“The Most Challenging Thing Jesus Ever Said”
A Sermon on Mark 10:17-31 for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached October 11, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“I’m actually happy when I get stopped at the red light there on your corner,” she said. “Because then I get a chance to actually read the sermon title you’ve put out there for the week.” This was a comment made to me just a few days ago, as my fellow religious life professionals serving the UConn community were chatting after our monthly meeting. In this case, the “she” who said this was none other than Elly Daugherty, our relatively new Dean of Students here at UConn.
Elly comes to our meetings on an intermittent basis as part of her role as Dean of Students, not as clergy or one of the campus ministry group leaders. But she is an active parishioner down the street at St. Thomas Aquinas, and even more, along her educational journey she actually spent some time in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, right across the street from where I went to seminary. So she’s no novice-from-secular-academia when it comes to matters of religious life. After she said how she often finds the titles out on the sign thought-provoking, I mentioned what the title was for this week: “The Most Challenging Thing Jesus Ever Said.” “Forgive others?” she proposed in reply.
Now, indeed, extending forgiveness—true forgiveness—to others is a hard thing. In fact, perhaps one of the harder practices of the Christian faith that any of us has the hope of growing into across our life journey. Nevertheless, though, I’m not convinced it is the most challenging thing Jesus said, since the practice of forgiveness is, in fact, something we can live and grow into. It is possible, and it is filled with promise, for both the one being forgiven and the one called to forgive.
My guess is that there aren’t very many of us, on the other hand, who hear much promise in the words Jesus spoke in today’s passage from Mark. In fact, for most of us as middle-class North Americans, we might even feel a bit pierced by parts of today’s story. Or at the very least, we’re more than a little uncomfortable with it.
In case you missed it, the basic gist of the story is this: a man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to him “you know the commandments,” and then rattles off a handful that probably sound familiar to us, coming from a portion of the Ten Commandments. The man replies to Jesus that he keeps all the commandments, and so Jesus tells him, ‘wait, you lack one thing: go and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you’ll have treasure in heaven and you can come and follow me.” The man then, we are told, goes away, grieving, “for he had many possessions.” After all of that, Jesus further muses to his disciples about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, that 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.
Jesus’ words seem harsh to us. This doesn’t sound like the nice gentle Jesus we like to keep around, the Jesus of glowing paintings and fuzzy felt-board Sunday School lessons. We don’t tend to like what this Jesus says to the man who came to him with the question. We don’t like what this Jesus has to say about wealth.
You know, most days I don’t think of myself as “rich”. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am not a person living in poverty. But in our culture, most of us think “rich” means country club memberships or private jets or having a Mercedes and a Tesla in the garage. That $250,000 household income that was bandied about so much a couple of years ago in the debates over Bush-era tax cuts, the one that supposedly marked off who was a “wealthy” American… I assure you that my household comes no where even close to that, not to mention some student loans debt to throw into the picture. So, yeah, “rich” is not the first word that I would use to describe myself.
On the other hand, though, lets be honest. I do have a job that pays a sufficient middle-class income, a roof over my head, food to eat, a car to drive, some fancy educational degrees hanging in my office. Back in 2009, when I first got an iPhone, one of the wonderful high school youth at the church I was serving at the time took great joy in calling me out as a “rich pastor” every time he saw me for nearly 2 months. While I may not often think of myself as “rich”, at least by the what our American culture tends to think of by that word, when you really sit down and compare what I have to a majority of the people on the face of this earth, then I do basically fall on the “rich” end of the spectrum. And you know what, I don’t even have to know the details of your finances to be fairly sure that pretty much every one of you does too. In fact, even a single person at the poverty line in this country—which mean an annual income of of just over $12,000—that person is still in the wealthiest 17% of the world population. Almost 5-and-a-half billion people in the world are poorer than that single person at the poverty line here in the US.
“Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, eh? If we’re honest with ourselves and our relative “rich”-ness, especially in relationship to the whole world population, it doesn’t seem that things bode very well for me, or for you, with what Jesus says in today’s reading. And that’s why I think this passage may very well be the most challenging thing that Jesus ever said.
Perhaps you wonder if maybe there’s something that we’re missing here…? Truth be told, Christians have worked for centuries to find some way to soften this text, or to get around it all together:
- For example, there was an ancient scribe who inserted words into Jesus’ speech, so that it said “how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God”, rather than just that it was hard for those who had In other words, the problem is not being rich but putting our faith in wealth. Well, it sounds nice, but we have since figured out that those weren’t, in fact, the words Jesus said to begin with… and anyway, that one little change doesn’t really fit with the overall thrust of what Jesus is saying in the whole story.
