me is, on average, a little taller and heavier than your average moose, to fit through the hole in a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God. Really, Jesus? That sounds a little harsh. What if it’s a really nice rich person, like the kind that donates money to vaccine research? They can get into the kingdom of God, right?
And, maybe Jesus doesn’t mean a whole, giant camel and the teeny, tiny eye of a sewing needle. Maybe Jesus is not talking about a sewing needle. Maybe he’s talking a gate in the wall around the city of Jerusalem. It’s a really small gate and the camels have a hard time slipping through. But, they can do it, if you don’t overload them. It’s not impossible, like fitting a camel-sized animal through a miniscule hole. Surely Jesus isn’t insinuating that wealth and the kingdom of God are so incompatible as to be impossible to mix. Some scholars have suggested this story has an ancient typo. The word for camel and for cable, like a big rope, that kind of cable, are very similar. Maybe Jesus was talking about a string too big for your average needle. At least cables, which are made out of thread, are kind of related to needles, which use thread to sew. It is not an easy fit, but, not totally out of the realm of possibility. Maybe you could unravel the cable down to its smallest parts? Then, they would fit! See, not exactly impossible, just, like super hard. He couldn’t have meant that it is literally impossible, could he? I’m starting to think that he meant it was just about impossible. And, I don’t quite know what to do with that.
To be fair, Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her commentary on the text, says that Jesus says it’s not impossible but it is very hard. Maybe that’s why the gate or cable interpretations could make more sense. And, maybe she’s right. But, even if this is a metaphor about a cramped door and a camel or a big cable and a little needle, this is still a story about Jesus telling a wealthy person that their money is a spiritual impediment. And, that it is a hard word to hear, for us and for the devout young man. How on earth did we get to this place where someone who has been keeping the law, with great faith, is suddenly so sorrow-filled about his relationship to God? I think we got here because Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem, teaching about God on the way. If you want to follow him on that journey, you have to be clear about the cost of being on the journey with him.
The young man who approaches Jesus seems legitimately interested in his teaching. Mark Vitalis Hoffman argues that the fact that he is kneeling is best read as a sign of his sincerity. And, he calls Jesus good, also, a sign of his sincerity. What a surprise it must have been when Jesus said, “why do you call me good? Only God can be called Good.” I am convinced by Thurston’s argument that Jesus responded this way to draw attention away from himself and back to God. Because, the next thing Jesus says is about God’s law. And, remember the law is intended to keep humanity in covenant with God. When asking specifically about this man’s relationship to the covenant, Jesus asks him if he’s kept all the commandments related to caring for other people. Hoffman calls them the second tablet commandments. I’d call them the “Love Your Neighbor” commandments.
The man said he had been following these commandments his whole life and Jesus seems to believe him. Jesus took him at his word, understanding that that commandments are not some list of impossible tasks, but actions that every day people can do in order to better follow God. Jesus believed him, looked at him, and loved him. I think we’re being invited to believe him, too. According to Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, he’s the only person in the Gospel of Mark who is said to be loved by Jesus. Jesus loved him and we can be generous to him because he’s devout and trying hard, but also still really wealthy.
Even though this man had followed the law, Jesus asked him for more. We often ask more from the ones whom we love. He told this man to sell everything that he owned and give the money to the poor. Then, Jesus invited the man to leave everything else behind and follow him. While the man had found God's commandments to be manageable and while his wealth had helped him be able to follow ritual purity rules, he found Jesus' invitation to be much more challenging. He looked at his life, a life that was, by all accounts, blessed and well-lived, and began to grieve. He was accustomed to the sacrifice of following the covenant. This was a sacrifice he didn’t know how to make yet. So, he leaves in sorrow.
The disciples, who have already left behind all they had, still get confused when Jesus starts talking about camels and needles. First of all, when Jesus says that it will be hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is likely shocking to his disciples, who may have been accustomed to thinking of wealthy people having been blessed by God. Then, as now, there is some common and problematic theology that equates being beloved by God with having lots of money. They knew the man had followed the law and they knew he was rich, which means they suspected that he was already blessed by God. But, Jesus said that wealth could be an impediment to joining the reign of God. The disciples wonder, “Then who can be saved?” I think this is a reasonable question.
Just like he did with the man who called him good, he wanted to point the disciples back to God. He said that humans can't do something impossible, like squish a camel through a needle. But, we're not talking about human powers here. We're talking about God. And, God regularly deals with the impossible. Peter is still caught up in what humans can do, and, specifically, what the disciples have done. “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Peter echoes the young man this way: “I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, responding similarly to his disciples as his did the young man, acknowledges that it is possible to make choices to follow him, and that following him and sacrificing for the Gospel will bring reward, but it will bring as much persecution as it does gain. And, just because they were the first to follow him, that doesn’t mean that they will have a particular standing in God’s dominion. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Even if you give up all you have, you still can earn your way into Grace.
In his commentary on the text, Hoffman points us back to the young man’s original question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Well, some things must clearly be done. The Love your neighbor parts of the commandments, for one. Something else must be done, too. You must be willing to give up the rewards you expected, be it the wealth you’ve accumulated or your status as an early adopter of the Gospel. This journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem is too turbulent to hold tight to too many expectations and following the Gospel is meaningless if you are only doing it for the treasure. In Mark, chapter 8, Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” In the end, though, inheritance isn’t only about what you do. It’s also about who you’re connected to... who’s your family. You are a child of God. That feels impossible. But, with God, all things are possible.
In her commentary on this passage, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson noted that we don’t actually now what ended up happening to the young man in the long run. We just know that he leaves this moment, bereft, because he has many possession and Jesus told him to give them all away and follow him. She also reminded us that later in this story, at the empty tomb, the women who are the first witnesses to the Resurrection run away in fear, and tell no one. And, yet, we are here, evidence that they must have told someone. Maybe the young man went away, sad, but ultimately unchanged. But, maybe he gave away everything. Maybe he caught up with Jesus in Jerusalem. Maybe he went on to preach about how he had been changed, about how he learned the good news. Maybe he told stories about camels and needles and impossible things made possible with God. We don’t know what happened to him but we know that Jesus loved him. Jesus loves us, too. Now, we just have to trust that love enough to let go of the things that are keeping us from following Jesus to Jerusalem. Because, it won’t ultimately matter if we are first or last, as long as we go. I pray that we can go.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.