Mark 10:13-31. On the inadvisability of carrying a two-ton safe in your back pocket.

“And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “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.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said,  “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

 

This section of Mark’s Gospel is divided into three parts: People bring children to Jesus and the disciples forbid it; a rich and law-abiding man comes to Jesus and goes away sad; and Jesus teaches his disciples about the kingdom of God. Those three parts flow into each other- we’ll go through each in more detail.

Part 1

1. Why is Jesus indignant?

2. Why does the kingdom of God belong to “such”? What is it about the children that makes such as them the heirs of the kingdom?

3. Why does Jesus call his disciples children in v24?

 Part 2

4. Why is the story of the man with great possessions here? What does his question reveal about him?

5. What would be the orthodox Jewish answer to the man’s question? Why does Jesus reply that nobody is good but God? And why does he quote the 2nd table of the law? Does anything strike you as odd about Jesus’ list of commandments?

6. What does Jesus call the man to do if he would inherit eternal life, and what is the one thing the man lacks? Why does the man go away sorrowful? Does Jesus call all rich men to sell their possessions and give them to the poor?

 Part 3

7. Why are disciples “amazed” and then “exceedingly astonished” at Jesus’ words?

8. What does Jesus promise to those who have given other things up to follow him? Why “for my sake and for the gospel”? Does Jesus’ promise ring true in your experience?

 And finally… 9. What theme links all these three parts together, and places them at this point in the overall Gospel narrative?

1. Why is Jesus indignant?

Jesus is indignant because his disciples are misrepresenting his kingdom. In the last chapter, Jesus set a little child before his disciples and told them to welcome little children in his name. He did that in response to a childish (but not child-like) argument which the disciples were having about which of them would be the greatest when the kingdom came. His point there was that in his kingdom, people aren’t obsessed with the status others give them. His disciples are not to seek to be “big men”, because they follow a master who didn’t seek that. Jesus came to serve his people by laying down his life for them. He didn’t come to lord it over them like a tyrant. But here, when people bring children to Jesus, the disciples give the impression that Jesus is a big important ruler. They rebuke those who come with children. What on earth have these people done to merit a rebuke? All they want is some of Jesus’ time. But the disciples think that Jesus won’t want to be bothered with children. They intercept the people who come with children and tell them off- “Jesus is very busy right now” “Don’t you know better than to bother the teacher with your children?” “Jesus hasn’t got time for your children. He’s an important man”. The disciples still haven’t understood what sort of Messiah Jesus came to be. They think that Jesus is the sort of king who’s too full of himself to see the children.

And they are again abusing their authority. Just like in chapter 9, when John gave a rebuke to the man who was casting out demons- the disciples take it upon themselves to be the arbiters of what is and is not permissible. Jesus says “Not in my name, you don’t”. Mark is showing us that the disciples are still confused, still haven’t understood, despite Jesus’ recent teaching.

2. Why does the kingdom of God belong to “such”? What is it about the children that makes such as them the heirs of the kingdom?

A strangely persistent view of this passage is that it refers to the innocence of children. People have a bizarre tendency to go gooey and sentimental, and talk about how children are all angelic sweetness. The moral of such a take on the passage is usually that life-wearied adults would do well to gaze into the clear blue eyes of innocent children, and have their own hardened hearts melted by the simple virtue they will see therein. Of those who teach such a view, one can only wonder whether they were ever children themselves. One certainly wonders whether they’ve ever read the Bible with their eyes open.

The trouble with children is that they are children of Adam. The twistedness of the human heart isn’t something that is learnt as we age, or that comes upon us at some point in our teenage years. Evil comes from within, as Jesus said in chapter 7. Evil isn’t imposed upon us from the outside; it is always there inside us, even during childhood. Sure, a baby has much less opportunity to sin than an adult. An adult can exhibit pride and selfishness and envy in ways just not possible for a child. But that’s because an adult has greater capacity, greater power, than a child. This isn’t misanthropy, it’s demonstrable truth. Children taunt one another, pull the wings off flies, make their brothers and sisters cry, throw tantrums, and do all manner of evil. They are no better than adults; adults just paint the same pictures on bigger canvasses. Even babies, unable to do anything much except cry, suckle, vomit, and soil their nappies, demonstrate by their shrieks that they consider themselves to be supremely important, and everybody else to exist for their needs. And if that’s not a pretty basic sin, then I don’t know what is. Babies are not innocent.

