Chapter 15. The Demands of the Kingdom
Please read Mark 10:1-31
It is January 1943, at the height of the Second World War. The outcome of the war is still not certain. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt are in Casablanca to discuss their strategy to win the war in Europe. Finally they reach a decision which will cause endless controversy. Roosevelt and Churchill decide to demand the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. There will be no negotiation, no opportunity to halt the war; the enemy will be permitted no concessions whatsoever. Unconditional surrender is the only way the war will end. In the two years which follow, the Allies finally gain the upper hand in the war; the outcome becomes obvious; and various individuals and groups on the German side try to open negotiations. All their overtures are rejected. There will be no negotiation, there will be no conditions; the only message the Allies will accept is the very simple one: ‘We surrender’. Eventually, of course, it happens. In May, 1945, the armies and the government of Nazi Germany finally sign the instruments of unconditional surrender.
The message of this passage in Mark 10 is this: if you want to encounter Jesus, if you want to be his disciple, then you have only one option: unconditional surrender. Just as with Nazi Germany in 1945, that is the only way to find peace. You may not feel the comparison does you any favours. But in fact, according to the Bible, the comparison is much closer than we like to think. We prefer to think of ourselves as pretty good; we look at murderers, we look at sex offenders, or we look at Nazi Germany and we say, I am not like that. The truth is we are not really any different. Until we come to Christ, we are at war with God; and if we are looking to make our peace with God, we need to admit to the fact that we have nothing at all to offer. We bring nothing to the table. Mark 10:1-31 applies this unconditional message of Jesus to three different areas: to marriage and divorce (vv.1-12); to children and what they represent (vv.13-16); and to the wealthy (vv.17-31).
Jesus and divorce
In America, pre-nuptial agreements are recognised and legally enforceable in all fifty states; and if you are foolish enough to go into marriage without one, you have only yourself to blame when divorce leaves you broke as well as heartbroken. In the UK they are not yet recognised in law, but according to a recent poll many believe they should be. Divorce, not just in the stratosphere inhabited by celebrities but in the world of normal people as well, has become so common now that financial and legal experts routinely advise people to adopt these agreements. Divorce has become something normal, even expected, with estimates showing that 45% of new marriages in the UK will now end in divorce. We might find ourselves asking, Should we be advising engaged couples in our churches to be realistic and set up pre-nuptial agreements? What do we say to couples in struggling marriages? Just ‘call it a day’? Could the Bible possibly have anything useful or relevant to say on such a uniquely contemporary issue?
Interestingly, if the twenty-first century advocates of pre-nuptial agreements, and the legal minds who draft them, were transported back to the first century, to the time of Jesus, they would find themselves with some very strange bedfellows (if you will forgive the expression!). They would find themselves in the company of our old friends the Pharisees. Here were people who liked nothing better than a good argument about divorce, the permitted grounds for it and the best way to handle it. Of course, the world was a very different place then. There were no gold-digging wives pursuing their husbands’ fortunes through the courts in those days. Women had few rights in marriage. Among the great legal minds of the day, there were two schools of thought about divorce. There was the school of Shammai, who said that a man could divorce his wife only on grounds of adultery or some equivalent moral failure. Then there was the school of Hillel, who agreed that those were grounds for divorce – but you could also divorce your wife for anything you found embarrassing or annoying about her, including the quality of her cooking. But both these groups agreed, like many authorities in our own day, that divorce is something to be anticipated, accepted and legislated for. When the Talmud was written some years later, it would contain an entire volume of legal definitions about the proper way to serve a certificate of divorce alone. It is called Tractate Gittin, a get being Aramaic for a bill of divorce.
