Mark 10:17-31

This story is not really about selling all we own. It is not about camels and needle eyes. It is about transformational agape love.

The English language is usually very rich but it also has a major shortcoming when it translates ‘love’ from the ancient Greek words agápe, éros, and philía. All three definitions are important in helping us to understand the sacredness of 'love'. To translate both ‘eros’ and ‘agape’ as we do with the one word ‘love’ is an impoverished translation and does no justice to the agape love that Jesus gave extravagantly to those around him.

Agápe (?γάπη) is concerned primarily with the kind of love reserved for close family members although early Christians broadened this close family love to include other non-biological 'family' members who were followers of the Way of Jesus, sisters and brothers in the faith.

Followers of the Way of Jesus continue to aspire to compassionate agape love for one another because this is how God is seen to love humanity. It is the kind of love that serves others before serving self; that wishes the best for the other person; that recognises the worth of the other person; that gives rather than takes.

Agape became associated with a celebration together in the form of an agape meal often known as a love feast. The word 'agape' occurs over 260 times in the Christian Testament.

Philia (φιλία) is the kind of love associated with loyalty to family, friends and the wider community. It is based upon mutual respect and mutual satisfaction. It is a win-win relationship for the common good. It is sometimes referenced within the Church as “sisterly and brotherly love”. The word 'philia' occurs only 25 times in the Christian Testament so the emphasis of the early communities of followers of the Way of Jesus was placed firmly upon agape love..

Éros (?ρως ) is a Greek word that is never used in the Christian Testament but in the translation from Hebrew to Greek refers to the kind of love that selfishly demands rather than gives. It is self-satisfying and often is used to describe the opposite of agape love. However, it should be noted that the Greek word 'eros' is often the kind of self-love that initially attracts one person to another but over time that eros love can deepen from looking at the 'outside' attractions of another person to an appreciation of the beauty within the other person. In this way eros love can become agape love.

Today's Lectionary reading in Mark 10 vv 17 – 31 is packed with challenging material that is often difficult to understand if we consider it only within the context of 21st century interpretation and ignore the 1st century context in which this Jesus story was written. So this morning I intend to unpack four sections that stand out for me.

The first is v21, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’”

According to the story, this rich young man was a committed Jew who had faithfully kept to all the commandments of Judaism. But Jesus made it plain: rule keeping is not sufficient in itself to live God’s Kin-dom or to change this world for the better. According to Jesus, it is not enough to keep the 613 commandments contained in the Hebrew Testament; it is not enough to keep the 10 Commandments that are often quoted by the Christian Church; to be a follower of Jesus there are just 2 major commandments, “Love God and love one another.”

Verse 21 is a very specific instruction to a particular rich young man with a problem. Although it is important for us NOT to be selfish when it comes to caring for those less well off than ourselves, this story has nothing to do with you and me selling all we have and giving the proceeds to the poor.

This verse is a criticism of the way in which the young man had allowed his self love - his eros love to dominate his life, expressed through his personal pride, his religious pride and his power and money. It is in stark contrast to the self-sacrificing agape love of Jesus.

The warning to the followers of the Way of Jesus as demonstrated by this rich young man is this: the words of religion and slavish keeping of the rules of religion tend to divide but the actions of agape love will always unite. Christian discipleship is not about words used or rules kept but it is about agape love in action. That is what the rich young man was not prepared to give – his wealth, pride and self got in the way of being a servant to all.

His problem was that he allowed his eros love, his self love, to get in the way of agape love. But it is living agape love that Jesus constantly demonstrated that will change us and change the world. It is as we serve that something of God in everybody that we will indeed know what it is to walk beside Jesus.

The second point that strikes me as important is found in vv 23 to 25: “Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.’”

Some New Testament scholars think that this reference to camels and eyes of needles may have have been concerned with the small gate [supposedly known as the needle gate] left available to individual travellers after the large protective city gates were closed for the night - gates so small that camels and armies had no chance of getting through.

However, this eye of the needle story has to be seen within the context of the time as well as the context of Mark's story: it is primarily concerned with the Pharisaic teaching that the proof of God's blessing was to be seen in wealth, power and influence as God's reward for faithfully and religiously keeping all 613 laws. In other words, those who were poor were obviously not welcomed or blessed by God.

No wonder the disciples were confused by Jesus turning the established teaching of the Pharisees the right way up – turning it to God's ways! The disciples, like other Jews at that time, believed that the kingdom of God was reserved for the blessed – in other words for the wealthy and the influential who were truly welcomed and rewarded.

But if the kingdom of God was impossible for the 'blessed' to enter then what chance did the the poor, those of low status and socially despised people such as themselves have of getting into the kingdom of God? The disciples had not yet understood either the teaching or life style of Jesus.

Jesus was correcting these claims of the Pharisees: Jesus said that the kin-dom was not something to come but it was already present, to be lived in the here and now; and Jesus also said that wealth, power and privilege were not proof of God's blessing.

The third point that interests me is in vv 29 and 30: “Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age - houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions - and in the age to come eternal life.”

Notice that to give up everything – to sacrifice everything for Jesus is to be rewarded 100 fold. But we need to be careful of any system of religious carrot and stick; reward and punishment. Isn’t that a similar promise to one used by religious terrorists today who maim and kill in the name of their God experience? To kill an infidel is to be guaranteed a reward of 100 virgins in heaven?

But that is not what the 100 is all about. This passage is not about being rewarded 100 times! The large number simply explains that for people to be truly blessed we need to be agape blessings to others – the reward is in the agape giving rather than in the receiving.

Listen again to the list of rewards: “Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age - houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions - and in the age to come eternal life.”

I think it was Bishop Jack Spong who noted that there was one thing missing in this passage: “.... houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields …” ...the prize for living the Jesus agape love excludes having a new father! The traditional teaching of the Church is that when we are adopted into the Christian family we have new mothers, brothers and sisters in the fellowship but only one Father of us all. I think that this was what Mark was proclaiming - that there is one Father of all!

The final point that strikes me as important is v 31, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” As far as we can tell from the Gospels, Jesus lived and proclaimed servant hood. Jesus the leader even washed the feet of the disciples. This has been very much part of my recent sermons: according to Jesus, to be the greatest in the Kin-dom, you have to be the least important, the one of low status – the servant of all.

The wisdom of the world often regards greatness according to what people accomplish or by how much they own. But in the economy of the Kin-dom of God, greatness is living as the agape servant of all. Words and belief alone do not make us into agape Christians. The only thing that counts in the economy of God’s Kin-dom is servant agape love – a love that enables the hungry to be fed; the thirsty to be given drink; the stranger to be welcomed; those without clothes to be clothed; the sick to be cared for; the prisoners to be visited.

Jesus said that the two most important commandments concerned loving God and loving one's neighbour – these are about lives that are agape actions and not words alone. God cares little about the purity of our doctrines and creeds and the words we say about the Christian faith – but God calls us all to living the agape life of self-sacrifice and servant hood in which the Kingdom is lived and built.

In Matthew 25 Jesus said, ‘As you did it to the least you did it to me’. That is how we who follow the Way of Jesus are called to live. Let us learn from the story of the rich young man'!


'Learning from the Rich Young Man' [Mark 10:17-31]

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18 Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”’ 20 He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.’ 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27 Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29 Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

NB: There is a further exploration of this story of the rich young man as told by Matthew in Study 5 of 'From Easter to Pentecost and Beyond' [2011] Ted Bishop, John Churcher and Betty Saunders [ISBN:978 1 4477 9412 7]

Copyright ©: 2015, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.