“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Of whom do you ask that question?
This text has forever been a hard one for the church. I’ve heard it used to point out that regardless of our economic status in our own community every American is super wealthy when compared with the rest of the world. That may well be true but that wasn’t to population to whom Jesus was speaking. We’ve all heard that the proverbial ‘eye of the needle’ was an extremely small gate in the Jerusalem wall through which a normal human had difficulty and through which no animal the size of a camel would ever pass. But it was a pretty clear metaphor that makes sense even to us who have rarely laid eyes on a camel and who have never visited Jerusalem. As the verse begins Jesus repeats himself and I have to imagine that he was trying to counter the rather prevalent notion held then and to some extent today that entering the Kingdom of God is easy.
Remember Buddy Holly singing “it’s so easy to fall in love” ? That’s kinda become our idea about entering the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of divine love and acceptance. Jesus calls us up short.
Mark 10:23 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!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus 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, 30who 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. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” … Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! That’s when we get the puzzlement from Jesus: 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.”
Folks of Jesus day didn’t talk about the economy the way we do today. The poor, the people of the land, includes those of the slave class. It included all those who own no land. It included those of the lower priestly class, the Levites, widows, orphans and immigrants. As we said recently Mary’s offering of birds at her rite of purification testifies to the families poverty, as were 99 per cent of the population. They lived on the edge of existence.
When it came to who were the wealthy what we know is that the Roman’s had confiscated most of the personal income. The family of Herod, a clan that the people of the land said were the Jews who became gentiles, had enormous wealth and we recently saw an illustration of how that worked in the decapitation of John the Baptist. The High Priestly class, permitted to use the power of religious ritual to keep the people in line, were considered wealthy though they were dependent on the temple taxes from the poor. There were the remnants of old Jewish aristocracy who owned land, not to work but to rent out. They would be included among the wealthy and there were a few small landowners whose livelihood was precariously dependent on the harvest.
Understanding, as best we can, when Jesus spoke of the wealthy he must have been speaking of those who didn’t feel they could afford to put their trust in God. Persons putting one’s trust in God would be those who took to heart the words of the prophets about caring for the dispossessed and vulnerable. It’s an interesting query that we might ask ourselves.
Jesus doesn’t say choosing the Kingdom is impossible, he simply says it’s hard – really hard. Hard enough for Jesus to be asked “Then who can be saved?” I love his response “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Mortals can’t do it but left to God “all things are possible.” Salvation is a matter of divine grace. Jesus doesn’t leave the subject without a bit more clarification.
Peter opens his mouth – he reminds Jesus that at least the fishermen had walked away from their families and their family business. They had left everything to follow Jesus. Jesus didn’t deny their sacrifice. He says: “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, 30who 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.”
What I find interesting in this is that those who give themselves to the kingdom that Jesus proclaims be more than compensated in the ‘age to come’. This isn’t about what you earn or about amassing points to be redeemed in the future or that if you do God’s work and God’s will you’ll be rewarded with the things of the world. But there is something more important in this than the economic issues. No place do we hear anything about the requirement of confession, or the need for absolution, no mention of practicing prescribed rituals or saying the right words. This is really good news, good news before those who sought to make a religion out of following Jesus. Now don’t misunderstand. Early in his ministry Jesus called his hearers, and us, to repent and believe. But repentance and belief are about redirecting one’s life and trusting in God’s kingdom.
And then there is the kicker. It absolutely blows our minds.
The gun goes off and we run the race – that’s one of Apostle Paul’s metaphors, and the outcome is being first across the finish line. On your mark, get set, go! It wasn’t long ago that we’d hear the line ‘the one who dies with the most stuff wins’. That isn’t it at all. Jesus’ memorable line is: But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. Jesus does it again. He turns the most basic rule of our understanding of success in life on its head. When it comes to the kingdom, getting ahead requires helping others get ahead. It is the most basic element in the culture of God’s kingdom.
Before we get out of this passage, I want to hold up a couple more verses 35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
Of whom do you ask that question? A parent maybe. So first comes the statement “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” That’s rather an open ended request. And Jesus replies “What is it you want me to do for you?”
What is it you’d ask Jesus to do for you? He’s asking, what is it?
A little later in this same chapter Mark tells of Jesus and his disciples encounter with Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. Jesus says to him “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus keeps asking “What do you want me to do for you?”