Oct 14, 2018

“Entering the Kingdom” 10-14-18

Mark 10:17-31
21st Sunday after Pentecost
October 14th, 2018

The theme of today’s passage is eternal life.  A man asks Jesus what he must do to get eternal life: Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?   It ends with Jesus telling his disciples that those who leave everything for him will, in the age to come, receive eternal life.   In between the man’s opening question about eternal life and Jesus’ closing declaration about eternal life is a startling revelation about the difficulty of entering the Kingdom of God.

Today’s narrative has come to be known as that of the rich young ruler.  This is a composite, based on the three accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Matthew 19:20, 22 tell us that he was a young man.  Luke 18:18 tells us that he was a ruler.  Though all three of the synoptists cover the same ground, Mark’s rendering is far and away the most highly dramatic.  It opens with movement.  A man runs to Jesus and kneels before him.  In Matthew & Luke, the narrative just begins with the man putting the question to Jesus.  In Mark, after the man affirms that he has faithfully kept the commandments, we are told that Jesus, fixing his gaze on the man, loved him! Only Mark tells us this.  Moreover, Mark alone tells us that when the man hears that he must sell everything and give it to the poor and then follow Jesus, the man was appalled!  He was shocked and went away grieved.  Matthew and Luke also report that he went away grieved, but they do not tell us that he was appalled. This mention of being appalled shows how deeply it shattered the man’s expectations.  We can think of Ezekiel’s laments over Tyre and Egypt in chapters 27, 28, 32.   For example, Ezekiel 27:35, “All the inhabitants of the coastlands are appalled at you; and their kings are horribly afraid, their faces are convulsed.”

Thus, in Mark’s narrative there are a lot of deep emotions on display.  This man is urgent.  Jesus loves him.  The man is appalled, shocked, he cannot believe his ears!!!  But, it does not stop there.  When the man leaves, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom.”  In Mark, the disciples are first perplexed and then, after Jesus repeats the saying, astounded.   In both Matthew and Mark the disciples are amazed; however, in Mark Jesus repeats the “how hard it is to enter the kingdom” saying twice, with the second time an absolute generalization. 

The famous “camel through the eye of a needle” saying is found in all three accounts and emphasizes the virtual impossibility of entering the kingdom as a human achievement.  The camel was the largest animal commonly known in Palestine at this time.  In a few ancient manuscripts there is a variant reading, kamilon, which indicates a rope of some kind, instead of the more commonly attested kamelon.  However, this is to be rejected as an obvious attempt to mitigate the difficulty, even if the mitigation is only slight.  The “camel” is far more typical of the dramatic language that our Lord uses to make his points.

In this message I would like to first call attention to the distinction Jesus makes between inheriting and entering the kingdom in the exchange with the rich young ruler.  The man asks about inheriting eternal life; his going away sad illustrates, for Jesus, the difficulty of entering the kingdom.  So, while Jesus equates eternal life with entering the kingdom, he at the same time compels us to think about the difference between entering and inheriting.  The basic difference, of course, relates to time.  “Inheriting” is ordinarily eschatological.  It points to the consummation, to the resurrection.  This is what the rich young ruler is asking about.  He is asking about his destiny.  He is confident that he is doing all that he knows, but apparently there is a nagging doubt that perhaps there’s something else he needs to do to secure his eternal future.  So he asks about inheriting eternal life.

Along that line we can think of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.  To the sheep on his right—those who, when he was hungry, gave him food, when he was thirsty, gave him something to drink, a stranger, and welcomed him, naked and clothed him, sick and took care of him, in prison and visited him, the Son of Man will say, “Come, you that are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (25:34-36). This is eschatological.  This is the Judgment Day.  Similarly, we may think of St. Paul, who typically speaks of inheriting the kingdom.  Concerning the works of the flesh he says, “Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:21)  Or, along a different line in 1 Corinthians 15:50, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”  Both of these look to the consummation and are, thus, eschatological.   Eternal life and the kingdom of God are one and the same.  Inheriting it looks to the last great day.

Entering the kingdom, however, more commonly refers to this life.  Entering the kingdom is conversion.  Entering the kingdom is new life—the beginning of eternal life in the present.  Jesus invited the rich young ruler to follow him.  When he declined, he failed to enter the kingdom then and there at that moment. 

There is an exception to this usage where entering the kingdom is clearly eschatological.  In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say…”  The phrase, on that day, clearly makes this a reference to the end.  However, this usage is almost the exception that demonstrates the general rule. 

A few verses earlier in Matthew 7:13 Jesus says “Enter through the narrow gate...  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  This language, of course, is very similar to today’s text: “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”  Though those who inherit the kingdom will certainly enter its fullness at the consummation, those who are to inherit it will certainly enter it in this life.

