As he was setting out on the road, a man ran up and knelt down in front of him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked. ‘What should I do to inherit the life of the Age to Come?’ Why call me “good”?’ replied Jesus. ‘No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments:
Don’t commit adultery.
Don’t swear falsely.
Honour your father and your mother.’
‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘I’ve kept all of them since I was little.’ Jesus looked hard at him, and loved him. ‘One more thing,’ he said. ‘Go away, and whatever you possess – sell it, and give it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven! Then: come and follow me.’ At that, his face fell, and he went off sadly. He was very wealthy. Jesus looked slowly around. Then he said to his disciples, ‘How difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were astonished at what he was saying. So Jesus repeated once more, ‘Children, it’s very hard to enter the kingdom of God! It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.’ They were totally amazed, and said to each other, ‘So who then can be saved?’ ‘It’s impossible for mortals,’ Jesus said, looking hard at them, ‘but it’s not impossible for God. All things are possible for God.’ ‘Look here,’ Peter started up, ‘we’ve left everything and followed you.’ ‘I’ll tell you the truth,’ replied Jesus. ‘No one who has left a house, or brothers or sisters, or mother or father, or children, or lands, because of me and the gospel, will fail to receive back a hundred times more in the Present Age: houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and lands – with persecutions! – and finally the life of the Age to Come. But plenty of people at the front will end up at the back, and the back at the front.’
‘With these binoculars,’ said the salesman, taking me outside the shop, ‘you can tell the time on the church clock half a mile away. With these ones, though’ (his assistant brought him out another pair), ‘you can lip-read what the vicar’s saying to the people as they come out. And with these ones –’ (the third and largest pair were produced, monstrously long and weighing several pounds), ‘well, these ones bring the church so close you can hear the choir singing.’
A tease, of course, but it set me thinking about the way in which the zoom lens of a camera, or the extraordinary magnification of binoculars, enable you not just to see a bit more clearly what you can see already, but to see new details which give different meaning to the whole picture.
Mark’s portrait of the eager young man who ran up and knelt before Jesus has something of that zoom-lens quality. So often, elsewhere in the gospels, we are told what Jesus said but not the way he looked at people, or the emotions that crossed his face. But here – this scene obviously made a deep impression on the disciples as they saw the little sequence unfold – we have three indications which, if you were a theatrical producer putting this on as a play, would enable you to catch the mood, the tension and the drama of the whole thing very well.
To begin with, when the young man declares that he’s kept all the commandments since he was little, ‘Jesus looked hard at him, and loved him’ (verse 21). How does Mark know he loved him? There must have been an extra dimension in that long, hard look. Jesus gazed at the young man and saw in him a real eagerness, a quick readiness to do whatever it took to be part of God’s new world (the ‘Age to Come’ as opposed to the ‘Present Age’ – see verse 30) when it arrived, as arrive it surely would now Jesus was here. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by such enthusiasm, and Jesus’ heart was anything but stony.
But then Jesus dropped the bombshell. One more thing: sell up, give it away, and follow me. ‘Costing not less than everything’ was how T. S. Eliot described the challenge of following Jesus, and that’s what Jesus was asking now. The enthusiasm changed to disappointment like a dark cloud suddenly appearing from nowhere to cover the sun. Off he went.
Then the second zoom lens on Jesus: he ‘looked slowly around’. Stand there with the disciples as they watch, hardly daring to move. What’s he going to say? Shouldn’t he have closed the deal, told the young man to come as he was, and hoped to explain the cost to him more fully as they went on?
In our mind’s eye we see that gaze swing round the silent, watching group. He’s reading their faces and they his. Then he says something which shocks them as much as his challenge shocked the young man. ‘It’s difficult for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom.’ They were so astonished that Jesus spells it out in more detail. Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, and all that. More amazement.
But why? We are perhaps too used to this element in Jesus’ teaching (not that we have taken it seriously, but we know it’s there). But the disciples lived in a world where wealth was seen as an index of God’s blessing. If rich people couldn’t be part of God’s kingdom, then who could?
Once more the zoom lens. ‘It’s impossible for mortals,’ Jesus said, looking hard at them. Once again we stand silent on the edge of the crowd, open-mouthed, as his level, steady, sad gaze meets theirs. Don’t they get it yet? Haven’t they seen the point? Didn’t they remember the Sermon on the Mount? God’s kingdom doesn’t work by the ordinary human rules. All things are possible to God, but that’s just as well because what needs to happen isn’t just difficult; it’s impossible. God’s kingdom, and the life of the Age to Come, are all about new creation. You can’t generate them from within the present age. You can’t push your way in by trying a bit harder, by making a bit more money, by impressing God or Jesus with good resolutions or even great moral achievements. All of these are like someone climbing up a ladder to try to get to the moon. Forget it.
The vividness of the scene, with these three zoomed-in snapshots of Jesus himself in a critical two-way conversation, part with the young man and part with the disciples, highlights the larger underlying point. In the previous scene, we saw Jesus discussing the question of marriage and divorce, and going back behind the law of Moses to the principles of the original creation. Now we see him going out beyond the law of Moses (which the young man declares he’s kept all through) to the principles of God’s new creation. God is doing a new thing, and the only way to get there with him is to abandon all pride, all achievement, all status, all possessions. None of them count for a thing.
There will, to be sure, be compensations. There are many Christians who have discovered the truth of verse 30: having left all their own prospects, they have ‘homes’ in other towns, other lands; they have brothers and sisters all over the place. That, at its best, is how the global community of Jesus’ followers really functions. But when God acts he characteristically turns things upside down. The first will be last and the last first.
St Paul discovered the truth of all this. He had, he said, abandoned all his pride of upbringing, training, heritage and so on. He lost it all to gain the Messiah (Philippians 3.2–11). After all, Jesus had ‘loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2.20). On the basis of this, some have suggested that Paul was the young man in this story. Utterly fanciful, of course, but it might help us zoom in one more time and ask the question: can you see the look on that young man’s face? What would you say to yourself as you stood by, heard what Jesus was saying and watched the way he looked hard, first at the young man, then at his followers?
Give us courage, gracious Lord, to see what’s getting in the way of our total commitment to you, and to give it up so that we may share your life, now and always.