The children and the man

Here comes that man again, running up to Jesus with the big question he can’t answer himself. And before the man is close enough to kneel before Jesus, we already hear the echo of those dreaded words from Jesus’ lips, “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.”

We have heard the story before, many times, we know he will go away grieving, for he had much to give away. A part of us grieves with him as we watch him leave. We like the fellow; he’s sincere about wanting to do the right thing, and his desire to inherit eternal life is genuine. We put ourselves in his shoes, and wonder what our response would be to Jesus’ unsettling proposition.

The words from the letter to the Hebrews still echo in our minds, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit (…) it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare.”

The word of God is living and active, not safely contained between the covers of an old book; we cannot tame it with calligraphy we hang on the wall for a little inspiration. The word of God gets to us and leaves us unsettled. You may think twice before you cross stitch “Let the little children come to me” on your sofa pillow, for it may disrupt your slumber. The word of God is living and active and sharp, rendering us naked and bare before God. We wrap ourselves in all kinds of protective layers, but the word of God cuts through them like butter; it is aimed at the heart and it never misses.

“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.” Am I too rich for eternal life? Is my stuff getting between me and the life God wants for me and us and the whole creation? Is my stuff getting between me and the life I really want? Do I have to sell what I own and give it to the poor? All of it? Actually, I’m not rich, not really, am I? Donald Trump is rich, very rich, he says so himself. The story probably isn’t for me, it’s for people like him. I’m comfortable, but I’m not rich. Oprah is rich; Bill and Malinda Gates are rich, and the Koch brothers.

Our minds are very adept at adding layers so we don’t stand quite so naked and bare before God. Surely this episode isn’t to be taken literally. Surely the preacher can point to some spiritual meaning that won’t leave me penniless.

In conversation, one of us will tell the rest what she picked up on a blog or in the comment section of her study Bible. According to some medieval commentary ‘the eye of the needle’ was the name of one of the city gates in Jerusalem. In order for a camel to get through, the burden had to be taken off its back, and the camel had to get on its knees. This was obviously an excellent interpretation for a time when church leaders wanted to build cathedrals and monasteries: tell folks who wish to enter the kingdom to get on their knees and write checks until the burden on their back is small enough to fit through the gate. A convenient interpretation for a capital campaign, but one that misses the point entirely. Let alone that there never was such a gate. The word of God is living and active and sharp, and no effort of ours can render it convenient and dull or dead. There’s no easy button.

Just before this scene with the rich man, Mark tells us about the people who were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. And Jesus said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”[1] A little child is the personification of need and trusting dependence.  The rich man in today’s lesson is everything a little child is not; he is the personification of power, achievement, and confident independence. He is used to getting things done. When presented with a challenge, he has various options at his disposal, and a solution is never more than a phone call away. But he ran, Mark tells us, to get to Jesus, and now he’s kneeling in the dust. This man isn’t playing games. Something is missing in his life, and he is looking for more than words he can hang on the wall of his office.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by naming six of the ten commandments. “I have kept all these since my youth,” the man replies. Nothing in the story suggests that he is lying or bragging. He is a good man who has done everything right, yet his achievements are not enough. His virtues are not sufficient. Even his keeping of the commandments cannot still the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus loves this man, perhaps for his integrity, perhaps for his sincerity, his commitment to living a God-pleasing life. Perhaps Jesus loves him for asking big questions, questions that matter. And Jesus tells the man who wants to know what to do, what to do. “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”

The two back-to-back scenes in Mark’s telling of the gospel highlight a great irony: the little children who possess nothing, don’t lack anything – the kingdom of God is theirs. Yet this man who has achieved so much and knows so much, and possesses so much, lacks the one thing that would open to him the door to eternal life. “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” He can’t do it.

“Children,” Jesus says to the disciples, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” They are as perplexed as we are. The eye of the needle is small, too small to squeeze through – then who can be saved? The word of God is living and active and sharp, rendering us naked and bare before God.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is: nothing. We cannot save ourselves. Neither accumulating wealth, knowledge or goodness, nor giving it all away will save us. God alone saves us. And so the question becomes, “What has God done to save us, to give us eternal life, to bring us into the kingdom?” The answer is a life lived for us; the answer is a name, the word God has spoken to us in these last days: Jesus Christ. He is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword. He cuts through all the protective layers we have put on. We want to believe that with enough money or education or goodness we will be able to secure our own future. And God’s Messiah stands before us, looking at us, loving and us, and saying, “No. Let go off all that and follow me.”

The good news of Jesus Christ sounds like bad news at first: we cannot save ourselves. But it is good news: we cannot save ourselves. And so we can stop trying and failing and trying harder and failing. We can stop running and we can start living as followers of Jesus on the way to the kingdom. He invites us to trust God with the work of saving us. He calls us to trust God with our lives and our future, and to begin living for God and for each other. He invites us to stop being anxiously self-centered and to find life by being attentive to God and to each other.

Ken Carder wrote in the Christian Century,

If our worth is based on what we know or own or achieve, we are always going to be insecure, for our value will depend on that which is precarious and temporary. Instead of loving one another, sharing with one another, nurturing the well-being of one another, we compete with one another, use one another, abuse one another and discard one another.[2]

A focus on what we can achieve easily leads to solitary, empty lives. But for those who follow Jesus on the way, a different world emerges, a new world. Jesus says that those who leave behind their self-made lives for the life God freely gives and shares will receive the kingdom. Entering the kingdom or inheriting eternal life is not a matter between a man and his God or a woman and her God; it involves us all, men and women, rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, and it transforms us all into a new family of brothers and sisters, a new household of equals, the whole people of God in the kingdom of God.

That is the call to which we seek to respond with our whole lives here at Vine Street, personally and communally. We learn to trust God completely with our lives and our future, and we learn to give ourselves completely to God’s work in the world.

You’ve heard and read about the prayer triplets, many of you have already signed up for them, and others are still waiting to hear from Dick and our Vision Team what exactly those triplets are going to be about. They will be about prayer, about turning to God with some of our biggest questions; and they will be about honest, vulnerable speech, about turning to each other and hearing each other out as we talk about our hopes and fears and the call of God. We will hear more details about the triplets today when we gather downstairs after worship, and every last detail receives its meaning from the long arc of God’s creative and redemptive mission: We are called to trust God completely with our lives and our future, and to give ourselves completely to God’s work in the world.


[1] Mk 10:15

[2] Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches (Mk. 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997, p. 831