- Or here’s another popular diversion tactic: remember that whole line about the camel fitting through the eye of a needle? Well, there was some interpreter in the 9th century who said that the “eye of the needle” was the name of some really small low gate in the walls of Jerusalem, and that a camel would have to be unloaded and stoop down in order to enter it. If that’s what this was in reference to, then a “camel fitting through the eye of a needle” isn’t something impossible, just something inconvenient or perhaps difficult, something that would take a bit of extra effort and unloading. Well, as it turns out, scholars today pretty much all agree that there was never any such low gate. For a “camel to fit through the eye of a needle” means just exactly what it says… a camel—the biggest animal known to the people Jesus was talking to—fitting through the hole in the top of a needle—probably smallest opening they would have known. In other words,
- Or then there’s yet another one: perhaps you’ve heard someone offer up that “Jesus [somehow] omnisciently perceived that wealth was this particular man’s special ‘weak spot,’ and so he zeroed in on it only to expose the man’s distinctive shortcoming.” In other words, we could safely assume that Jesus would not ask us to part with our possessions, if that wasn’t our special weak spot. Maybe for us, Jesus would zero in on our road rage, or our Starbucks addiction, or our Boston Red Sox fanaticism.
The fact of the matter is, we so desperately want there to be some way that what Jesus is saying really means something else. And it’s not just us, here today in a mostly middle-class congregation in North America. None of these pseudo-explanations are particularly new; many of them go back for centuries or even more than a millennium.
Perhaps you are eagerly waiting for me now to come up with some new explanation, my own version of why we should go on with our lives and not be troubled by Jesus’ words here. Perhaps you’re waiting for me to say something that will make Jesus sound a little less demanding.
Well, you know, sometimes I think one of the problems we have as modern day Christians, at least us middle class American Christians, is that we have a tendency to make Christianity not demanding enough. Sometimes people are hungry for something with a little more substance… something worth giving themselves over to… something that actually expects something of them. We must remember that the story told us that Jesus looked at this man and loved him. Not that Jesus thought the man was trying to test him. Nor that Jesus was trying to mock the man. But that Jesus loved him… and out of that love, instructed the man as he did.
Well-known preacher William Willimon tells the story of one night when he was exploring this text at a Bible study in a college dorm. He asked those students “what do you make of this story?”
“Had Jesus ever met this man before?” asked one of the students?
“Why do you ask?” Willimon asked.
“Because Jesus seems to have lots of faith in him. He demands something risky, radical of him. I wonder if Jesus knew this man had a gift for risky, radical response. In my experience, a professor only demands the best from [the] students that the professor thinks are the smartest, best students. I wonder what there was about this man that made Jesus have so much faith he could really be a disciple.”
“Wow. Didn’t think about that,” Willimon remarks.
Then, he says, “another student said thoughtfully, ‘I wish Jesus would ask something like this of me. My parents totally control my life just because they are paying all my bills. And I complain about them calling the shots, but I am so tied to all this stuff I don’t think I could ever break free. But maybe Jesus thinks otherwise.’”
Reflecting on that night, Willimon writes “Well, I was astounded. What I had heard as severe, demanding BAD news, these students heard as gracious, GOOD news. Jesus invites people to be his disciples: divest! Break free! Let go of your stuff! Follow me! I believe you can do it!
Such is the peril, and the promise of being met by Jesus!”
After Jesus made the camel-going-through-a-needle remark, the scripture tells us that the disciples “were greatly astounded, and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’” In their time, much like our own, wealth and material belongings were thought to be a sign of God’s blessing on a person. If a person who is supposedly blessed cannot be saved, then who can be?
“Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’”
That, my friends, may be the even harder—the hardest, most challenging, in fact—truth in this story. “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” Nothing, it turns out. That’s all up to God’s grace.
 Portions of this sermon are adapted from excerpts of the sermon “Pins and Needles” that I first preached October 11, 2009, at the Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois, where I was serving as associate pastor.
 This list adapted largely from Matthew Skinner’s commentary on this text on WorkingPreacher.org: Matthew Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31”, WorkingPreacher.org, 11 October 2009, accessed 10 October 2015 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=402.
 Taken from William Willimon’s sermon “The Peril (and the Promise) of Being Met by Jesus”, for the radio show Day1, 11 October 2009.