“many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” Mark 10:31
Christians through the centuries have been very good at avoiding the words of Jesus that we do not want to hear, either we ignore them altogether, or we assume that what is being said does not apply to us, that it is being said for someone else to hear.
Today’s Gospel reading has three things we would probably wish to avoid, three things that we do not want to hear: it says we should be prepared to give up things, that we do not get to heaven by our own efforts, and that the Christian life is going to have hardships
The first thing we do not want to hear is about giving things up.
A man runs up to Jesus and kneels down before him and asks in Chapter 10 Verse 17, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer Jesus gives is presumably much as the man would have expected, Jesus tells the man that he knows the Commandments and the man responds in Verse 20, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” What does the man expect Jesus to say? Is he looking for compliments, or does he genuinely feel within himself that there is still something lacking? Jesus seems to accept the man’s question as sincere for Verse 21 says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'” How did Jesus know about the man’s wealth? Presumably from the way he dressed. By coming to Jesus, the man himself has acknowledged that his way of living is not sufficient, he has acknowledged that keeping the Commandments is only one part of what is expected, but what more did he think Jesus would expect? The man is upset when Jesus talks about giving things up, Verse 22 tells us, “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
We do not want to hear this story. We think the story of the rich man applies to other people, but if we live in Europe we are the rich people. Earlier this year, the BBC’s head of statistics, Anthony Reuben, said in order to be part of the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population, an individual would need to be worth just over half a million pounds. Half a million pounds is around €650,000-€700,000, one would not buy a very big farm for that sum. Even if we do not have much property, being in Europe puts us in the top few per cent.
We are the man in the story, how do we feel about Jesus’ challenge?
We do not want to give things up.
The second thing that we do not want to hear is that we do not get to heaven by our own efforts.
How often do we hear people say that someone has been a good person or that they have lived a good life and will have a place in heaven? Jesus doesn’t say so. In Verses 24-25, Jesus says, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” The disciples straight away recognized that Jesus is saying that this cannot be done, in Verse 26, we read, “They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?'” The answer is plain, Jesus looks at them in Verse 27 and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
The idea that we cannot earn our own salvation seems to have been disliked by the medieval church, perhaps because it would have affected the church’s capacity to extract money from people, because a story grew from the 15th Century that “Eye of the Needle” was a night gate through the city walls of Jerusalem and that a camel could only go through it if it had its baggage removed and stooped down. There was a gate in Jerusalem called the “Eye of the Needle”, but it wasn’t built until the 16th Century, its name presumably coming from the story. The suggestion of the story is that if people kneel and give away part of what they have, then they would find their way through the gate of heaven. Jesus says that it is impossible for people to get to heaven by themselves, only with God is it possible.
Accepting that we are not in control of our own fate goes against the spirit of our times, it goes against our individualism and our ideas that we can earn whatever we desire.
We do not want to hear that we cannot earn our own place in heaven.
The third thing we do not want to hear is that the Christian life is going to bring hardships.
Peter tells Jesus that the disciples have gone through hardship, “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” he tells Jesus in Verse 28. Jesus acknowledges the sacrifice that has been made, but also warns that the blessings received will come with hard times. We read Verses 29-30 where Jesus says, “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, who 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.” A hundred-fold blessing, not in terms of material wealth, but in terms of places where one would find a welcome and in terms of those who would become as a family, but with the blessing, “persecutions”. The disciples would experience the full reality of what that warning meant.
We do not want to hear the word “persecutions”, even though we know it is a reality for tens of millions of Christian people in our world. We want a quiet and gentle, private and personal faith, but that is not what Jesus expects from us. He expects honesty, integrity and sometimes even courage, as we live our lives as Christians in our own world in our own times. Verse 31, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” might not be popular, but, with Jesus, that is the way things are.
We do not want to hear of hardships.
Three things we wish to avoid: giving things up, accepting our dependence on God, going through hard times. Three things that are part of following Jesus.