Occasion: 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 23)
Text: Mark 10.17-31
This sermon was prepared for services at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Sterling, IL on October 7 and 11 and for services at three area nursing homes.
Today we have a Gospel story that we love to explain away. No wonder – it’s very challenging. It is, after all, impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Here are some ways that people like us have tried to get around this parable:
One example of this tries to make “the eye of a needle” into a reference to a gate in Jerusalem that was made too small. The story goes that in order for a camel and rider to make it through this gate, named “The Needle’s Eye,” the camel would have to go through on its knees. It’s a neat story, and it’s been used to argue that rich people have a hard time bowing down before God, etc., except for one problem: there is no such gate in Jerusalem. So we can’t explain away the eye of the needle.
Another approach tries to explain away the camel. It seems that the word for rope and the word for camel in Greek are pretty close together, so some would say that it’s just a misprint. But I don’t think that should make us any more comfortable – after all, a camel is much bigger than a rope, but it’s impossible to get either through the eye of a needle. All this wiggling in order to get loose of the plain meaning of the text!
And we try to avoid it in still other ways. Sometimes we say “Jesus doesn’t really mean it.” Sometimes we spiritualize it away. It obviously makes us very uncomfortable.
Why does this story make us uncomfortable? I think it’s because we’re rich. Now I’ll be honest – I don’t particularly feel rich a lot of the time. Most of you probably don’t either. But the fact remains, by every reasonable standard of comparison with the majority of people on this planet, almost every single person in our congregation is rich. And by comparison with Jesus, who went around with almost nothing at all except the clothes on his back, we’re all most definitely rich.
By and large, I think we try to explain this away because we really like the rich young man. We identify with him. He’s our kind of people! What’s not to like?
- As Jesus is about to leave on another journey, he runs up and throws himself at Jesus’ feet. He is worshipful and reverent!
- He has burning questions about eternal life. He is zealous!
- He has tried very hard to keep the ten commandments, in fact, he has kept them all his life. He is morally responsible!
- He really wants an answer to his question. He is sincere!
- Of all the people in the Gospels, he is the only person to call him not “Teacher,” but “Good Teacher!” He is pious!
And isn’t that how most of us think of ourselves? We think ourselves worshipful, zealous, moral, sincere, and pious. We think we’re pretty good people. And yet Jesus regards it as a miracle that rich people like us can be saved at all.
“Who then can be saved?!” the disciples ask in panic. Who indeed? And Jesus tells them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God.” If it comes down to whether we’re worshipful enough, zealous enough, moral enough, sincere enough, or pious enough, things aren’t looking good for us. It’s not “unlikely,” he doesn’t say it’s “tough going,” it’s not even “really difficult,” it’s “impossible.” If it’s up to us, it is not going to happen. So much for the power of positive thinking. You and I are not getting into the kingdom of God by our own goodness. For us mortals, it is impossible.
But not for God. God comes to us in the incarnation, which is impossible. He is born to a virgin, which is impossible. Though he is in his very nature divine, of the same being as God the Father, he walks around a dusty, unpleasant section of the Eastern Mediterranean – that’s impossible, too. The Christian story is about divine impossibilities. God does these impossible things in Jesus Christ because without him, we’re utterly doomed. We don’t have a chance.
You see, the key to all of this is Jesus’ reaction to the rich young man. In all his grandeur, in all his humility, in all his righteousness he comes to Jesus Christ. This guy is almost perfect, and yet he’s perfectly inadequate. He knows that something is missing. What does Jesus do? It doesn’t say he threw rocks at him. It doesn’t say he condemned him or threw him away. First, he loved him. He saw right into this guy’s soul, and he loved him! Even though he wasn’t perfect, even though in his heart he was still clinging to material possessions instead of fully trusting God, Jesus loved him!
That’s why it’s so important that we recognize that we are the rich young man in this story. Jesus sees our imperfections, our weakness, our sin. He sees right into our souls. He knows everything about you and me. And knowing all that, he loves us! Jesus really knows us, better than our friends and neighbors, better than our spouse, better than we even know ourselves, and he loves us! And he says “Saving yourself is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” And he bids us come and follow him. And then he goes to the cross.
In the impossibility of the cross – of God Almighty dieing on a wooden cross! In the impossibility of the resurrection – of a human being, dead and cold in the grave walking around alive like you and me three days later! This is where our hope is found. It’s not in our carefully made plans or our carefully crafted righteousness. It’s in the impossibility of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s about the hope and trust and faith given to us by the Holy Spirit. It’s about being a new creation in Christ.
The rich young man received Jesus’ command to sell everything and follow with disappointment. He couldn’t give up so much. Thanks be to God that we are given faith to follow where Jesus leads, no matter what the cost. Thanks be to God for the cross of Christ. May we hear the voice of our Good Teacher and follow where he leads.