We have a lot of territory to cover this morning. So, let’s dive right into our gospel lesson, Mark 10:17-31.
It begins: “Now as He [Jesus] was going out on the road...” The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible puts it this way: “As He was setting out on a journey...”
Jesus was setting out on a journey. This was the last trip He would take before His arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jerusalem was His destination and He knew that His crucifixion lay ahead of Him there.
During this journey, Jesus and the disciples walked from Capernaum, a city at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee, walked along its western shore south along the Jordan River, crossing from the west to the east side of the Jordan (in order, this time, to avoid going through Samaria), proceeding south until, again, they crossed the Jordan from the east going west, just like Joshua and the people of Israel did 1400 years earlier, then gone through Jericho, the city whose walls God destroyed, allowing the ancient Israelites to gain a foothold in the land, and onto Jerusalem. Jesus’ name in Hebrew is Yeshua, Joshua. Just as Joshua of Old Testament times led God’s people into the promised land, this Joshua--the Jesus of the New Testament, Who is God in the flesh--will lead all who follow Him through the crosses of their own deaths and the deaths of their own sin into the promised land of eternity with God.
[The map above comes from this web site: http://www.ccel.org/bible/phillips/CN160-TRAVELS.htm.]
It’s within the context of this journey, fraught with memories of Old Testament history for both Jesus and the disciples and filled with an awareness of all the torture, rejection, and temptation that await Him in Jerusalem that our lesson takes place.
Go back to the lesson, please: “...one came running before [Jesus] and asked Him, “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
We may look at the man’s question and think he’s asking, “What do I need to do to get to heaven?” But when pious Jews, like the Pharisees, thought of “eternal life,” they thought of the life that God would bring to those who were raised from the dead and God established a new heaven and a new earth in place of this one.
They believed that for believers to rise from the dead--to go through a resurrection--didn’t mean that they were transported to some wifty world of disembodied souls. (And Jesus would later prove them to be right in that belief! When Jesus rose from the dead, He had a body that could be touched and eat a meal, although He was no longer limited by time or space.)
Jesus’ answer to the man is interesting. Jesus could have lectured the man on how there is nothing we can do to merit eternal life. It is simply the gift of God to those who turn from sin and believe in Him. That's why in the only sermon of Jesus appearing in Mark's Gospel (Mark 1:14-15), Jesus says: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Jesus teaches the same thing here. But He does it in a way that challenges the man (and us) to move beyond thinking of salvation as the result of knowing the right answer (“Repent and believe”), to seeing just how radical, how eternity-changing, how practical for the nuts and bolts of daily living it is to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ!”
Jesus says: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but one, that is, God.” We’ll come back to these words in a moment, because it’s one of the two keys to understanding today’s entire gospel lesson. For the moment, think of this: Jesus is right. I’m a sinner. You’re sinners. Everyone you see each day is a sinner. No one is truly good but God alone. We may in everyday conversation say that someone we know is a good person. But this man is approaching Jesus like some misinformed unbelievers approach the local parish pastor. Whether he means the word or is just using it to suck up to Jesus, Jesus calls Him to the carpet for it, “Do you go throwing that word, good, around with every rabbi you encounter?” Jesus is asking the man, “Only God is worthy of being called good.” Now, you and I know that Jesus is God. We know it by faith in Christ. But the man in our gospel lesson doesn’t know this about Jesus. He wants to make deals with God and have Jesus, this “good teacher” confirm it for Him.
Then, in verse 18, Jesus says, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,‘ ‘Do not murder,‘ ‘Do not steal,‘ ‘Do not bear false witness,‘ ‘Do not defraud,‘ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”
Jesus here, of course, is referring to the Ten Commandments, God’s moral law for the whole human race. But, you’ll notice some interesting omissions and one change in Jesus‘ rendering of the commandments:
- He includes the sixth, fifth, seventh, and eighth;
- He seems to add another commandment with, ‘Do not defraud,‘ although we could argue that fraud is just another form of stealing; and
- He doesn’t mention five other commandments.
- ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ (the First),
- ‘You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain’ (the Second),
- ‘Remember the Sabbath day [a time set aside to reverence God and hear God’s Word]’ (the Third), and
- the Ninth and Tenth commandments in which God tells us not to covet the spouses, possessions, or lives of others.
Does Jesus do this to avoid telling this man some uncomfortable truths?
We know Jesus better than that.