This, then, is the background when the Pharisees come up to Jesus and quiz him about divorce (vv.1-2). Jesus has moved south through Judea and now crosses the River Jordan into Perea, the region on its eastern side. That is significant as we shall soon see: these geographical notes in Mark always are. Again there are crowds; and just as he has done in Galilee, Jesus begins to teach them. But in this story his business will not be with the crowds. Here come the Pharisees, whose representatives have dogged Jesus’ footsteps ever since the start of his ministry. They tackle him with a question, not because they really want to know what he thinks, but in order to test him. They probably have two thoughts in mind. One is that they have serious doubts whether Jesus is solid on the Jewish Law. After all, he’s proved himself unreliable on issues like the Sabbath; and he isn’t nearly careful enough about the company he keeps; so now they will try him out on the grey area of divorce. There is also a more sinister angle to their question. In Perea, Jesus is in the territory ruled by Herod Antipas. Not long ago, this Herod took a wife named Herodias, who had been his brother’s wife. It was a very unsavoury business, and John the Baptist had pointed out to Herod that it was completely unlawful for him to take her. Very close to the spot where Jesus is now standing, John was arrested and later executed as a result (6:14-29). What better way to trap Jesus than to force him into making critical statements about Herod and Herodias in his turn. Maybe Herod would then take Jesus off their backs, as well.
In reply, Jesus takes his questioners straight back to the Law, their own home ground (v.3). V.4 gives their reply. It’s true: Deuteronomy 24 provides for the case of divorce. A man who divorced his wife had to give her a certificate to prove that she was released from the marriage contract and was therefore free to marry again. The law therefore gave her some degree of protection, because it prevented a man from simply telling his wife to go and then later claiming that he still had some rights over her. Jesus’ comment on this law turns out to be surprising. First, see v.5. Divorce was never what God intended. Divorce is permitted, but it is never something good. It appeared in the Law because it was necessary to regularise it and to prevent even worse abuses. It is there only as a concession to human sin.
Now Jesus makes another move. Instead of arguing from the Law, debating the finer points of what does or does not constitute grounds for divorce, he goes right back to the time of Creation, before there was any sin in the world at all (vv.6-9). In effect, Jesus is saying, Don’t let’s talk about divorce, let’s talk about marriage and where it comes from. Marriage comes from the very beginning: a male and a female human joined together in a union so strong that it can be described as ‘one flesh’ – a bond so strong that for the sake of it they leave behind the closest relationship they have ever known. So we should focus on that oneness, and not even think about pulling the relationship apart. As he so often does, as he did in ch 2 when he was challenged about holding a party with the ‘sinners’, and then about the Sabbath, Jesus responds to these accusing questions by going right back to the will and purposes of God. God’s purpose here is for the man and woman to be united and to stay together.
The end of the story sees Jesus in private conference with his disciples – ‘in the house’ as Mark puts it, which is his regular signal for private follow-up. The disciples want to know more. From Matthew’s account of this story (Matthew 19:1-12), we know they are amazed that Jesus can make such absolute demands. In vv.11-12 Jesus makes it very clear that you can’t just divorce without consequences. Marriage is not something you can walk away from when it gets tough. It’s possible that the original text of v.12 read a little differently: it may mean to say, if a woman abandons her husband – walks out and leaves – then she commits adultery if she marries another man. That would be very pointed if so, because it would exactly fit what Herodias has done to her first husband: left him for Herod Antipas without even a divorce. But the fundamental meaning remains the same: you can’t just walk out on a marriage because you feel like it.
