Sermon October 27th: The Guy With Everything Fails the Challenge

Last week we looked at Mark 8 and the story of what Jesus taught the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, and I mentioned that this is about the half-way point in Mark’s gospel, and also a turning point, in that from this point on everything that’s described is in some way or another under the shadow of the cross. Chapters 9 and 10, which follow the incident in Caesarea Philippi, are all incidents on the road from there to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be put to death, and if you skim those chapters quickly—our version makes it easy by putting little headings, and you can just read them—you’ll see that Jesus tells the disciples three times that He is going to Jerusalem for no other reason: we heard it last week at Caesarea Philippi, 8.31 He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly; then 9.30, on the road south through Galilee, He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’ But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him; and then 10.32, on the road to Jericho, Jesus says it a third time, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise. Surrounding these three reminders of what is coming are the story of the transfiguration, two healings, of a boy with an evil spirit and of a blind man, and several teaching moments. He teaches the disciples about casting out evil spirits, about being humble in heart like children (twice), about not being offended by people who are doing good things in Christ’s name without asking the disciples’ permission first, about coping with temptation, about marriage and divorce, and about enjoying eternal life. It’s the last of these I want to zoom in on; it’s in 10.17ff, where Jesus has a conversation with a young man that raises some deep issues for all of us, but especially for young people starting out in life with great advantages, ie college students! Let’s look at it and see what we might be able to learn from it.

Let me introduce you to the young man: his story is told in three of the four gospels, with each gospel giving us a different part of the picture. Here in Mark, 10:22, we are told he was very rich—v 22, he had great possessions. In Matthew (19:20) we are told he was young; and in Luke (18:18) we learn that he was an ἄρχων, a man of influence, a ruler. We don’t know the exact nature of his influence, but the word used suggests that it was considerable. In other words, he had it all: money, power, youth. I personally have no doubt that he was good looking, as well! Everything that so many, many people in our world are so greedy for, he had in abundance.

His encounter with Jesus is a remarkable one. It is the only encounter that anyone has with Jesus, as far as the Gospel accounts tell us, in which a person meets Jesus Christ, and then goes away unhappy. The gospels describe many encounters between Jesus and individuals; often the individual comes to Jesus troubled or unhappy, but when they meet Him their hearts are lifted and they go away feeling strengthened and encouraged. Or they are sick when they encounter Jesus, and they go away healed. Or they are troubled by demons, or even possessed, but after they encounter Jesus they are freed. This young man, however, met Jesus and went away more troubled than he came. That’s different.

It’s not hard to understand why this young man might have such a different experience than all the others who came to Jesus. Most of the people who came to Jesus during His earthly ministry came without anything to rely on, and Jesus said they could rely on Him. The trouble with this young man is that he already has something he can rely on, and even when Jesus offers him something better, he’s not willing to give it up.

Look at the story and see how this plays out. The young man first appears at the end of Jesus’s discussion with the Pharisees about divorce. During that debate, there were lots of children present, and Jesus’s disciples were constantly shushing the kids and glaring at the parents (10:13), but Jesus said, ‘It’s OK, leave them alone,’ and then used them as an object lesson: ‘As a matter of fact, if you don’t receive the kingdom of God like a little child, you won’t be able to enter it at all!’ The Rich Young Ruler must have been on the edge of the crowd at the time, because when the debate ended and Jesus got ready to move on, he came up to Jesus and said, ‘This Kingdom of God, this eternal life (same thing—Mark alternates between the two phrases), how exactly do I get it? What do I have to do?’

He’s come across something that he hasn’t got, and he wants it: he’s got money, power, youth, and now here’s someone talking about eternal life—well that would complete the picture, wouldn’t it? Money, power and eternal youth! Or perhaps it was that he had found that all his worldly advantages didn’t give him any real satisfaction, and so he becomes interested this teacher who seems to be offering something different—meaning, identity, who knows. Certainly we see many rich young rulers today that are suckers for some cult leader who promises them spiritual wisdom—I don’t know how many times I’ve read over the years about a movie star or rock star becoming a Scientologist or following  this Guru or that life coach or whoever. While the rest of us are chasing money and power and the illusion of youthfulness because we think that when we have those things we will have a happy, meaningful life at last, those who do have those things are so often chasing after something else, because money and power and youth don’t do what we all think they will. At any rate, he asks Jesus, Who had talked as though He knew exactly what it took to have eternal life, his question: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Notice the ‘inherit’, by the way; that gives you the clue to this guy—most of us would have asked what we had to do to earn it!