The narrow gate of the Sermon on the Mount brings the rich young ruler’s problem into clear focus.  His wealth prevents him from “squeezing” through the narrow gate of eternal life.  Jesus invites him to “divest” himself of the burden of earthly treasure to find treasure in heaven, but this is regarded as too high a price.  There is a striking contrast here to Christian in John Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress.  At the beginning, Christian is burdened by a heavy weight.  The evangelist directs him to the narrow Wicket Gate to be free of his burden.  When he arrives at the gate, the gate-keeper, Mr. Goodwill, welcomes him and directs him onward to the place of deliverance, where he promises his burden will be lifted.  On reaching the place, the story unfolds in this way: “So I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up to the Cross, his burden fell from off his back; then it continued to tumble down the hill until it fell into the mouth of the sepulcher and was seen no more.”

The comparison with Pilgrim’s Progress reminds us that the narrow gate is the way of repentance and faith.  Christian is burdened with a troubled conscience from which he cannot free himself.  Only by approaching the cross in faith and repentance is the burden loosed.  The rich young ruler is also burdened with a troubled heart, a nagging doubt concerning his eternal security.  What he does not see, though, is that his wealth—his false—confidence is his real burden.  But Jesus sees it and loves him.  He offers him freedom.  

The rich young ruler approaches Jesus with a question that arises from his works mindset—his conviction that “good people” go to heaven and his earnest intent to be sure he was good enough.  He also comes with the conviction, shared even by the disciples, that the rich, by virtue of their ability to be generous in alms-giving, already had an “inside track”, as it were, on the way to heaven.  Jesus’ answer to the man shatters both of these assumptions.  Salvation is by grace through faith.  The man’s wealth, far from putting him at an advantage, is a hindrance.  He trusts in his own resources.  He trusts in his own law-keeping.  The one thing that he lacks is not some extra “work” or righteous action.  What he lacks is whole-hearted trust in God.

Jesus’ answer to the man’s question about inheriting eternal life carries forward the teaching on entering the kingdom from the immediately preceding discussion with the disciples about welcoming the children.  In Mark 10:15, Jesus had said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  As we noted in that connection, children do not receive the kingdom by works.  They receive it as a gift.  Being taken up into Jesus’ arms is the way children receive the kingdom.  With the rich young ruler, this lesson is reinforced in the strongest possible way.  When the disciples hear that it is virtually impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom, they ask, “Who then can be saved?”  Jesus’ answer makes it as plain as can be: salvation is not a human achievement.  Instead, it is only a possibility of divine grace.

Concerning the rich young ruler William Lane writes, “The one thing he lacks is the self-sacrificing devotion which characterizes every true follower of Jesus... True obedience to the law is rendered ultimately in discipleship.”  Lane also points out that Rabbinic tradition actually forbade the wealthy from giving away all of their possessions.  Instead, it set a limit of 20% (double the tithe!) in order to safeguard people from plunging themselves into poverty.  When Jesus challenged the man to sell everything and give it to the poor, Jesus was addressing not only the man’s attachment to wealth but also his basic assumptions about the kingdom, about true “blessedness.”  His thought was, “God forbid that I should ever be poor!”  But Jesus invites him to follow him, which is ultimately an invitation to identify with the poor and needy.  As with everything else in the “upside down” kingdom, this is the only way to real, lasting treasure—the greatest of which, of course, is the company of Jesus.

I heard on the news that Pope Francis recently conferred sainthood on the late Oscar Romero, who was Archbishop of El Salvador.  Though I have a different understanding of sainthood than Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church, it is a wonderful thing that Romero’s life is being honored and remembered in this powerful way.  Archbishop Romero was killed in 1980 by right-wing militants while he was serving the Lord’s Supper.  Romero was an outspoken advocate of the poor and marginalized and his calls for social and economic reforms on their behalf led to his silencing.  He knew the potential for reprisal, but was steadfast in his identification with the cause of the poor.  His martyrdom is a reminder that there are deeds that accompany salvation.
We have seen that the story of the rich young ruler is ultimately about faith and repentance and eternal life.  But we also see that these inward saving graces cannot be separated from appropriate action in the world.  The man was to Go, Sell, Give, and Follow.   By these he would enter into the kingdom, into eternal life in the present life.  Jesus, of course, does not call each and every disciple to go and sell everything.  However, we are all called to hold earthly treasure lightly.  God forbid that we should squeeze through the narrow gate only to burden ourselves again with things that prevent us from keeping up with Jesus, and keeping company with the poor, on the way to the heavenly city!  Amen.


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906