This story remains relevant in three ways. First, Jesus takes marriage back to Creation. In v.6 he says God made us male and female. That very fact indicates that God made us for relationships, not to be alone. In fact the differentness of men and women reflects what God himself is like – he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three Persons in perfect, eternal relationship with one another. God himself is relational; we are created in his image for relationships. We enjoy being part of a race with two sexes: it makes life much more interesting! Our sexuality is a gift to us, whether we are married or single. That was God’s intention, right from the day of Creation. As the fullest expression of that relatedness, God gave us marriage – again, that was a gift to mankind before sin entered the world. The verses Jesus quotes here come from before the Fall. Marriage was introduced when people were still perfect. It is not some later invention, or some human construct, which we can manipulate or reinterpret if we think we can come up with something better. Marriage as Jesus describes it here is life-long – ‘let man not separate’ and exclusive – ‘one flesh’; so it is unthinkable that this ‘one flesh’ sexual union could find its place outside the bond of marriage. Sex is for marriage only. Therefore we have the warning of v.9. It is not only directed at husbands who might think they could lightly duck out of the demanding commitment of marriage; it is also a warning to everyone not to come between the partners in a marriage and encourage them to separate. Whether that means telling people that divorce is OK, or whether it means enticing one partner away from their unique commitment to their spouse, the warning is clear: don’t do it. Very practically, this means we need to be careful as single people in the way we relate to married couples, and as married couples in the way we relate to singles. The marriage relationship is to be guarded; and it has to be exclusive.
What does this passage tell us, in practice, about divorce? Jesus’ words here could be taken as an absolute prohibition of divorce; that is how some Christians have understood them. But if we look at the account of the same incident in Matthew, we read something slightly different. There, Jesus says that if anyone divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, he commits adultery (Matthew 19:9). There is an exception. In Matthew, Jesus makes an exception for the case where one partner has betrayed the marriage through adultery. Why hasn’t Mark – or Luke either, for that matter – included that vital extra clause? Almost certainly, it’s because it was seen as obvious. Jewish custom actually required divorce in such a case (which Jesus certainly does not say). It was not necessary to add that divorce was permitted in cases of adultery.
Divorce is never a good thing. Malachi 2:16 expresses it most bluntly. At best, it is the lesser of two evils. If you have been through a divorce, or been close to people when it happened to them, you know that. But we do need to recognise that there are times when divorce is the only option that is left: sometimes in cases of adultery, and sometimes in cases of deliberate desertion. We must respond to those realities with compassion and sensitivity; and help hurting people to find healing through God’s grace
Secondly, Jesus lifts women to a new level of dignity. Jesus comes to a culture which believes that a man can divorce his wife simply by scribbling a note and pushing her out of the door; a culture where for many, as Rabbi Akiba will shortly put it, divorce is justifiable if he finds someone prettier. Jesus rejects that. A woman is not property, to be dispensed with if a man tires of her. In today’s culture, we should add, neither is a man! In fact, Jesus speaks of men’s and women’s rights in precisely equivalent terms. The idea in v.11 that a husband might actually commit adultery against his wife – the concept that she might be the injured party – was quite revolutionary. Jesus gives women dignity in a world where they do not possess it. Thus in the early Church, you find a Lydia hosting a newly planted church (Acts 16:15, 40); a Priscilla teaching in her home (Acts 18:26); and the hard-working Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis (Romans 16:12), along with many others, playing key roles. If that dignity and equality was later forgotten, or even buried by some parts of the Church, that is not the fault of Jesus.
Thirdly, Jesus gives us pause for thought before marriage. Maybe you are thinking about marriage, and rather like these disciples, you are feeling rather startled about the commitment that seems to be involved. Perhaps you are married and thinking exactly the same! If this passage makes you pause for thought, that is a good thing. Marriage is a very serious business. For a Christian it should be out of the question to go into marriage thinking in terms of pre-nuptial agreements, or of what might happen if you get divorced. The only way in is to say, Yes, this is for life. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing or what the media tells us, it makes no difference if people tell you that a string of casual relationships will do you no damage, which is a lie: in the sight of God, this is how it is. ‘What God has joined together, let man not separate.’ That line is in the marriage service for a very good reason. What Jesus says here is not an impossible aspiration. It is real; and it works; but not if you go in with your fingers crossed because you think you might break up in a few years’ time.
