“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow me.”
– Mark 10:21
I have a confession- I struggle with the idea of being counted as a part of God’s family, and verses like this often expose this struggle with this idea that I am not good enough, that I haven’t done enough to actually make a difference in this world, and, as a result, I often find myself tending towards the disciple’s response in verse 26, who proclaim with an apparent sense of exasperation over Jesus’ words to go, sell, and give more, “who then can be saved?”
This feeling that I have has much to do with past failure to live up to my own expectations of myself. I know this. I also know this feeling of failure over finding my place in this world, a place in which I can actually make a difference, that actually needs what I have to offer, has more to do with my own needs than the needs of others. I get it. But knowing this has never seemed to change the feeling itself, the feeling that I desperately want to go, to sell, and to give more, but no matter how much I do this, not matter how much I try to serve, it never seems to be significant enough. This is especially true on the days when I end up measuring myself against or competing for a spot with others around me, which happens quite a bit. It doesn’t help matters that I belong to a family that is entrenched, in some form or another, in significant social service, missions and community care. The truth is, there is always something to remind me that I consistently measure downwards when it comes to the going, selling, giving portions of this passage, and that there is always someone around me that is doing it so much better.
And so, I don’t do well with passages like this one. They typically draw me in, spark that longing to serve and to give more, but then they usually just leave me feeling discouraged and helpless. And when I partner this with the idea of my relationship with God, it also tends to leave me worried and exasperated about the state of my own faith. So, given that this is the passage I have been focusing on over the last 7 days, it should go without saying that this past week has proven to be a rather long one.
And yet if I am to embrace the words of the Gospel of Mark, the words of Jesus, I also can’t choose to simply avoid them, and thankfully, in my willingness to dwell on this passage this week, I have also gained a new found sense of freedom this week. As I find myself sharing in the exasperation of the disciple’s initial response, I have also come to share in the comfort of the words of Jesus that follow, words that I have managed to miss in all these years of reading this passage from the perspective of my personal struggle. And so, my hope for this week’s reflection is that it can help illuminate some of my misunderstandings of this passage over the years, while also communicating this new found sense of comfort and freedom.
Uncovering The Motivating Question
What must I do to be saved? To inherit eternal life (vs. 17)? This is the question that drives the rich man in this passage to seek out Jesus, and it is to this question that we find Jesus directing his familiar response:
“Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow me.”
– Mark 9:21
It is this same question that plagues the disciples later on the passage, and so it is important to keep this “salvation” concern close at hand as I navigate the nature of Jesus’ response to this question.
The Puzzling Nature of Jesus’ Response
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
– Mark 9:18
If verse 21 feels familiar and hard to miss, it is Jesus’ opening words in verse 18 that feel foreign and easy to miss, at least for me. They seem odd, almost like a brief, stray line that was added along the way, an interruption to be navigated as I forge my way to the more recognizable and relevant passage that I have heard preached many times over in my lifetime. When it comes to the words of vs. 21 (above), I find it is easy for me to relate to the rich man’s concern, mostly because I struggle with it myself. The challenge of Jesus in telling us to go, to sell, to give, and to follow, feel practical and simple, even if I don’t like it and even if I fail at it. At least I know where I stand. The words of verse 18, however, feel much more ambiguous, much more complicated, and these are the words that managed to stop me in my tracks this week as I tried to give more thought as to why Jesus included them.
“No one is good except God alone.”
No one is good but God, and yet the rich man wants to know that he is good enough. This presents the rich man, and us as readers, with a bit of conundrum. That Jesus seems okay with letting us sit in this conundrum is made clear by the fact that he persists in enabling this further in the ensuing verses:
In verse 19, Jesus goes on to ask the man if he knows the commandments. As a good Jewish believer, he has kept all of these commandments from his “youth” (vs. 20). But, as a good Jewish man, Jesus goes on to reveal that he is still not quite good enough. Which is what sets up the words of verse 21, which again reads,
“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
– Mark 9:21
The passage tells us that after hearing this, the rich man went away “disheartened” (vs. 22)
This is how I feel on my best days, because, in actuality, I tend to isolate this passage to these words instead of reading further. I come to Jesus, I try to do more, but that more is never enough. And so I find myself sitting with this similar feeling of “sorrow” and defeat. It drives me, like the disciples, to question whether I am actually a part of God’s kingdom, which in turn drives me to want to know what more I need to do to in order to know that I am a part of this Kingdom.
