When I returned to this Gospel text this past Monday, a thought hit me like a ton of bricks. I read through the opening statement of this story and paused. “As he (Jesus) 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?’” You know what made me pause? The question. What is the question? For this young man it was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Look, I’ve been a pastor for just over 15 years. I have eight years of study in theology and philosophy. I’ve encountered hundreds of people in those 23 years, and I have never had anyone ask me a question like this. No one. Nada. Nil. In every conversation I have ever had on a message board on the internet or on my Facebook feed, no one has ever asked or even argued about this question either. And I am going to go out on a limb here, but I think the limb might just be pretty strong. It is my guess this morning that when you sitting here in the pews gather with your friends or your family, none of you sit around debating about what you or anyone needs to do to inherit eternal life. I mean, really, does anyone here anticipate sitting at the Thanksgiving table and debating how a person inherits eternal life? I am pretty sure the topics will be much more centered on the upcoming ball games and perhaps a what sales are running in the stores.
Very few people are asking the question about eternal life. For the most part, I think most folks don’t worry about the question at all. I think they either believe that they indeed will have eternal life, and most folks believe they will have done enough to merit it, or they don’t believe in eternal life at all so don’t worry about it. It’s basically an issue that isn’t on many people’s agenda. It certainly hasn’t been a topic of conversation in my career. And here is where the rubber began hitting the road for me. I started asking myself, “What is the question?” What is the question that people are asking these days? What is the dilemma that makes your brain wrestle in wonder and bewilderment? What is the question that you would love an answer to but have not found anything quite satisfactory just yet?
I do a lot of reading, and I consult quite a few different biblical scholars and preachers. These scholars and preachers read a lot of cultural pundits who try to read what is going on in society. They oftentimes talk about what is on people’s hearts and minds, but they nearly always paint in very broad brush strokes. And when you do that, there is a very real risk of missing what is going on with the people right next to you. There is a danger of missing what the people in your community are thinking because your community is unique. I mean, the issues important to our community right here are not the same as the issues facing those who live in downtown Houston, and that is only an hour’s drive from here. And so I wondered: what is the question for us? What is the question that we would ask if we could have an encounter with Jesus?
I decided to ask that very thing of our confirmation students this past Wednesday. Before I delved into teaching class, I asked the 9 ladies and gentlemen who were there to help me with my sermon. I wrote on the dry erase board the question that you have in your bulletin on that little slip of paper. “If you had the chance to ask Jesus one question, what would it be?” Let me tell you something about your sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth graders here: they are very thoughtful. They have some great questions. Before I get into some of what they asked, I would like to invite you to fill out that little slip of paper and give it to me before you leave this morning. I would indeed like to know what question you would like to ask Jesus. It will hopefully help me tremendously in my teaching and preaching here. You do not have to sign your name. There is no need to feel any embarrassment. Please, simply write your question, and hand it to me. I cannot promise that I will directly address it immediately, but I hope to wrestle with those questions in the future.
Let’s now look at what our confirmation students asked. There were a few questions that were easily answered, but let me let you consider three: one of which I will directly address because it ties in to our text today. Question number one: what is heaven really like? Question number two: Why did you create us? And question number three: What is the best thing that we can do? Pretty deep questions, huh? I personally thought so, and I want to focus our attention on that last question, question number three: what is the best thing that we can do? It’s a very, very good question. It’s a very, very important question. And I think the answer to that question coincides with the answer Jesus gave that rich young man. The best thing that you can do is follow Jesus.
You might wonder just how this ties in with the rich young man’s question because his question was about eternal life. If we read through what Jesus says, particularly after His encounter with this rich man, we see something quite intriguing because Jesus doesn’t just talk about eternal life. Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, and that Kingdom is not simply eternal life. It has implications for our lives right here and right now. Let’s go to the text starting where I left off last week at verse 23.
Jesus looks around at His disciples and the crowd around and says, “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!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words.” The disciples were perplexed for a reason because they had been heavily influenced by the surrounding Jewish culture. Wealthy people, it was thought, had been especially blessed by God. It was thought that those with wealth had done all the right things to receive a special blessing by God. This idea is alive and well today with those preachers who say that if you just believe enough, and pray enough, and do enough of the right things–like cut their church a huge check–then God will rain blessings down upon you. Not only did this thought penetrate the disciples’ brains, there was also a very practical reason the wealthy were thought to have an inside track to God. If you were wealthy, you could afford to offer all the sacrifices necessary in the temple to atone for your sins. You could afford the spotless sheep. You could afford to offer sacrifice whenever your conscience was bothered. You could afford to pay your tithes and temple taxes. Those who were poor had no such luxury. They could not afford all the temple sacrifices and gifts. They were on the outside looking in. This is why Jesus’ comment caught the disciples off guard, and so Jesus repeats and adds a little extra.
“Little children,” Jesus says–an allusion to His teaching about the Kingdom and children just a few verses earlier–“how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God.” Notice here that there are no qualifiers. Jesus straightforwardly says that it is hard for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God. It is not simply achieved. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a person of wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.”
