Eye of a Needle
Cut to the heart. A few times in my life, someone has said something utterly true that then rings through my ears and feels like a dagger has been rammed through my heart. I can think of several times when someone has said a small sentence that has significantly impacted my life. The words ring still to this day. Some have had positive effects that remind me of my hope in Christ and the delight of heaven. While others show me my rotten sin within me, and I am reminded once more. One time came to mind when someone said, “you don’t always have to be right.” The instance was small and insignificant, but these words were not. I knew my pride, arrogance, pain, and much more at that moment. I felt humbled and ashamed. In today’s passage, Jesus speaks words precisely to one young man that pierce his heart and pinpoint one of the root problems in his life. He knows exactly the problem and the solution like a skilled heart surgeon. Yet, we cannot read this and only think of his heart and problems, but we turn to ourselves.
I. The young man leaves miserably after hearing Jesus’ words (17-22)
The young man is the real-life example of the seed which falls among the thorns, but in the end, they are choked by the cares of the world and deceitfulness of riches (Mark 4:18-19). This young man comes bounding up to Christ and bows before him. This man asks Jesus a question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is an important question. This question or one similar is asked throughout the Bible, the men in Acts 2, what must we do to be saved? The Philippian Jailer, the lawyer who comes up to Jesus before the parable of the good Samaritan. However, sometimes we ask the question, but we think we know the answer, or we don’t what to know the answer. However, in this question, the young man asks what he can do. His thought is centered around action taken on his part to accomplish something and therefore get something. We learn in verse 22 that he had great possessions. In the Gospel of Luke, Luke records that he was a ruler, most likely in the synagogues (Luke 18:18). His life likely followed this truth: if I do something, my life or money will grow a certain way. His question centered around what he was to do, and Jesus showed him this question beautifully.
a. Jesus showed him God’s goodness
Jesus starts narrowing in on this man’s question. He does not begin with grace alone or explains that God loves you the way you are. Again, we can learn a lot about how Jesus interacts with people. He mentions that this man called him good. No one is good but God alone. The term “good teacher (or rabbi)” was not used because men feared attributing God’s attributes to man, thus committing blasphemy. Jesus begins to unravel the young man’s view of the world. Goodness is not man-centered but God-centered. When compared to other men, goodness is a low bar, especially the man you compare yourself to. You can always find someone who is bad compared to you. However, goodness is an impossible bar for a man to reach in comparison to God. Jesus does not deny this man’s statement but asks his motive as to why he calls him a “good teacher.” Jesus is God, as we know, so the statement is true. This man calls Jesus “teacher” (vs. 20) but does not call him “good teacher.”
b. Jesus showed him God’s law
Jesus turns to the second tablet of the ten commandments. The first ten are how we love God with our whole hearts. However, the last six focus on how we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus explains, you know, the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and fifth commandments. Interestingly, we notice two things, that the tenth commandment is missing, and an extra one is included, “do not defraud.” You could spend time discussing the order (Why is the fifth commandment listed last?) the additional commandment. Possibly his wealth came at the expense of defrauding others, but we have no biblical account that this is the case. We will get to the tenth commandment soon. However, this man’s response comes back to his question, “What must I do?” He viewed everything as a checklist, do this or don’t do this. The young man considers his life like Paul expressed in Philippians chapter 3:4-6, “If anyone else thinks he has a reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul and this young man’s response to their righteousness under the law are blameless. As we will see, he didn’t quite grasp God’s law. He saw it as humanly possible to keep, according to man’s standards. However, Jesus, as he taught in the sermon on the mount, was the law is not only about what you do, but your heart and your mind.
c. Jesus showed him God’s love
Before we get to Jesus’ response, we need to highlight what Mark records under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Jesus looked at him, loved him, and said to him. Jesus saw this man before him, possibly looking at his face spoke to him. Some conversations can happen without eye contact; however, some conversations need to begin with a loving look. However, Jesus not only looked at him but we are told the motive of his words to this man. Again, we can learn a lot about how Jesus interacts with men and women in the Bible. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is speak the truth, in love. Jesus’ response is loving if it is truth. Tell this man all is well, or give him a false sense of hope would be bogus news, not good news. For all of us, sin needs to become bitter before grace appears sweet (Thomas Watson). When we read or hear the statement “God is Love” (1 John 4:8), we should think of many examples of what this looks like, and this passage should come to mind.