As we’ve already said in a previous study in Ch. 9, the relevant feature of children here is the fact that children had no standing in Jewish society. It is their objective social status in view. A child must treat everything not as a right but as a privilege. Paul draws a relevant picture in Galatians 4 where he says that a child, until he becomes a man, is like a slave. He is the heir, but until he grows, he is below slaves, under the authority of slaves. Children are low-status. The kingdom of God belongs to the child-like because it belongs to the poor in spirit. It belongs to the meek, to those who recognise that they have no rights before God, that all they can do is to come as beggars, as children seeking unmerited blessing. The kingdom of God is all about grace, and grace is undeserved favour shown to judgement-deserving sinners.

3. Why does Jesus call his disciples children in v24?

Simply because they are heirs to the kingdom of God. They might be obtuse and overconfident and wrong-headed in so many ways, but they’ve got the big thing right. They are child-like followers of Jesus. Jesus called them, and they came. They followed Jesus with no preconditions. Nothing in their hands they’ve brought. They know that all their hopes, all their safety, all their salvation, lie in Jesus. They are inconsistent when it comes to working that out in practise, but the fundamental reality is there nonetheless.

4. Why is the story of the man with great possessions here? What does his question reveal about him?

This account fits into the narrative at this point because this man stands in clear contrast to the children. The disciples forbade the children from coming to Jesus- they thought that Jesus had more important things to do than deal with children- he had a kingdom to build. But this man is exactly the sort of man whom the disciples think ought to be coming to Jesus. They expect Jesus to have all the time in the world for a potential convert like this one. After all, what’s not to like about him? He’s rich; he has all sorts of resources which he can use to help build Jesus’ kingdom. He can fund grand projects, pay for an army, feed many followers. He’ll be a man of influence himself. If he comes to follow Jesus, then surely many who look up to him will follow in his footsteps. Surely this is exactly the sort of fellow anybody wants on their side. He has so much to offer. He’d be an asset to any cause. So although the disciples thought of themselves as gatekeepers to Jesus, barring the children from his presence, this is one man who is allowed in.

He looks like a great prospect for conversion. He shows great respect for Jesus. He comes and kneels before him, and addresses him in deferent language. He thinks of Jesus as a great teacher, and comes wanting to submit to Jesus’ authority. He is willing to ask questions of Jesus, acknowledging that Jesus has the answers and he himself stands in need of the answers. Rich men aren’t always so humble.

But he still wants to “do” something. That word is very significant, given the context. We can see from the question that this man isn’t truly child-like in his approach. He is willing to come to Jesus, but he isn’t ready to come with empty hands. He doesn’t want to come like a child, humble and poor and knowing he can do nothing for Jesus. This man stands in contrast to the children who know they can do nothing.

Some may say that to accuse the man of wanting to earn Jesus favour is to read too much into his question. After all, very few people are quite so precise with language as to mean substantially different things when they say “What should I do to join the club?” and “How can I join the club?” So are we reading too much into his question and putting words into his mouth? Not really. The conversation between this man and Jesus was probably a bit longer than the few lines of dialogue we have here. But Mark summarises it for us. The purpose of summary is to encapsulate the essence of a speech in a few words. You’re supposed to read things into summary. Or, rather, you’re supposed to read things out of summary, which is exactly what we’ve done.

5. What would be the orthodox Jewish answer to the man’s question? Why does Jesus reply that nobody is good but God? And why does he quote the 2nd table of the law? Does anything strike you as odd about Jesus’ list of commandments?