Jesus defers mention of these five commandments for a simple reason: Everyone of we sinners have what might be called “prevailing sins,” the sins we may love to commit and have grown so cold to God we don’t see them as sins any more or the sins we hate to commit but cannot, by our own power or good intentions, refrain from committing. These are the sins in which you and I specialize, on top of all our other sins.
But unless we follow Jesus every day and give Him control of our whole lives, along with all of our sins, those sins and not the grace of God that comes to those who believe in Him, will have the last words over our lives.
The Greek New Testament word for believe is pisteuo and it carries the meaning not only of believe, but also of surrendering trust. Eternal life with God comes to those who believe in Jesus, who surrender their lives to Jesus.
And that includes surrendering their favorite sins.
Back to the lesson, verse 20: “And he [the man] answered [Jesus], ‘Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.’”
Let’s not be too critical of the man here. He isn’t claiming to be sinless. He’s claiming that he’s “kept” the commandments, meaning that he has revered them and sought to to live in accordance with them, repenting when he has failed to do so. Jesus doesn’t dispute the man’s claim. But Jesus sees into this man’s heart, will, and motivations as surely as He sees into ours.
Verse 21: “Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him [the same way He looks at you even when you are lost and far from Him, wallowing in sin], and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”
Now, we understand why Jesus omitted five of the commandments earlier.
We also see why Jesus reminded him that only God is good.
The man no doubt thought of himself as an upstanding person of faith who kept God’s commandments.
But in addition to his covetousness for more wealth, this man also failed to honor God as God by idolizing the wealth that he had.
These were his prevailing sins, the sins that were walling him from eternal life with God.
This is why Jesus reminded Him that God alone is good. If this man honored the good God of all with his life as well as with his lips, he would understand that God was worthy of total, not partial surrender.
Are we surrendering totally to God each day? Or, are we holding back a little for ourselves? What are we willing to leave behind in order to have God and the life that only God can give to us?
Listen: If a person is diagnosed with cancer, the only way they can live is if the cancer is killed or removed. The only way this man could live was if he willingly laid aside the sin that controlled his life.
Jesus wanted this man to have eternal life with God, just as He wants all people to have eternal life.
By His death and resurrection, Jesus has brought eternal life to us. All we must do to receive it is be willing to lay aside our sins, allow them to be killed (which is what Jesus means by taking up our crosses), and follow Jesus.
Jesus promises in Matthew 24:13 that “the one who endures [in following Him]...will be saved.” What a promise!
But it’s hard to let go of our prevailing sins, hard to let go of the delusion of being in charge of our lives.
After her husband left her, a woman started attending worship at one of our former parishes. Devastated, she took solace in the bottle. She never missed work or worship. But the strong smell of alcohol could be detected by anyone who shared the peace with her on Sunday. The alcohol made her feel more able to deal with the pain.
She was sure she was in control until, one day, a friend happened upon her in her house, about to take her own life.
Thank God for answering the prayers of many for that woman! She went through treatment at a hospital and started going to AA meetings. She let go of her prevailing sins: the desire to be like God, covetousness for the life styles enjoyed by others, and indifference to the willful destruction of the body God gave to her.
She took up these crosses, submitted to the crucifixion of her sins, and followed Jesus. Today, she is healthy, still in recovery, and following Jesus, Whose grace brings eternal life--life with God--to those who surrender to Him.
Verse 22 of our gospel lesson tells us that the man “was sad at this word [from Jesus], and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Letting go of his little gods was a bigger price than he was willing to pay for the free gift of new life God grants to all who believe in Jesus.
Jesus too was sorrowful because He knew, as He tells the disciples in verse 27, “With men, it is impossible...” That is, the efforts of human beings to keep God’s commandments or to live lives worthy of eternal life with God will always fail. So will the efforts of others, like the man who comes to Jesus in today’s lesson, to have some of the God we know in Christ, but keep back a little for themselves.
But, Jesus says what is impossible to us is more than possible with God. “For with God,” Jesus says, “all things are possible.”
May God give us the power each day to let go of our sins and keep following Jesus. Amen
Agnus Day (the series from which the above comic strip is taken) appears with the permission of www.agnusday.org
Leave it behind
You've got to leave it behind
All that you fashion, all that you make
All that you build, all that you break
All that you treasure, all that you feel
All this you can leave behind
All that you reason, all that
(It's only time and I'll never fill up all my mind)
All that you sense, all that you scheme
All that you dress up, and all that you see
All you create, all that you wreck.
All that you hate.
[from Walk On by U2. Composed by Adam Clayton, Dave Evans, Paul Hewson, amd Larry Mullen, Jr.]