It’s enough to drive a man to drink, but since I don’t drink I normally just wallow in my anxiety… or write blogs like this one. It can be therapeutic.
Thankfully, though, there is more to this passage. It does go on, and in the remainder of the passage, Jesus now turns his attention back to the disciples in an effort to explain what they had just witnessed in the rich man’s struggle, to help explain the ambiguity of setting together the call to be better and the declaration that no one is good.
Turning a Conundrum into an even more Impossible Conundrum
But at first glance, Jesus doesn’t make things much better. At least not on the surface. In turning to the disciples, Jesus proceeds to explain his response to the rich man and the rich man’s response to Jesus. First, He notes how difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. He follows this up with an analogy, an analogy that would have made perfect sense to his first-century audience- it is easier to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (gee, thanks Jesus).
It says that the disciples were amazed when he says these first words, and “exceedingly amazed” (I read flummoxed) when he follows up which such an intense analogy as a camel and a needle, and this is what causes them to respond (in exasperation), “Then who can be saved!!!!!!!” (exclamation points added by me).
It seems rather easy at this point, if you are like me, to continue feeling even more discouraged, disheartened, sorrowful. Jesus has definitely not lightened the load of the struggle. But here is where that little line at the beginning of this passage begins to creep back in, the one that I have consistently glossed over in the past but is now suddenly becoming more and more important.
“No one is good except God alone”
If Jesus left the rich man with a conundrum, here he leaves the disciples with an even greater, more impossible conundrum. And this might be the most important thing to recognize, as readers, when making sense of this passage: It would be impossible, of course, to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. Less obvious though would be the message that it is equally impossible for the rich man to do enough to earn his way into eternal life. And this, I believe, is the point. Jesus leaves us with a conundrum so that He can disable our need for control. When we no longer feel in control of how or when or where we are able to “do enough”, perhaps then we can turn our ears and eyes to what Jesus is trying to say here.
The rich man knows the law. He has even kept the law. But it is the call of Jesus to relinquish his grip on his “possessions” that causes him to leave feeling disheartened, that causes him to feel he can never measure up in the eyes of Jesus. But what he misses by allowing this feeling to get in the way of the call of Jesus in his life, is the truth that this obscure, inconspicuous line- “no one is good…” are actually the words that were intended to free him from this sense of condemnation, to lead him towards hope rather than hopelessness.
Reimaging the Possible amidst the Impossible
The disciples are amazed (and exceedingly amazed) at what Jesus says because they feel, and perhaps share in the rich man’s despair. They point backward to their own willingness to leave everything behind (in the second chapter of Mark) in order to follow Jesus. But if this was not enough, if no one is good even when they leave family, home and possessions for the sake of following Jesus, then what more could they have left to give? What more could they possibly do to enter the Kingdom of God?
It is here that Jesus’ words cut through the tension of the impossible conundrum that they find themselves in. Who then can be saved?
“With man it is impossible, but not with God.”
And it is here, I think, that we arrive at the larger concern of this passage, the “freeing” concern of this passage. When the disciples point out that they had left everything to follow Jesus, Jesus affirms this as a positive action of faith (whoever leaves… will receive). But then he leaves them with a pretty big “but”- BUT, “many who are first will be last, and the last first (vs. 31).” In other words, certainly, strive to live into the Kingdom, seek after the right kind of treasure- this is what it looks like to be a follower of Christ after all- but as you do this, guard yourself against any thoughts and assumptions that suggest you have earned the right to front-of-the-line access to the Kingdom of God. The minute you begin to think this way is the minute you will find yourself feeling condemned, which is exactly where we find the rich man in all of this, carrying the hopelessness, disheartenment, and despair that causes him to turn away from Jesus rather than towards Him.
