Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 18, 2022
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Idols and Obedience

Mark 10:17-31

I’ve heard it said that the first step to getting the right answer is asking the right question. Is this man asking the right question? I’ve heard this passage preached that he was asking the wrong question. That he should be asking “What should I believe?” or “In whom should I believe?”

I think he’s asking the right question. I don’t think we should get worked up in this thinking that he is coming at this from the perspective of works-righteousness, the thinking that a person has to earn their own salvation. Because Jesus tells us that faith in him is something that we do. In John 6:29, Jesus says, “This is the work God wants from you: Believe in the one he sent.” We shouldn’t separate belief in certain things from what those beliefs require us to do. Faith in Jesus and faithfulness to what Jesus requires of us are like two sides of the same coin. So let’s accept his question as it is, “Good teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus asks a question in return: “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Is Jesus denying that he is God? No, he doesn’t say that.

I have to wonder if he is testing what the man thinks of him. If only God is good without qualification, then what does this man think of Jesus? Is Jesus truly good? Then his word should be obeyed.

On the other hand, maybe what Jesus is getting at is, “What does this man think of himself?” He insists, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments without a fault.” Really? Without a fault? Since your childhood? Why are you worried about eternity, then?

We should notice which Commandments Jesus asks him about and which commandments Jesus does not ask him about. The five that Jesus mentions; honoring parents, murder, adultery, theft, and false witness; are all things that could be objectively observed. Now Jesus does tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that true obedience is more than just actions; it is also a matter of the heart. Hatred is murder in the heart, even if that murder is never carried out with our hands.

But think about the Commandments that Jesus does not ask about: Coveting, idols, worshipping other gods. Perhaps that’s significant.

The man insists, “I have done no harm to others.” And Jesus’ follow up question is, “Yes, but have you also done good for others?” Jesus loved the man. And if we love

others, then we speak the truth to them, even if they don’t want to hear the truth. “You lack one thing: Go, sell all you have, give to the poor, and then come and follow me.”

When the man came to Jesus, he came to him running. He was enthusiastic, eager to hear what Jesus had to say. But when he heard the cost of discipleship, he walked away sadly. Jesus didn’t deceive him. Jesus didn’t make discipleship sound easy when it really isn’t. To follow Jesus will cost us everything. He had great wealth. Or maybe more accurately, great wealth had him. And he would not part with it. The cost of discipleship was too high.

Should we read Jesus’ words as a universal commandment? Should all of us sell all we have and give to the poor? If you read through the Gospels, you find that Jesus never gave this same instruction to anyone else. So I have to think we should not read this as a universal imperative. I think what’s really going on here is that Jesus knows this man’s heart. Jesus knows what holds him back. He has an idol, a false god, and it is his wealth.

Whatever it is that we will not do for God reveals something about our idols. We should surrender everything to God. But all of us wrestle with certain areas of our lives where we want to hold back. We’ll say to God, “You can have all of me. Except this thing. I want to hold onto that. This far, but no further.”

If God were to ask you to surrender the thing you hold most dear, would you? Maybe it’s family or relationships. Maybe it’s success and achievement. Maybe it’s the things that bring you pleasure and happiness. Maybe it’s your money. Maybe it’s your respectability. If God were to ask for that thing to be sacrificed, would you do it? If the answer is no, then we have another god, an idol, that stands before Jesus.

Jesus goes on, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” That was contrary to the prevailing wisdom of his day. Most people figured, “The wealthy are blessed by God. They are already closer to him.” But Jesus points out that wealth is a powerful idol.

“It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” That’s a typical Jewish hyperbole for saying something is impossible.

There’s an old story about the “Eye of the Needle” or the “Needle Gate” in the walls of Jerusalem. The story goes that there was a small opening in the wall, too small to ride through on a horse or camel. And this gate stayed open all night. If someone came to the city after dark, they would have to come off their mount, take all the bags off their horse or camel, and then try to coax it through that narrow opening. And some people have used that illustration. The problem is that is not what Jesus was talking about. The “Eye of the Needle” in the walls of Jerusalem was built by the Crusaders a thousand years after Jesus. “A camel through the eye of a needle” was just a way of saying “It’s impossible.”

Why is it hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom? A couple reasons: One is that the wealthy are more likely to think in terms of self-sufficiency. We can’t receive grace if we imagine we are self-sufficient. A second is that wealth has a tendency to fix our hearts in this life. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.” It’s harder to embrace eternity if we are fixated on this life and all it has for us.

Wealth is a temptation for all of us. Most of us probably don’t think of ourselves as wealthy, but compared to much of the world, we are. And we live in a nation with great wealth. The temptation to seek the idol of wealth is strong in our lives.

It’s not possible for any of us to enter the Kingdom on our own, but with God all things are possible.

Peter speaks up. Because he was good at that. “What about us? We’ve given up a lot to follow you!” We know the professions of some of the disciples, and at least the ones we know about, fishermen and a tax collector, were not poor. Peter and his partners had hired men working for them, so they weren’t scraping by. And all of them sacrificed personal relationships, their businesses, and their respectability to follow Jesus.

But Jesus is no man’s debtor. We gain more in the Kingdom of God than we will ever lose. We may lose relationships. We may lose respectability. Some have lost their lives. But we gain a family in the Church. We gain eternity. And we gain honor from God. Whatever we lose in service to Christ will not compare to what we gain in the world to come. Even if following Jesus means sacrificing our idols, we know that serving the one, true God is far better.

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