Jesus and children
In Harry Potter, ‘gobbledygook’ is the language spoken by goblins. But in English, ‘gobbledygook’ refers to any kind of writing or speaking that is needlessly long, complex and difficult to understand – the kind of verbiage sadly familiar from official documents and books of instructions! Gobbledegook is everywhere, as the Plain English Campaign constantly remind us – even in job titles. What, for instance, is an ambient replenishment controller? It’s a shelf stacker. How about the regional head of services, infrastructure and procurement? That’s the caretaker. And a flueologist? A chimney sweep! The Plain English Campaign provides a kind of translation service where they will take a stream of high-sounding nonsense and reduce it to its basic essentials. For example, here is a ‘before and after’: Before:- High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process. And after:- Children need good schools if they are to learn properly!
Unfortunately, it is very easy for important messages to get lost in a mass of useless wordiness. Religious leaders – church leaders – are often as guilty of this as anyone! We sometimes hide what is really a simple message in a complex maze of language that normal people will never penetrate. But at its heart, the Christian message is a very simple one, simple enough for anyone to understand. You may have heard this story about Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century. Towards the end of his life, Barth was asked for the greatest insight he had ever gained throughout his long years of study and scholarship. The audience craned their necks to hear his pearl of wisdom. His reply was beautifully simple – in the words of that old and much-loved children’s song: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. When I checked that story, I discovered there are at least three versions of it – but they all end up with Karl Barth saying those words! Barth did not get everything right, but this time he certainly did. To finish the verse of the song – Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.
In vv.13-16 we find Jesus embarking on his own version of the Plain English Campaign as he distils his message into the simplest possible form. ‘Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.’ It’s very appropriate that this story about the children coming to Jesus immediately follows the one about divorce. It’s appropriate not just because marriage and children generally go together, but because it points up the sharp contrast between the sophisticated Pharisees whom Jesus has just brushed off and the ordinary people whom he now welcomes literally with open arms! These ordinary people are rather despised by the very religious groups like the Pharisees. The Pharisees feel they are the cause of many of the nation’s troubles, because they don’t observe the Law carefully enough (see on 2:16). The world of the Pharisees and their teachers was a complex and impenetrable one, far removed from the simple world of every day which was inhabited by the ‘people of the land’; fittingly, they don’t appear in this beautiful and simple story about ordinary families coming to Jesus to have him bless their kids.
At some point – we’re not told how or when – people begin to bring their children along, not just to listen, but to have Jesus touch them (v.13). In itself, this is nothing unusual – the respected Jewish Rabbis would often place their hands on young children in blessing. However, the disciples don’t like the idea. It’s not hard to guess why. Jesus’ time and energy are too precious to waste on children, they feel; he has a busy schedule; we know there are crowds around him constantly. If there isn’t enough time to deal with all the adults in the crowd, Jesus certainly shouldn’t be wasting it on the kids. The disciples, in fact, have appointed themselves as his minders, trying to decide for Jesus whom he should and should not see. But Jesus doesn’t want to be ‘minded’ like that (v.14a). Jesus is ‘indignant’ – the only time in all the gospels that the word is used of Jesus. He is disgusted that his own disciples are keeping the children away. ‘Don’t hinder them’, he says – referring to the children themselves (vv.14b-15). Jesus is saying that it’s people like these children who are able to enter this Kingdom. Having said that, Jesus proceeds to defy his minders by giving these parents more than they have asked. He doesn’t just reach out a hand and touch the children, he opens his arms to them, he places his hands on them and he blesses them (v.16). We don’t know how many there are, but I think it’s safe to assume there are many more than one armful of kids. What a beautiful picture!
The big question, of course, is just what does Jesus mean by ‘receiving the Kingdom of God like a little child’? The language is simple enough, but in what way exactly does he mean that we must be like children? This is where people have come up with some rather strange ideas. Is Jesus thinking that children are sweet and innocent, and so we must be sweet and innocent in order to enter God’s Kingdom? I know some sentimental grandparents, but I don’t think anyone who is actually living and grappling with real-life children truly believes they are innocent of wrong. Children are sinful; they don’t even need to be taught how to sin, as anyone who has encountered a toddler tantrum knows full well. Jesus is certainly not naïve about sin. The answer is found in 9:35-37, where Jesus is talking about something slightly different – leadership and humility – but the illustration of the child says much the same. The little child here is a picture of weakness, the one who is ‘the very last’. A child is someone who does not have status in society, more than happy to ask for help; and cannot repay you for what you do for them. Jesus says, You have to come to the Kingdom like that.