Who did the Jews think would be saved? All good Israelites, of course! The Jews looked to a day in the future, the day of the Lord. On that day, they expected God to act in dramatic and marvellous ways. It would be like the exodus from Egypt, and the conquest of Caanan under Joshua, and the way David defeated all his enemies, all rolled into one. God would defeat all his enemies- who were the same as Israel’s enemies- and God’s people would live in security and prosperity forever. And who will be saved in that day? God’s people will be saved. Israel will be saved. So what must an individual do to be saved? He must be a good Israelite. And being a good Israelite meant keeping the covenant made between God and Israel at Sinai. It meant being circumcised and keeping the law. “Do this and live”- Deuteronomy 30:15f, Ezekiel 33:15f. So if this man is circumcised, and if he keeps himself pure and undefiled. If he is careful to keep the law, and to offer the proper sacrifices whenever he breaks it- why then he will be saved.

Jesus says that nobody is good but God. It looks like he is picking up on a side issue arising from the way the man phrased his question, addressing Jesus as “Good teacher”. But really, Jesus is going to the heart of the man’s question. Jesus makes this comment to point out that nobody is good by God’s standards of goodness. Nobody will be saved through the law.

Lots of people think that Jesus is making a veiled claim to sinlessness here, or perhaps even (since only God is good) a veiled claim to divinity. I don’t doubt for a moment that Jesus is sinless, or that Jesus is God. But a claim to sinlessness isn’t central to the thrust of this passage. It doesn’t have anything to do with the question Jesus had been asked. Jesus’ intent isn’t to ask the ruler “Do you think I’m sinless?”, or even, “Do you think I am somehow to be identified with God, one with the Father?” He makes the comment to show that nobody is holy as God is holy. It doesn’t matter how well an Israelite kept the law, or how truly he was an Israelite- he could never be good enough.

At Sinai, when God offered Israel that covenant based on the law, Israel were insane to accept. Had they had an ounce of self-knowledge, surely they’d have said “Lord God, it is too much for us. We cannot keep such a law. We don’t need a covenant like this- we need a saviour.” But they didn’t. Moses told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the rules. And the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 24:3). That was suicidal. No Israelite- Jesus himself excepted- ever kept the law. Paul makes the point that to break the law even in just one point, is to be a law breaker. You have the same status as someone who’s broken the lot. You can’t be a little bit of a law breaker any more than you can be a bit pregnant. By God’s standards, nobody can “do” enough to be saved.

Which is why Jesus goes on to quote from the law given at Sinai. This law is the standard of righteousness for Israel. It was summarised on two tablets, the first four laws concerning the proper and exclusive worship of God, and the second six dealing with proper relationships among God’s people. Why does Jesus quote only from the second six? Or to put a slightly different question, why does Jesus not quote the first table? Surely the commands about loving God are no less important, and no easier to keep, than the commands about loving your neighbour? Clearly, the command to have no gods before god, and not to make idols, and to use God’s name with respect, and to give proper time to God, are fundamentally important laws- more so than laws about honouring ones parents, and the rest. And the first four laws are just as “outward” as the second six. If a man used God’s name carelessly, it would be just as apparent to his friends and neighbours- perhaps more apparent- than if he were a habitual liar.

The second table is used, I think, because our own breaches of the second table are often more clear-cut. Jesus is offering a diagnostic test here- how can a man know whether he is a law-keeper? The results of a test need to be clear for the test to have value. Someone might not have any obvious graven images, and might be careful with his curses, and might profess to worship God, and might spend one day in seven engaging in worship rather than the work of the other six days. But how can you test the sincerity of his love for God? How can you know it’s real? Well, a good test is to look at the way he treats his parents, and the way he behaves around other people. Is he scrupulous not to take what isn’t his? Is his heart set on the possessions of his neighbour? Does he set a premium on honesty? A man’s relationships with other men are often the discernible measure of his reverence for God.

To an Israelite, who would have known the contents of Exodus 20 for as long as he could remember, there are a few peculiarities here. What happened to the command about coveting? And why is defrauding mentioned?  Defrauding goes in, which is a form of theft and lying, and coveting is dropped. Why?

Maybe a mention of covetousness would be a distraction. Paul talks about coveting as the one commandment which hit him. He was very like this man (maybe he is this man), see his statements in Philippians 3 and Romans 7 for the similarity. And the coveting commandment is the one out of the ten that’s inward, the one that deals immediately with the heart. The other nine deal with the heart, but through the lens of outward behaviour. Perhaps if Jesus had spoken about covetousness, this man would have fixed onto that and said to himself, “Ah, Jesus is right. I’ve kept the other commandments, but not this one. I do covet. So the answer is obviously to try harder and to stop coveting. Then I’ll inherit eternal life!”

