Gospel Reading for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Mark 10:17-31
Notes on the Lectionary with Deacon Lincoln Anderson. Visit the series page at AnglicanCompass.com/NotesOnTheLectionary
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23–25, ESV)
The Rich Young Man
This week’s Gospel selection picks up immediately after the teaching to receive the kingdom like little children. The passage starts off as Jesus “prepare[s] to go on his journey.” A rich young man approaches him, boasting about his adherence to the law and flattering Jesus. Jesus softly rebukes the young man for calling him “good,” saying that only God is good. Some have read this as Jesus denying his divinity, but the rest of St. Mark’s Gospel makes it plain this is a flawed reading. Instead of denying his divinity, this rebuke forces us to make a choice about who Jesus is.
If no one is good except God alone, and yet Jesus is good, that means that Jesus must be God. The alternative is that Jesus is not in fact good. This exchange is for the benefit of the disciples to get them (and us) to think about who Jesus is to us. What comes next highlights the importance of this decision.
Answering the young man’s question about what he must do to have eternal life by reiterating the commandments, Jesus then tells him that, since he has by his own boasting kept these commandments since his youth, he must sell everything he has and give it to the poor. The young man goes away “sorrowful, because he had great possessions.” By his own choice, he puts the lie to his calling Jesus good.
The Eye of the Needle
This lesson contains another difficult saying by Our Lord, one which many have tried to reason their way through. Many people have proposed different ways to interpret the saying about a camel going through the eye of a needle which reduces its absurd impossibility. I won’t recount all of these attempts, suffice to say they seek to make Jesus say that it is merely “exceedingly difficult” for a rich person to enter heaven, rather than impossible.
There is a glaring problem with this tactic: the disciples react as if Jesus has told them that no one can be saved – indeed, in response to their question “who then can be saved,” Jesus says that apart from God it is impossible. Not very hard, impossible. The correct way to interpret this difficult teaching is the way it is rendered on the page. The intended picture is one of absurd impossibility, and to reduce it to anything other is to miss the Gospel entirely.
Why do I say that last? Because in fretting over the point blank fact that a camel can in no way pass through the eye of a needle, we miss what Jesus is actually teaching us. “With man, it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” The rich young man was given a choice to save himself by himself or to be saved by God. Because he found the price to be too high, he chose to save himself. Everyone of us who seek Christ are faced with this same choice – to either trust God to do what is impossible for us, or to strive in vain on our own behalf.
“We have left everything”
St. Peter speaks for all the disciples who have left family, possessions, and even security to follow the Christ. Jesus says that they will receive in this life a hundred fold what they have given up to follow him, and will receive eternal life in the age to come. This seems at odds with what we know of the later life of the apostles and many of Jesus first followers. They faced persecutions and all of the Twelve except for St. John the Evangelist were put to death.
Jesus tells them that along with gaining an abundance over what they gave up that they will also receive persecutions in this life. But what of that promised abundance? From a worldly standpoint, the disciples were not wealthy and were not great rulers. They didn’t go on to found influential families. To eyes illumined by the Spirit, however, they gained a family greater than any bloodline. The Twelve in particular had no need to worry about where to lodge. By trusting in Jesus and the Holy Spirit of God the bounds of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth spread far out into the Roman world and beyond.
This is what is promised to all who choose to trust God to do what is impossible for us. That trust is not passive – it is an active trust which sometimes requires us to give up what we hold most dear in this world if it keeps us from choosing God.
“Our Refuge and Strength”
Our Collect this week opens by calling God “Our refuge and strength, [the] true source of all godliness…” By praying this collect, we seek to put ourselves alongside St. Peter and the other disciples in rejecting the securities of the world. We also acknowledge that it is only God who can make us acceptable in his sight – God alone is good.
This week, I encourage you to think on things in your life that may interfere with choosing God. Think also about the things you have given up in order to choose God. Where there are obstacles, pray for God to grow your faith in him so that he will do what is impossible for you to do on your own. Where you have made sacrifices for the sake of following Christ, remember the promise to the disciples.
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