The force of this story can be expressed simply in three stages: promise, warning and welcome. First, the promise (v.14b). The Kingdom is for people who will come simply and with open hands. Anyone can do that. The disciples look out and see a crowd of kids approaching with their parents. They see them as people with nothing to offer, nothing to add to the Kingdom. Jesus looks at them and says, That’s just the point. The people I will welcome into the Kingdom are precisely those who come with nothing to offer but are not ashamed to ask me. So don’t hinder them; they can come.
Second, the warning (v.15). Now Jesus inverts the promise. Come like a child, come with nothing, and I will let you in. But refuse to come like a child and you will absolutely never enter it – the Greek words are that strong. Many people want to ‘come to Jesus’ with something in their hands. They believe, like the Pharisees, that they are basically good people. They already have that, they feel good about themselves, but in one way or another they think that Jesus can offer them something extra. They come to Jesus like an adult, to pay, or to bargain, or to negotiate. But Jesus says, There is nothing you can offer me – except your unconditional surrender. You have to ask for what I can offer you. It’s a gift. With his death, Jesus will buy people like us into God’s Kingdom. It is a very high price for an entry ticket, but it is the price Jesus pays. That is why there is nothing that we can offer. That is why we have to come like children, with no status, with no resources, and with no pretence.
Third, the welcome (vv.14b-16). Here we see plainly that Jesus loves children! Jesus takes the kids in his arms and hugs them to his heart – so different from many in Jesus’ own time, who at best saw children as insignificant nobodies; and very different from some people now, who see children as a nuisance – especially if they are disabled, in which case we are advised to get rid of them before they are even born. In the ancient world they disposed of many babies, usually after they were born rather than before; it’s not really any different. We have a letter written in Alexandria in the time of Jesus, written by a man to his wife who he assumes has just given birth. His instructions? ‘If it was a male child, let it live, if it was a female, cast it out.’ But Jesus loves children, old and young. They are important to him. Whatever the disciples think, they are worth his time – and ours.
We see, too, that Jesus affirms the ordinary people. These common-as-muck people who bring their children with them – these people the Pharisees look down their noses at – it’s true, they don’t know much; but they act on what they know. Jesus honours the faith of these parents. He is not saying that all children are automatically included in the Kingdom; but he is saying I will welcome and accept everyone who comes to me like this – not because they understand everything: they don’t – but because they come like children.
Jesus and the wealthy
In vv.17-31 we see the unconditional demands of the Kingdom again, though in a slightly different way. This is the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus; who seems to have so much going for him, so much energy, so much vitality, such resources; and yet who, alone among all the gospel stories, goes away sad, because he will not offer to Jesus his unconditional surrender. Once again, Jesus’ verdict will come as a shock. Jesus is just setting off when up runs this man and kneels before him (v.17a). Now this is quite a sight. We find out later that this man is very rich; presumably he dresses accordingly. Running and kneeling are undignified actions, especially for someone who has a position in society. Clearly, he has something very serious on his mind (v.17b). This is interesting, because the Jews almost never called one another ‘good’: Jesus must have made a big impression on him. Jesus picks the word up in his answer (vv.18-19). This has nothing to do with whether Jesus himself is God. Jesus is picking up the vital issue of what it means to be good. Only God sets the standards of goodness – and that’s what the commandments are about. Jesus quotes several of the ten commandments, in fact all the second half of them – the ones about how God wants us to relate to other people – with one glaring exception. He does not quote the tenth commandment – ‘do not covet’.