d. Jesus showed him God’s way
The man asked a simple question, and Jesus gave a simple response. You asked me what you should do, go, sell, give and follow me. In his book ‘Jesus the King, Tim Keller explains,’ “Of course [the young man] was missing something. Because anyone who counts on what they are doing to get eternal life will find that, in spite of everything they’ve accomplished, there’s an emptiness, an insecurity, a doubt. Something is bound to be missing. How can anyone ever know whether they are good enough?” However, the one thing this man lacks is the one thing Jesus didn’t mention when asking about the ten commandments, the tenth commandment; “You shall not covet.” The interesting thing is that coveting is not something you do, per se. The other commandments Jesus mentioned are things that you do. Have you ever murdered someone? Yes or no. However, to covet is something that is directly tied to the heart. To covet is a desire for something that someone else has and is a sin against God. Jesus does not get the pruning shears out but the shovel. He is not interested in trimming the tree back but getting to the root, the heart.
Jesus has not changed his call to discipleship. He has just applied the call of discipleship to this man’s life. Jesus said in Mark 8:34-37, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Jesus looking at this man, tells him; you cannot love your possessions more than me. You cannot hold on to the world’s money and get the riches of Christ. This man walked away disheartened because he had great possessions. The parable of the sower is lived out before our eyes, “but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). The man’s possessions were a thorn that choked the word in the end. He came up to Jesus eager to hear his answer but, in the back, left sorrowful.
What would Jesus ask of you today? For some of us, we don’t have great possessions. But the call of discipleship is the same. What is that heart-cutting question Jesus would ask you today? Would you give up your sin? Your wealth? Fame? Security? Pride?
II. The disciples leave astonished after Jesus’ words (23-27)
Jesus looked again and spoke to his disciples. Jesus utters words that leave the disciples’ jaws dropped. “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed, just as the crowd heard Jesus teaching at the start of his ministry (Mark 1:27). Jesus continues, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” When I preach passages like this, I want to qualify the passage—death by a million qualifications. Jesus firmly tells his disciples that a camel is more likely to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God. The disciples have the same reaction. They went from amazed to exceedingly astonished. The crowd at Decapolis was astonished at Jesus healing the mute and deaf. Now the disciples are astonished at Jesus’ teaching. “If the rich cannot get to heaven, then who can be saved?” Money cannot buy you anything, but we all know that money can help you in many ways.
This is nothing new. Remember last week when Jesus explained that you must be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:15). We can bring nothing to the table of grace. A child comes to the table empty-handed because they have nothing to bring. The child has no money they have earned or even to their name. The rich person often has comfort in this life and no need for poverty now. Yet one who has nothing gets their comfort in knowing they one day will have riches. The disciples did get to hear hope, but sadly the rich man left before he could listen to the hope-filled words of Jesus, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
What can you do? The answer is nothing without God. Can a rich man give up his possessions to follow Christ? Not without God. “Who can be saved?” No one, because it is impossible with man. Yet God did not leave man in their sins. He voluntarily came down, put on flesh, born in a manger, came as a servant, not as a wealthy king but as a humble servant, to give his life as a ransom for many. The warning needs to be heeded. Paul gives instructions to Timothy, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). We are not to hope in riches but in God, who provides for us richly. The Church in Laodicea in the book of Revelation is lukewarm. They have found comfort, not in Christ but their wealth. “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
III. A disciple leaves everything and clings to Jesus (28-31)
The young man’s question had one other aspect to it, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The rich young ruler thought that if I sell everything, I lose everything—however, those who leave everything and follow Christ, gain Christ! The rich young man missed Jesus’ words, go, sell, give, and you will have treasures in heaven. We know that these are not just earthly treasures in a new location. The riches of heaven are the riches of Christ. Peter and the other disciples are the fourth seed in the parable of the sower. They have left everything, and Jesus explains they will receive everything they have left. You leave your family, and you gain a family. You leave your land and acquire a new land in the age to come, citizens in heaven. They come with persecution in this world. We need not riches. We need Christ. Christ is the treasure that we all should be seeking.
“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11–14).