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First Impressions: Mark 10:17-31

October 6, 2009

This week’s text is a prophetic one to those of us who live in the so-called First World, and I wonder how Jesus’ original words sounded to a people to whom wealth and poverty meant very different things than to us.  I am still deciding how I will preach this week.  I may use my standard style, but I may instead preach a narrative sermon focusing on what happened to the man after he left.  What happened to him next?  Did his life change at all?  How so?

10:17-22 The story begins as Jesus prepares for a journey.  This could be significant.  Jesus has already instructed his followers to travel light (Mark 6:8-9) and that they must deny themselves (Mark 8:34).  Is that approach to the journey of faith being contrasted to this man whose possessions prevent him from following?

The man’s intention is to “inherit” eternal life.  Is this only about meeting the minimum requirements?  Is it about becoming a part of the right group or believing the right things?  Or is this the request of a man who wants to know how to be faithful to God?  Whatever the motive of the request, Jesus asks about “the commandments,” but only about those that apply to our relationships with our brothers and sisters.  Jesus does not ask about worshiping God only or keeping the Sabbath or any of the others that are concerned directly with our relationship to God.

Does that mean that when Jesus tells the man he is lacking one thing, he is alluding to the man’s relationship to his Creator?  Are the many possessions blocking a free, healthy connection to God?  I also note that in Mark’s version of the story the concern is possessions and not wealth.  (Although, to be fair, in the next paragraph, Jesus does speak about wealth and the way it prevents kingdom living.)

One of my colleagues has mentioned that this is a particular story about one man’s encounter with Jesus.  It may not provide a general rule for all disciples.  If I were to meet Jesus as he was setting out on a journey, he might tell me I need to stop watching so much baseball on T.V.  Or cut the candy out of my diet.  (It’s not my fault, really.  My wife put out the Halloween goodies early.)  The right question may be, “what is blocking your relationship to God?”  Even though Jesus only asks about the last six commandments, perhaps this is a sermon about the first four.

I am seriously considering telling a story in place of my usual sermon.  I am thinking about creating a narrative about what happened to the man after he left Jesus.  It would be a tale about a man wrestling with the hard sayings of Jesus while trying to be faithful.  The problem is that I don’t yet know how it would end.  Would the man find his way to the kingdom?  Or would he keep a hold of his possessions and be lost forever?

10:23-27 I will probably not focus on this section of the text, though I will need to discuss it briefly.  Most modern commentators want us to take Jesus’ image literally, rather than trying to turn the “eye of a needle” into a gate that was difficult for a camel to get through.  We can emphasize that the kingdom isn’t a place we can get into apart from the power of God.  It is God’s gift, and not an earned commodity.  If I were to preach this section, I would focus on the images of gift and grace.

10:28-31 This is an odd section.  Jesus has been telling us of the necessity of getting rid of possessions and wealth, of stripping ourselves of all the trappings that keep us from God, so why does he then promise Peter and the others that they will get those things back a hundredfold?  Isn’t that just a hundredfold’s worth of hindrance?  Isn’t the ultimate goal to be free of those things so that we can be free in the kingdom of God?  Some believe that Jesus was referring to the new Christian community that would hold its possessions in common and in which no one would be left wanting (M. Eugene Boring and Fred CraddockThe People’s New Testament Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 151.).  In either case, it is worth noting that Jesus also promises a hundredfold of fields “with persecutions.”  Can’t say he didn’t warn you.

What’s your take on the text?  Was Jesus generalizing for all of us?  Or was the message of verse 21 only for the man in the story?

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