When we consider it in this light, we can begin to see that this passage is not simply about what the rich man does or does not do. It is not that the rich man is not good enough or hasn’t done enough to enter the kingdom. If this were true, Jesus’ own words in this passage would leave all of us condemned and without hope. In truth, even without Jesus’ word, the rich man has already condemned himself. He cannot do enough to gain eternal life because he expects he must do everything in order to gain it.
The rich man misunderstands the way of Jesus, the way of the Gospel, believing that the treasure he is seeking (in his question about eternal life) is something that he must earn by doing. But, as the passage right before this one reminds us, our place in the Kingdom is actually something we receive, not earn, and it is something we are called to receive with a childlike faith.
Receiving the Kingdom With a Childlike Faith
It is interesting that Jesus calls the disciples “children” in the middle of this passage, as in the preceding one we find Jesus declaring that the kingdom of God belongs to the children, saying “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it (vs. 15).”
If we go back even further to 9:37, we find this passage: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me. If anyone would be first they must be last.” I argued in my reflection on this passage (see my previous blog) that the picture Jesus is giving us here is a picture of what it means to live into the Kingdom of God (Jesus, Heaven, The Gospel). The image of a child suggests that they have not earned their right to the kingdom, and thus we receive them without question of merit or earthly accomplishment. The sin that this passage (in the larger context of 9:37) alludes to then, as I argued, is a sin of exclusion. Whoever hides from someone the truth that they are a child of God is the one that stands condemned, for (again) the first will be last and the last will be first. Who comes in first and who comes in last is not ours to judge.
On the flip side, Mark now completes the analogy of this childlike faith by turning the question inwards in the story of the rich man. Not only are we called to receive others as “children” of God, but this same truth must then direct us to receive the promise of God’s redeeming work in our own life “like a child”. It is not a mistake that Mark includes the line, “(and) Jesus looked at him and loved him” (vs. 21). This is God’s heart, His primary concern, is the love of His children. This is easy to miss, to forget when we find ourselves caught up in trying to earn this love rather than living into it.
Every act of faithfulness and trust in God is a good “work”. There is an element of this passage that certainly does call the rich man to a greater way of living, and there is also a moment in this passage in which the rich man chooses to live in a different direction. Finding freedom here does not mean doing away with these parts. Seeking the greater treasure, the treasure that comes with living the kind of sacrificial life that Jesus embodied on the Cross, is what Jesus calls us towards after all, and it is to this kind of life that the Gospel calls us to strive for, to desire. BUT, what I learned this week is that the way we understand and approach this truth matters a lot. Behind this call Jesus is reminding us, don’t ever get caught up in thinking that you can earn your way into the kingdom. This way of thinking is idolatry, and it only leads us to condemnation, both of ourselves (for not measuring up to the impossible) and the condemnation of others, of withholding the truth from others that they are loved by God, children of God intended for so much more than simply earthly treasures.
Now in This Time and In the Age to Come
There is a curious moment in this passage when Jesus talks about having treasure in Heaven (vs. 21). When he goes on to speak to the disciples, he tells them that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age… (vs. 30)”. Jesus then goes on to suggest that these same treasure have an eternal context in the “age to come”.
The treasures that Jesus calls us to seek after have both an earthly and eternal character. What is more, Jesus suggests that what the disciples have given up (family, work, home) they will find a hundred fold “now in this time”.
Here is what I think this means. When we understand the truth of this childlike faith, it can grow our perspective of what Jesus has come to do. In this picture of a child, Jesus expands our vision of just how far His kingdom is intended to reach. What they will receive a hundred fold is a greater picture of God’s family, a greater vocational purpose, and a newly found picture of our true home in the Kingdom of God.
But as we wait for the promise to be fulfilled, Jesus also provides us with a caveat. What they will receive in this time will come with struggle (persecution). But this struggle will always point us towards a greater hope- the promise that we find in the age to come, the promise of eternal fellowship with the Father both here and in the eternal, the restoration of our world, and the right to be called his children and to belong in the larger family of God. What the rich man failed to see was that he was looking in the wrong direction, towards the way of the world instead of the way of Jesus. Rather than walk away condemned, he simply needed to walk towards Jesus. Freedom was waiting for him here, all he needed to do was receive it like a child.