A couple of thoughts here. First, there are some pundits who say that the “Eye of a Needle” was a little gate in the walls of Jerusalem that camels had to kneel down in order to get through. Therefore, what Jesus is commenting on is the difficulty of getting in, not that it is impossible. However, the commentaries I consult put the kibosh on this interpretation. There is no archaeological evidence for this gate. There is no record of this gate in any ancient sources. One of the commentaries said it best, “A notable one identifies the “eye of the needle” with a gate leading into the city of Jerusalem before which camels had to kneel in order to get through. But the existence of any such gate is doubtful. As Rawlinson says, it has “no authority more trustworthy that the imaginative conjectures of modern guides to Jerusalem.” No. Jesus is clear here: He means a camel. He means a needle. He means it is impossible. There is not much wiggle room unless you are trying to make people feel good about themselves, and Jesus is not exactly known for trying to do that. Jesus is trying to get folks connected with God–with Himself, and He is going to try to break through the barriers which prevent that.
The disciples are still in awe about this teaching. They are still astounded because they realize its implications. If the rich folks can’t enter the Kingdom, then who can? “Who then can be saved?” they ask.
Jesus responds, “For mortals, it is impossible. For God, all things are possible.”
This leads us to sheer grace. For us it is impossible to attain salvation. Only through God is it possible. Let’s kind of skip ahead for a moment. How possible is it for you and I to die and then come back to life? Think about that for a minute. How possible is it for us to have our hearts stop beating; to have our brain function cease, to have our lungs stop pumping, and then after a period of time–oh, say three days, to come back to life? Impossible. But for God...who hung on a cross, who had His heart pierced, who breathed His last and lay in a tomb for three days...all things are possible. Yes, I have kind of given away the ending, but let’s continue for a moment because I have to get to the question of “what is the most important thing we can do?”
Peter then addresses Jesus. It’s kind of a smug thought. Peter tells Jesus, “Look, we’ve done what that rich, young man won’t do. We’ve left our houses, our families, our incomes. We’ve left everything to follow you. What do we get?
Jesus’ response is priceless. I want you to listen to it carefully. ‘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, 30who 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. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Did you notice these two things: did you notice that Jesus said you must leave everything for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel? This is quite important because it deals with our motivations. It deals with the state of our hearts. Many who proclaim that God will bless you if you believe enough, pray enough, and give enough, do so tapping into people’s selfish motivations. People only give, pray and believe so that they will get something. They don’t leave for Jesus’ sake. They don’t leave for the Gospel’s sake. They leave for their own sake. They want all the goods, but they don’t want Jesus. They don’t want the Gospel. Jesus clearly states that He and the Gospel are most important. Secondly, did you catch that persecutions are part of the equation? Did you catch that you will receive houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and fields AND PERSECUTIONS? We tend to gloss over that one. Christianity comes with a cost. Finally, did you notice that Jesus is being very earthy with this statement? Did you notice that these matters are rooted and grounded in this life? This isn’t just about eternal life. Following Jesus has consequences right here and right now. “The last will be first and the first will be last.”
Let me quote to you Walter Wessel from his commentary on Mark here, “In eternity the rich and the powerful will have the tables turned on them. Or perhaps it is a warning to the disciples in view of what they said, “we have left everything to follow you”. They must not conceive of their discipleship in terms of rewards. Discipleship entails suffering and service; it must be entered on in terms of love and commitment to Jesus, not because of what one hopes to get out of it either in this life or in the life to come.”
Let me summarize this teaching quickly. Jesus essentially says, “If you want abundant life...life in the Kingdom of God here on earth and in the life to come...give up everything for my sake and the sake of the Gospel. You will find persecution, but you will find great satisfaction. Not in earthly wealth, but in a community of brothers and sisters who have homes and land who will share and welcome each other–who love one another; who care for one another; who build one another up; whose hearts have been changed; who are humble; who seek one another’s good. If you attach yourself to your possessions and striving for such possessions, you will miss out on these things. You will never notice the Kingdom of God which is growing right in your midst.”
How hard it is to enter into this Kingdom. How hard it is to grasp what Jesus says right here. It is indeed easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle because everything about our current culture tells us the exact opposite. Everything in our culture tells us that the most important thing we can do is work to be the best. Educate ourselves so we can get good jobs. Get good jobs so we can earn a lot of money. Earn a lot of money so we can enjoy life to the fullest while we work and play at a frenzied pace. Keep earning a lot of money so that you can eventually retire and play around keeping death at bay and keeping the medical profession in business. This is the fulfilling life. This is the abundant life. Work hard. Play hard. Become a slave to money.
But it never quite satisfies, does it? It never quite fulfills, does it? Something is always missing, and we try to fill it with more. Jesus says, follow me. Replace all that stuff with me. Leave it all for my sake and the sake of the Gospel. Don’t let your heart focus on all of that?
But how? How can I not focus on all of that when it is thrust in my face over and over and over? How can I not focus on it when Christmas is just around the corner and all the shops are telling me I will be happy with cheap stuff? How can I focus on Jesus when my heart is captured by these things?
Jesus says, “Look at the cross.” Look at the instrument of death and torture that hangs at the front of this building. Look at what I accomplished for you on that cross. It is impossible for you and your heart to walk away from these things. It is impossible for you and your heart not to notice these things. Your heart will continue to yearn for these things until it understands the great love I have for you. Until you know what I am willing to do for you on this cross, you will continue to pursue these things. Close your eyes and see me dying up here for you. Close your eye and know that I took your place and have saved you by sheer grace. Close your eyes and know that you don’t deserve what I am doing for you, but I willingly and gladly do it for you anyway. Let this change your heart. Let this change your soul. Nothing else can love you like this. Nothing. For mortals it is impossible. For God, all things are possible. For God so loved this world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.” And when your heart grasps this. When your heart knows what I have done, then indeed, you will know that the most important thing you can do is follow me. Amen.