October 9, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Mark 10:17-31 (NRSV)
As 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?” 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; Honor 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.”
Throwing ourselves on God’s grace in the way that Jesus asks requires trust. Perhaps that trust will involve giving up our possessions. Perhaps it will involve keeping them and stewarding them in ways that Jesus asks us to. Whatever happens, Jesus oversees our wealth, not us. And letting him take charge of that is oh-so-much harder even than shoving a camel through a needle.
I kept looking over this Sunday’s Gospel passage trying to figure out what portion to excerpt for you all—usually when we have a longer passage, we only print a short selection and send you off to BibleGateway or your own Bible to read the rest. But I just couldn’t, so you get the whole story.
There are a lot of passages in the Gospels where it seems that the author (Mark in this case) has gathered up a number of sayings of Jesus and listed them all in a somewhat disconnected fashion. That’s where we are when we enter the story here. At the beginning of Mark 10, Jesus is teaching beyond the Jordan. Then a bit later he is teaching somewhere else (perhaps still beyond the Jordan) and people are bringing children to him. Then in this passage, he sets out on a journey—from where to where, we don’t know. (Eventually, in Mark 10:32, he ends up on the road to Jerusalem, and perhaps that was the journey he was beginning here.)
So, in a sense, the context here is basically Here’s Some Other Important Stuff Jesus Did. And this is certainly one of Jesus’ most important, and most troubling, teaching moments.
The passage has three parts. In the first, a devout rich young man comes to Jesus and asks how to inherit eternal life. You don’t need to be more devout, Jesus tells him; you need to be more generous, Sell up, as my husband’s British relatives used to say, and come join the disciples in following Jesus.
The rich young man doesn’t do this—at least not at this point—but goes away sadly. Jesus then uses him as an object lesson for the disciples in the second part of the passage, reminding them that it is very hard to get into the Kingdom. (In Mark 10:13-16 he’s already told them that they must become like little children to enter it; we know from other Gospel stories in Mark and elsewhere that they find this very difficult.) It will be particularly hard for those with many possessions, he says; about as hard as a camel going through the eye of a needle.
I’ve heard many fanciful explanations over the years that try to explain this saying away by saying there was a Needle Gate in Jerusalem or that Jesus was really saying “cable.” I prefer to think he meant what he said: ever try to shove a real live camel through a really small needle? That’s how much our wealth can encumber us.
Peter responds to this by saying that, unlike the rich young man, the disciples have already left everything to follow Jesus. Well, in that case, Jesus says, there is a good time coming—when you give up everything for Jesus, you will get back everything you left behind, though he notes that this will come “with persecutions” (Mark 10:30). Oh, and you also get eternal life.
Over the years, many interpreters of this passage have asked: What would happen if we all gave up all our possessions? Surely that can’t have been what Jesus was asking, or society would be ground to a halt. Two responses come to mind for me. The first is that, as Jesus’s line about persecutions reminds us, we are ultimately told by the Gospels that God’s grace would sustain us even if society, or at least our own corner of it, ground to a halt. What that sustaining would look like, and whether it would be in this life or the next, is a different question. But I believe that Jesus is telling us here we give up the right to ask that different question when we sign on to follow him. Or at least we give up the right to have it answered in the ways we might expect.
Which leads me to my second response. To throw ourselves on God’s grace in the way that Jesus asks here—in the way he was asking the rich young man to do, and asking his disciples to do—requires trust. Perhaps that trust will involve giving up our possessions. Perhaps it will involve keeping them and stewarding them in ways that Jesus asks us to. Whatever happens, Jesus oversees our wealth, not us. And letting him take charge of that is oh-so-much harder even than shoving a camel through a needle.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Wesley Covenant Service practiced at many United Methodist churches (including in my childhood—though Episcopalian now, I grew up Methodist). This service, which in its original form was something John Wesley asked his followers to do on New Year’s Eve, contains a marvelous—but difficult—prayer where the covenant maker promises to follow Jesus in these words:
“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”
That is the moment of decision to which Jesus was trying to bring the rich young man. The Christ in whom we trust, as yesterday’s devotion reminds us, calls us to trust him fully. In the immortal words of the great church historian Herbert Butterfield, “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be uncommitted.”
And when we do, we will find that nothing is impossible with God.
What do you need to give up to follow Jesus?
Pray through the Wesley Covenant Prayer and ask Jesus how he would have you serve him. You may want to listen to the hymn “Come, Let Us Use the Grace Divine” which Charles Wesley wrote for occasions when the Covenant Service was celebrated. (This lovely video was recorded for a worship service during the pandemic and displays words and music right under the singers, but if you’d like to see or save the lyrics separately, they are here.)
Jesus, we yield all to you. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Wealth (Mark 10:17-22)
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
Click here to view Jennifer’s profile.