6. What does Jesus call the man to do if he would inherit eternal life, and what is the one thing the man lacks? Why does the man go away sorrowful? Does Jesus call all rich men to sell their possessions and give them to the poor?

Following on from the previous question, Jesus’ point isn’t that this man needs to try harder. In fact, quite the opposite. Jesus knows that the man needs a new heart. He needs to see himself as broken and helpless. He needs to recognise just how deep is his need of a saviour.

 Jesus tells the man to do two things- firstly to sell all that he has and give to the poor, and secondly to come and follow him. But Jesus also says that there is only one thing the man lacks. The two things the man needs to do are really the same thing. This man’s problem is that he won’t see himself as a child. He won’t see himself as needy and incapable. Jesus tells him that if he wants to be a disciple, then he must first make himself poor.

This man’s money has become an idol to him. He is wealthy, and he has put his trust in his riches. His fundamental self image is that he is rich, he is able, he is self-sufficient, he can do things. That needs to change if he is going to follow Jesus. Jesus tells the man that the first thing he has to do is to put his idol to death. For this man, money is a real problem. Money is preventing him from thinking of himself as needy. So he has got to get rid of it.

We read that the man was disheartened by the saying, and went away sorrowful. His possessions were a snare to him. Jesus told him he had to give them up, and he didn’t want to. His wealth was more important to him that Jesus was. He didn’t see how much he needed Jesus.

Perhaps that is a problem common to rich men. Jesus says it is- he says it is very hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. If it is a problem for rich men, then it is also a problem for intelligent men and powerful men. Men who trust themselves rather than trusting Jesus Christ, cannot be his disciples. To follow Jesus, they first need to stop worshipping their money or their brains, or whatever it is they like about themselves. And that is going to be very difficult for them.

Paul tells us that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong”, and God did it, “so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God”. The wise, the strong, the wealthy, the powerful- they need to be humbled before they can come into God’s kingdom.

Not all rich men have this problem. There are rich believers whom God has entrusted with money. And they use it well. But they see themselves as stewards of the money, not as owners of it. They do not think of themselves as rich. If you’ve read the Lord of the Rings books, you’ll know that the sort of man who can be trusted with power is a man like Faramir, not a man like Denethor or Boromir. Money is no different. How easy it is for a rich man to serve himself rather than God. Stewards are easily seduced into thinking that they are kings.

7. Why are disciples “amazed” and then “exceedingly astonished” at Jesus’ words?

The disciples are amazed and astonished at Jesus’ words, so Jesus repeats himself in more colourful language, and leaves them even more astonished. Ever tried squashing a camel through the eye of a needle? An impossible job, you’d think. But it’s even harder, says Jesus, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The way to heaven is narrow indeed- narrower than the eye of a needle.  There is an argument that the eye of a needle was a gate in Jerusalem. I find that unconvincing- partly because Mark is writing (primarily) for a Gentile audience, and I think it likely that he’d have inserted an explanatory note had one been needed. But whatever the merits of the argument, it doesn’t change the thrust of the passage. Jesus means to convey the idea of a comical impossibility. If you’ve got a ton of money, and you like to carry it around with you in a two-ton safe, you won’t be going anywhere very fast. You won’t even make it out of your front door, let alone all the way up to heaven. Jesus wants to hammer it home that he does really mean that rich men are desperately unlikely to enter the kingdom of God.

The disciples voice their surprise, saying “If a rich man can’t get into heaven, then who can?” In Jewish thought, it was unthinkable that money should be a barrier, separating a man from God. The reverse was assumed to be true. A rich man was clearly a man enjoying God’s blessing, was he not? Didn’t God make Abraham wealthy? Wasn’t it a blessing when he enriched Jacob? Wasn’t holy Job a rich man? The answers are “Maybe”, “Yes”, “Yes”, and Yes, then no, then yes again”. Read verses like Job1:10, 42:10, Ps 128:1-2, Isa 3:10. Money was generally supposed to be a signal of God’s favour. Your wealth on earth indicated that you had treasure in heaven too. God had blessed you. Of course there were rich men who weren’t thought to be under God’s blessing. Tax-collecters like Levi and Zaccheus were rich, but were thought to have sold their inheritance above for money on earth. Usually, however, riches were thought to be a demonstration of God’s favour on a people or an individual. So the disciples think that if anybody will be in God’s kingdom, it will be the rich folk. After all, God is already pleased with them. He smiles upon them and gives them heated swimming pools and luxury yachts. When Jesus tells them that it is exceedingly hard for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom, they are shocked.

