Jesus had just spent an hour or so with some kids. He hugged them, patted their heads, and blessed them (Mark 10:16). How do you picture that scene? I think he probably stooped down to be on their level or pulled them up to sit on his lap. I think he chatted with each one, smiled at them, comforted them, and just generally enjoyed himself. I think he learned their names, their pets’ names, their favorite activities and anything else they wanted to share. I think he was patient when they stuttered and laughed at their silly jokes. After all, the Kingdom of God belongs to “such as these.” This is one of my favorite images of Jesus, and not just because it was on the front of my very first Bible as a child.
As Jesus stood to go from that happy, relaxing time, a man ran up and fell onto his knees in front of Jesus. Did he push some children out of the way? Did he see that Jesus was leaving and run to catch him or had he run a long way? I don’t know. Breathless, he didn’t even take time to greet Jesus properly but just blurted out his question.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – Mark 10:17
Surely this guy had been to synagogue. Surely he knew the Sabbath school answer, like we all know the Sunday School answer. His answer wouldn’t have been “Jesus,” though. His answer would have been “Obey the laws.” In fact, those children still lingering around Jesus could probably have given the right answer.
A childish question
from a convicted heart.
There’s something childlike in this scene as well. We “grown-ups” don’t run to catch people. We don’t try to talk when we’re out of breath. We don’t ask seemingly obvious questions. But the story’s placement also offers us a contrast with the children, who so readily accepted Jesus at His Word. We’ll see that contrast as we move through the story.
Jesus chooses not to answer the question immediately. Instead, he points back to the guy’s first word: good. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t call me ‘good.’” He just asks why the guy said “good.” If only God is good, and this guy called Jesus “good,” then the guy must have realized—at some level—Who Jesus was. Jesus’ question highlights what this guy already thinks about Him. (By the way, I just love the way Jesus asks questions and how His questions lead the asker to some discovery about himself.) In redirecting the conversation this way, Jesus establishes His authority to answer differently than might be expected.
Except…Jesus doesn’t answer differently. He gives the expected answer, the one the kids could have given.
Except… Jesus lists the second half of the Ten Commandments, the ones about how we relate to others. Why is this? Maybe it’s because these six are things we do/don’t do and can measure. I can easily know if I’ve stolen from someone or lied to someone. The first four, about God and worship, are harder to quantify.
I find it interesting, also, that Jesus doesn’t go into his controversial teachings on where the sin lies with murder or adultery (compare Matthew 5:17-48, esp. verse 20). He’s not teaching a group here, and He’s not interested in a lecture. This conversation is between two people, and Jesus keeps it both personal and on-topic.
This man, still kneeling in front of Jesus, we presume, insists that he has been very careful to follow these laws for his entire life. Somewhere along the way, however, he must have realized adherence to a set of laws and traditions wasn’t enough. Perhaps that’s the impetus for his urgency. All these years, he’s been looking for that missing piece. He hears Jesus might have it, and he runs to find it as quickly as he can.
This next line in the text is the one that just floors me. You have to read it in Mark. The other Gospels don’t mention it, but I think it makes all the difference in how we perceive Jesus’ next response. Here it is:
Jesus looked at him and loved him. -Mark 10:21
Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find; knock and
the door will be opened to you.
Jesus loved him! Sure, we know he loved everyone—even the Pharisees who plotted to kill Him—but in this moment, there’s an almost tangible grasp of Jesus’ love for this particular man. I believe Jesus saw into this man’s heart: saw the desperation to have eternal life, saw the years spent earnestly scrutinizing every action and meticulously plotting every movement so he didn’t break the code of law. He saw how this man gradually realized law-keeping wasn’t enough and began seeking a better way. Jesus loved him because of all that.
Jesus knew the man wasn’t trying to trap Him or embarrass Him (compare Matthew 22:15-33, where He has a very different way of answering the Pharisees and Sadducees). He knew the man was sincere, but when He looked into this guy’s heart, He also saw what was holding him back. Sincerity isn’t enough.
Where your treasure is,
there your heart will be
also. -Matthew 7:21
And so I think it was with gentleness, not judgement, that Jesus finally and authentically answered the man’s question. Perhaps He stretched out a hand and pulled the man to his feet so He could look him in the eye. Perhaps he squatted down, like he had with the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Jesus spoke to this one guy, not to the crowd, and He said, “You’re only missing one thing. Give away everything you own so your only treasure is what’s in Heaven. Then, come and follow me” (Mark 10:21, my paraphrase).
Jesus saw that this man loved his possessions more than he loved the Prince of Peace, more even than he loved the promise of Heaven. He had meticulously followed the law without letting it touch his heart. In his case, the law had not done what it was designed to do, which is (according to Paul), to help us become aware of our sinfulness (Romans 3:20).
The issue isn’t the
tangible things around us.
It’s our hearts.
Like is so often the case in the Gospels and in our lives, the issue isn’t the tangible things around us. It’s our hearts. Jesus called this guy to change what he valued…what he worshiped…what he trusted. Jesus wanted to be his source of comfort and confidence.
Despite Jesus’ perceptiveness and gentleness, the man turned his back on Jesus. He walked away disappointed because Jesus gave him the answer he needed instead of the answer he wanted.
I can imagine the rich guy thinking, “It’s not that simple, Jesus,” and going down his list of reasons (read: excuses) for keeping at least some of his money. He wasn’t alone: King Saul in 1 Samuel 15, Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.
Yes, dude, it is that simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.
Jesus loves us, too. He sees us—really sees us—and teases out that long-held idol…that thing we trust more than we trust Him. Then He speaks gently into our hearts, calling us to release it. Do we turn our backs on Him and make excuses? Or do we let go and follow Him?
Those idols can be real buggers, can’t they? It’s much easier to trust things we can control, but faith means trusting what we can’t control. Your thoughts?
What about “simple but difficult”, or do you think “difficult” automatically means “complicated”? Just let me know, in the comments, what you’re thinking after you read this.