God gives – we receive. It’s that simple

Pentecost 21 – 2018

Mark 10:17-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us everything and demands nothing in return. Amen.

The importance of life-long learning is that not only does it broaden our minds and our understanding, but that it also it assists in putting misconceptions and falsehoods to bed. Many of us will have been brought up with the “fact” that there was a gate in the wall in Jerusalem through which travellers could pass once the gates had been closed for the evening. This gate, we were told, was substantially smaller than the main city gates and, while sufficient for a person, could only be passed through by a camel if its load had been removed and if the camel itself stooped to its knees. When one really thinks about it, the story has to be apocryphal – can anyone really imagine a camel crawling on its knees, or a weary traveller taking the load off his camel only to replace it once the camel is through the gate? A smart trader would have timed the journey to arrive when the gate was opened in the morning and close to the time that the market was scheduled to open.

There never was such a gate in Jerusalem but the mythology has prevailed. At the same time much ink has been spent in trying to explain Jesus’ statement about the “eye of a needle” – for example, is the word translated as “camel” really meant to be translated as “rope”[1]?

The story of the gate (and the apparent need for it to be explained) goes some way to illustrate the difficulties that many have in coming to terms with the story of the encounter between Jesus and the young man. So little information is provided by the text that we find ourselves adding details that are not there. For example, though we are not told as much, we speculate that the young man was unhappy with his life or that his possessions controlled him. To let ourselves off the hook we make out that Jesus’ direction to “sell what you own” applied only to the situation of the young man. When we focus on the aspect of the young man’s possessions, we miss other details that are significant. Why, when only about 3% of the population live above the poverty line, would the disciples be “perplexed” and ask: “Then who can be saved?” It is an odd response. Surely, they do not think that everyonein the first century Mediterranean is too wealthy to be saved[2]? Is it possible that they (the disciples) think that they won’t be saved?

A further point of interest is Jesus’ reaction to the young man. It is the only occasion in Mark’s gospel that we are told that Jesus loved someone (and that the one so loved turns his back on that love).

Our focus on the needle and the gate demonstrates a certain discomfort around the question of riches and possessions – how rich is too rich? How many possessions are too many? From positions of relative comfort in the Western world we seek to work out how Jesus’ conversation with the young man applies to us and this is important. The gospel has some very clear messages about wealth and our use of our resources.

Without wanting to minimise that aspect of the gospel, I believe that it is important to examine the story of the young man (Mark does not call him ‘rich’) in its context.

We not that immediately before the young man approaches Jesus, Jesus blesses the children and claims that; “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it”. As Hamm points out, one does not earn an inheritance, one receivesit. It may be then that the young man’s question is misplaced. He asks: “What must I do?” Unlike the children who simply accept and receive what is offered, the young man believes that he must earneternal life.

Perhaps the problem lies here. The issue at the heart of this encounter is one of trust. The young man does not trust in the promises of God, he believes that though he is doing what is required by the law that there is yet more that he must do. This explains why he fails to see (or accept) that Jesus loves him. He does not accept that he is worthy of God’s love. We assume that he turns away because his possessions have a hold on him but it is possible that he simply has no confidence that Jesus loves him and will continue to love him – no matter what he does or does not do.

Our concern with the wealth of the young man allows us to pass over the disciples’ almost inexplicable confusion and Jesus’ response; “With mortals it is impossible, but not for God, with God all things are possible.” Mortals, mere humans can never do enough, be good enough to earn God’s favour – perfection, godliness is impossible. No matter – God dispenses God’s favour and love lavishly and indiscriminately. Our task is to trust in that love and to see where that trust might lead us. Along the way we just may discover that there are all kinds of things (possessions, resentments, insecurities) that we might just be able to dispense with.

God’s love is a given. Just as Jesus loved the young man – as he was – so God loves us, just as we are.

God gives – we receive. It may just be that simple.

 

 

[1]In this instance, Jesus is not being original. We can find similar sayings in other ancient texts (Jewish and otherwise). It simply means that something is unlikely if not impossible.

[2]They are right to be confused. In their culture wealth was associated with honour and status and, most importantly in relation to their question, with divine favour. Wealth was a blessing, a sign of being in a right relationship with God.

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