Jesus turns their worldview upside-down. Repeatedly, he has said that his people are the poor in spirit, the hungry, the meek, the persecuted, the “sinners” who know they need salvation. That’s hard for anybody- Jesus says that it is impossible from a human point of view. We are all hard-wired to rely on our own resources, be that money, qualifications, perceived goodness, or whatever. If any sort of righteousness can be said to come naturally to us, then it’s works-righteousness. But with God, all things are possible. God can take anyone, and make him feel his poverty, make him see how he has broken the law a thousand times over, and drive him to the saviour he needs.

8. What does Jesus promise to those who have given other things up to follow him? Why “for my sake and for the gospel”? Does Jesus’ promise ring true in your experience?

Peter begins to point out that they, the disciples, really have become poor for Jesus’ sake. They’ve  left their businesses, their homes, their families, to follow Jesus. Peter had a mother in law (so presumably a wife) and a trade as a fisherman. But when Jesus called him, he followed. He now spends his time travelling the countryside as Jesus preaches and teaches. He’s preached and taught himself, and worked miracles. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence. They live on charity, and often sleep rough. They’ve given up anything they had in this world, for Jesus sake.

Jesus says that nobody who has given up these things will be the loser thereby. Whatever they’ve sacrificed- house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands- they’ll have it returned with interest even in this life. And they’ll live forever in the life to come. . But they can only have it by being willing to lose what they’ve got.

Jesus’ promise doesn’t mean things will all be roses- there will be thorns aplenty. Jesus warns of persecutions. But those who are serving Jesus don’t suffer alone. Those who suffer for Jesus’ sake and the Gospel’s – Jesus and the gospel are identified. If you go back to the way Mark started this book- “”, you see that he sees that the Gospel is Jesus and Jesus is the Gospel.

What sort of blessing in particular is Jesus talking about? In what way have the disciples been rewarded with houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands? Mostly through the fellowship of believers, the embryonic church. They’ve lost things temporarily, but those things have been regained in a better form. The disciples are a family, closer than any natural family. They don’t dwell in their own houses and lands, but houses and lands are nonetheless opened to them.

Is Jesus’ promise true in our own experience? If we’re living like Christians, then it will be. All Jesus’ promises are. Mostly, this promise is going to become reality through local churches. Believers may find that their families and friends forsake them. They may find that they lose their jobs. But they have a ready-made family for them. They have those who will weep with them, rejoice with them, pray with and for them, provide for their physical needs. Jesus founded the church. He gave it apostles and prophets at its foundation. He has continued to care for it and watch over it for 2000 years. And it takes expression in local congregations. We are supposed, as Christians, to join together with the Christians around us, to worship together, to commit to one another’s welfare. That works out in a small way in a group like this, but the primary way in which is works out, is in local churches, meeting together week by week, where there are those who shepherd the flock and those who look after the weak. Things lost are regained in a new and glorious form, and although the kingdom has come already, it isn’t here yet- things get even better.

9. What theme links all these three parts together, and places them at this point in the overall Gospel narrative?

Really, we’ve answered this already. The three parts are intimately connected in terms of the theme that runs through them. Those who are in God’s kingdom are the ones who come humbly, like children. They tend not to be rich, and they can’t come with an attitude of self-sufficiency. But though they are willing to lose everything for Jesus’ sake, they lose nothing by following Jesus. He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. All good things come as corollaries of Jesus’ rule, not in and of themselves. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.

That fits into Mark’s overall scheme here. He is dealing with the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. The disciples still think that it’s a kingdom for rich men, and they want to attract the powerful and wealthy. Jesus wants those who are meek and lowly.

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