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Spring Quarter: The Gift of Faith
Unit 1: Tests of Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 13, 2016
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Mark 10:17-31
The biblical story before us today is familiar but full of surprises. It challenges our ideas both of how to please God and of how we can tell that a person is blessed.
This story of the rich young ruler takes place while Jesus is “setting out on a journey” from Galilee to Jerusalem. During the trip, Jesus continuously tries to prepare his disciples for the Passion and what his death and resurrection mean.
So, while “on a journey” to his Passion, a man runs to Jesus, kneels and addresses him as “Good Teacher” (10:17). In Mark, this deference to Jesus from the wealthy is unusual. This rich man kneels before Jesus and calls him “Good Teacher,” thereby granting him significant status.
Now, we do not need to perceive of this person as self-righteous. Note that he doesn’t tell Jesus that he deserves eternal life, only that he desires it. To believe that you have been fruitful is not arrogance. Every indication is that this inquirer is sincere. Even his “grieving” and turning away from what Jesus tells him is sincere.
Unexpectedly, however, Jesus rejects this title given him by the inquirer and takes the opportunity to magnify God’s holiness rather than his own. Then Jesus responds to the inquirer’s question with a traditional answer. Asking how one can inherit eternal life seems a perfect question for Jesus to answer as a teacher who knows the will of God. Any good Jewish teacher would answer: obey God’s will as it is expressed in scripture. So, Jesus names several commandments from the Ten Commandments.
Credit the rich young ruler with his response. His answer indicates that he has been a good religious and moral person. He has kept the commandments and lived as he should.
Mark says that Jesus loves this inquirer. Jesus does not sneer at the man’s claims to have obeyed the law. He believes what the man says about his obedience, because he loves him.
It is then that Jesus adds the action that will make the inquirer’s acceptance of God’s will complete. Jesus says to him, “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and then come, follow me.” (10:21).
But right here we meet our first surprise! Jesus makes stricter demands than the law. The commands Jesus previously mentioned to the inquirer represent the whole of the law and expectations about how people are to treat one another. But for Jesus, that is not enough. His demands are even greater. Sometimes we think that Jesus makes living for God easier, but that notion is truly a mistake. Now, this command of Jesus to the inquirer is clearly as shocking to the disciples as it is to the man himself. It goes far beyond reasonable expectation. Actually, Jesus is demanding that this rich young ruler give up all of himself and his security and rely completely on God. In addition to selling his possessions, he must also follow Jesus.
Scholars point out that the perceptive reader of Mark knows by now that following Jesus means acting as the servant to those who have lost power and position (9:33-37) and even being willing to die for Jesus, to take up one’s cross (8:34, 35). So the man who had come to Jesus for reaffirmation of his relationship with God does not hear what he had hoped. Consequently, he turns away, unwilling to commit himself to what Jesus demands of those who desire to inherit eternal life.
What about wealth?
The rich young ruler had good reason to be shocked by Jesus’ answer to his question concerning eternal life. Traditional Jewish piety would usually have stated that wealth was a blessing from God, a sign of divine favor. In his final address to the children of Israel, Moses declares “If you keep the commandments…the Lord will make you abound in prosperity” (Deuteronomy 28:9, 11).
But Jesus proclaims, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23). Jesus’ answer is completely unexpected. It violates all that we think about the world and what demonstrates that God is pleased with a person. We may not subscribe to the “prosperity gospel” that says that God will make people rich if they will only give to a particular ministry, but we still understand wealth as a blessing from God. But in today’s lesson, wealth is not a sign of blessing, but an obstacle to a saving relationship with God.
Addressing the shocked disciples, Jesus continues to elaborate by stating again how hard it is for a rich person to be saved – to be ruled by God rather than his/her money. The rich will find entering the kingdom of God more difficult than trying to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle. The opening of a needle is the smallest thing imaginable, and the camel was the largest animal in Palestine.
A word of clarification may be in order. Some report that there was an actual small gate in the city wall of Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” which a camel could just barely pass through. But according to scripture there was no such gate. At any rate, one going through the other was impossible. Therefore, Jesus says that it is difficult for the rich to be saved.
The disciples asked, “Then who can be saved” if not the rich? Jesus responds that salvation is impossible for humans; it is accomplished only by God (10:27). Only God can overcome what keeps even the wealthy away from God’s will.
Clement of Alexandria, writing in the second century, declared that even the rich can be saved “if one is able in the midst of wealth to turn from its power, to entertain moderate sentiments and to exercise self-command and to seek God alone and to breathe God and walk with God.”
As scholars make clear, this scripture passage before us contains both condemnation of those who do not commit themselves fully to God’s service and the promise of grace for those who cannot make the expected commitment.
In summary, a camel cannot get through the eye of a needle. That’s how impossible it is for rich people, then all people, to be saved. At least it is impossible for people to be saved if they rely upon themselves for their relationship with God. But God is able to save everyone.
The central issue here has to do with a person’s ultimate loyalty – divesting oneself of whatever provides his/her security in this life to enter a new quality of life under God’s rule.
Giving up treasures
Having heard the fate that awaits the wealthy, Peter protests, “Lord, we have left everything and followed you (10:28). Will Peter ever learn? Peter is seeking to rely on his obedience to Jesus’ commands to attain his place in the kingdom. This is previously what Jesus has said will not work, and it is very close to the behavior of the man who would not sell his possessions. Even our commitment to do God’s will can be a way of trying to make a claim on God’s grace.
There is something else here that needs to be mentioned. Note that Jesus does not denigrate the sacrifices the disciples have made. Indeed, he points out that their sacrifice will be more than worth it. Jesus states that the disciples who have given up everything will have more family, homes, and possessions than they had previously. Of course, he is not speaking here in a literal sense. They would not have more financial wealth or bigger families. But what they would have is a new, larger family of fellow believers that is the church family.
Jesus goes on to say that those who follow him will also face persecution and suffering. But in the midst of these hard times, Jesus promises joy, comfort, and goodness. And the joy of all this will come from the certainty that we are loved by, accepted by, and saved by, God. What begins now, by God’s grace, will only be complete in that eternal life which is to come.
Reorientation of life
In conclusion, Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31). One of the best ways to understand this reversal of valuations as marks of the kingdom is to imagine an army platoon being drilled on a field. The platoon leader shouts, “about-face, march” and the column reverses. Suddenly, the first become last, and those in the rear begin leading the formation.
What Jesus is demanding in this story of the rich young ruler is a complete reorientation. We are being required to re-evaluate all things in our lives as followers of Jesus; we are being called to do more than just give up all our possessions. Jesus wants our hearts and minds to be literally transformed. He wants us to give up reliance on ourselves and our gifts, and He knows that is an impossible task on our own. But Jesus also knows that we can reorient ourselves to the kingdom of God because “for God all things are possible.”
I close with the words of the writer of “the Interpreter’s Bible” (1951), “Those who have made the renunciations necessary for the kingdom, who have left all, and have followed,” will precede the great in the only judgment of worth that really counts, the eyes of God.”