Reading: Mark 10:17-31

This story is really interesting and bears looking into with some detail, although I will not be able to do so here. Rather, I’ll simply make some observations.

First, in the past I’ve read this story as though the man (not identified by Mark as a “rich young ruler”) was insincere. After all, isn’t his reference to Jesus as “good teacher” an obvious attempt to ingratiate himself? Isn’t he just looking for a shortcut to salvation? Now I don’t think so. I think that for us to feel the story’s full power, we need to see that the man was completely sincere, even when he declares that he has kept at least 5 of the 10 commandments since he was a youth, and even when Jesus deflects his attempt to write Jesus off as just another teacher (at least, I think that’s what Jesus is doing). No, the man is sincere. He really does want to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. As, by the way, do we. The text clearly asserts that Jesus “loved” him—an assertion that would be odd if he was just putting Jesus on (and wouldn’t Jesus know that?).

Second, Jesus connects “eternal life” with keeping the commandments that deal with how we treat each other. If nothing else, this should cause us to rethink our own ideas of what “eternal life” might be. Yes, Jesus goes on to say that eternal life will be given in the “age to come,” but we don’t get any real idea of what that is in this passage. Except that Jesus, after the man leaves, connects all this to “the kingdom of God.” Here we need to notice that Jesus twice asserts how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, but that these statements frame a more general statement that includes everyone: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”

Third, the disciples’ astonishment seems to come from their apparent belief that wealth indicates blessing from God; therefore, if it is difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom, it must be impossible for those whom God has not so blessed. And Jesus does affirm that impossibility—but then immediately asserts the possibility of the impossible with God.

Finally, Peter declares that the disciples have done what the man could not—given up all they had to follow Jesus. Jesus doesn’t deny this, and affirms that those who do such things will be given back “in this life” what they gave up and receive eternal life in the age to come. But then comes that saying that seems to have been one of Jesus’ favorites: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

We need to pay attention to that final statement of Jesus. This is a story about discipleship and the difficulty of discipleship. Jesus’ statement to the man that there was “one thing” he should do was not some sort of universal key to the secret of salvation; it was what that man needed to do to. Only by giving his possessions away could he gain the perspective needed to be Jesus’ disciple—to see himself as “last” rather than “first” or, to put it another way, to recognize that it was only through the power of God that he would inherit eternal life.

The other disciples had done what the man could not, but this does not mean that they were any more privileged than him—hence Jesus’ final admonition. So, for those of us who would be Jesus’ disciples, we need to hear this story as being directed squarely at us. Like the man and the disciples, we need to come to Jesus sincerely as we seek eternal life. We need to hear from this story that eternal life in the age to come has a great deal to do with ordinary everyday life in this age. Loving God means loving our neighbor. But we also need to be ready to hear Jesus tell us to give up something we’re hanging on to, something that keeps us from seeing ourselves in proper perspective. The question is, will we have ears to hear?

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