Jesus says to him, ‘what you have to do is to give up your wealth. Give it all away, and follow me.’ This whole incident, in fact, is an illustration of Jesus’s challenge to mankind that we saw last week in chapter 8, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. It’s important to realize that Jesus is not condemning money or even wealth as such; Jesus meets other wealthy people in the Gospels, but does not tell them all to give their wealth away (Zacchaeus gave half of his out of gratitude for free salvation), and Luke 8:3 suggests that Jesus had wealthy supporters who gave generously to His ministry. But Mark tells us that he refused to listen to Jesus because he had great wealth; this young man trusts his wealth, relies on it, it’s what makes him feel safe. That’s why he must give it up if he wants to know God, if he wants to know the ultimate significance of life and to receive its ultimate satisfaction: as long as his money keeps him feeling safe, he’ll never have to admit his need for God, he’ll always be able to tell himself that he doesn’t need anybody—all the while wondering ‘what must I do to have eternal life,’ and all the while making it impossible.

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! comments Jesus in v 23; as long as we have any safety-net of our own devising that is more important to us than our obedience to Him, or even functions as Plan B, we are not trusting in Him alone, and we are unable to inherit eternal life, unable to enter the Kingdom of God. ‘How hard it is for those whose faith is in their bank-balance, or their health, their youth, or their intelligence, or their compassion, or their regular attendance at Church, or anything else in all creation, to enter the Kingdom of God.’

Denying ourselves sounds like a recipe for being miserable, but Jesus is very clear that it is in fact the exchange of the imperfect for the perfect. Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it, and will actually discover how good God meant life to be. The life that Jesus asks us to live is the most real life there is, and it’s the best life there is. I came that [you] might have life, and have it abundantly, Jesus said, and even in the worst circumstances, life with Jesus is better than life without Him. The things His followers receive are those good things that cannot be obtained any other way, and the things that people are afraid to give up are merely the shadows, the images, of those good things. Those little bits of life that we have so painfully won by our own efforts, and to which we cling with such fear, are as nothing in comparison with what He offers us—but in order to receive what He offers, we must first give up what we have won for ourselves. It’s the fact that it comes in that order that makes it an act of faith. Jesus tells us what He will give us, but He doesn’t give us a free sample to try. Only when we take Him at His word, and give up everything and everyone else, do we discover that He was telling us the truth.

This encounter is also the only time that Jesus calls on someone personally to follow Him, and the person does not do so. Jesus talked about people being His follower on a couple of occasions when speaking to a large crowd, and gave a general sort of invitation to follow Him, but on every occasion when Jesus addressed a particular individual and called that person to follow Him, the person did so—except this one. Jesus called every one of the twelve personally, and it is astonishing how easily they stopped whatever they were doing and followed Him, some of them giving up relative affluence if not great wealth: to own a couple of fishing boats on Galilee definitely put you in the upper bracket economically, with employees and even servants, according to the Gospel account. And all those He called in this personal way became part of the work of proclaiming the gospel; this young man was being invited to be an apostle, to be part of the proclamation of the Gospel for all mankind, to be one of Jesus’s inner circle of disciples. But he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

You see, he had claimed to be ready for real discipleship.  Part of Jesus’s answer to his original question, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’, had been a reminder about the commandments; Jesus had quoted several of the ten commandments, and this young man was able to say ‘I’ve kept them all since I was a kid!’ ‘Oh,’ says Jesus, ‘in that case you’ve really got everything, not only money and youth and power but the power of the Holy Spirit, too, so you can come and be part of the team that’s going to make sure everyone else can have that same joy—come, follow me and I will make you a fisher of men!’ He could have been Saint someone-or-other, but as it is we don’t even know his name. What a lost opportunity for someone of such promise.

Is their anything in our lives today that we trust in that deep sense, which is preventing us answering Jesus’s call to us? Do we pretend not to hear that call, or pretend we’re already as good as God ever wants us to be, because we don’t want to have to go away sad like the rich young ruler, unable to part with our real God? Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, still calls men and women to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him. To turn a deaf ear is to walk away sad; to surrender and go where He leads is to enjoy life in greater abundance than we ever thought possible.

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