In response, the man blithely claims that he has always kept all these (v.20). Isn’t that enough? Jesus’ response stuns him (v.21). Jesus doesn’t condemn this man or send him away. We read that he loves him. He sees someone in front of him who is sincere, who all his life has been trying to do what is right and good; someone who has recognised Jesus as an outstanding teacher. Knowing that something is still missing in his life, that he has not yet found that peace he is searching for, that certainty of life with God, he has come to Jesus looking for the answer. He answers the man’s question, telling him what the terms are for ‘inheriting eternal life’. ‘One thing you lack.’ The man thinks: Here it comes. ‘Sell everything, give it away, and come and follow me. And you will have the eternal treasure you are looking for.’ Jesus pointedly omitted the tenth commandment, but now he has put his finger right on the button. This is an absolute demand. ‘Sell everything’ – that’s not what the Law says, in fact the Rabbis say you should avoid poverty like the plague. Jesus has pointed to the place where this man will find it hardest to surrender. Yes, he can glibly say he has never murdered or slept around, told a lie, stolen or neglected his parents – and it might even be true, or at least he has had a decent try – but his heart is not set on God. He is not willing to abandon the property he loves so much (v.22); so he walks away, out of the story, away from the greatest chance of his life, because he will not sign that unconditional surrender.
Now Jesus gives his verdict (v.23). It’s the disciples’ turn to be shocked. They’ve just seen someone who looked so promising, now retreating with his tail between his legs; and Jesus tells them that it’s actually his wealth that is the problem! So Jesus repeats and accentuates his words (v.25). It is a ridiculous picture, so ridiculous that people have tried to invent explanations where Jesus doesn’t really mean a camel, or he doesn’t mean a real needle. But Jesus means exactly what he says. Maybe the glum face of the rich man who has just left so disconsolate has reminded him of a sulky camel, or maybe it’s simply that a camel is the biggest animal you’d ever see in that part of the world. How much of a camel could you actually thread through a needle? A couple of hairs, I suppose. Not surprisingly, faced with such an image, the disciples are more amazed than ever (v.26). All these expressions, ‘being saved’, ‘entering the Kingdom’ and ‘receiving eternal life’ are used interchangeably here, which is interesting in itself. They all mean being rescued by God and brought into the safe place which is his eternal kingdom. That is what the man wanted; it is what the disciples are talking about now; and it’s what Jesus has to offer. For the third time in the story, Jesus ‘looks’ and gives his verdict (v.27). You are absolutely right, he says. It is impossible for the rich to be saved. It’s impossible for anyone to be saved – in human terms; but God can do the impossible. Being saved is not something you can do. It is a gift you receive from the God of the impossible. At this point, Peter wants his say (v.28). It’s true: Peter and the others have done exactly what Jesus asked the rich man to do. Jesus agrees (vv.29-31); and he promises that no-one who gives up home, family, or property for him and his message will miss out as a result.
There are two clear messages for us in this story. The first is that only unconditional surrender can bring us peace with God. We might protest that we have never murdered, stolen or committed adultery: perhaps not. But even so, we come with a long track record of cheating, lying, lust, anger and greed. Each single, individual action on that list is enough to alienate us from God; because God is good; and we are not. The problem is worse than that. Even if we could somehow clear that long record of sinful behaviour and thoughts, we would still have a sinful inclination at the very core of our being – what the Bible calls the sinful nature. We are born incapable of pleasing God. That is what the rich man in the story has not realised; that when we come to God, we have nothing to offer, no cards to play. The man himself, and the onlooking disciples too, think he has all sorts of cards to play. Look at him: he is young – you can see that from his energy and enthusiasm; Matthew specifically tells us he is young (Matthew 19:20-22). He is extraordinarily rich – far above the peasant farmers, fishermen and small businessmen who make up the usual crowds. He is sincere – he really wants to find the way. He wants to find this peace with God, this assurance of eternal safety. That’s why he has made such an effort to track Jesus down: he’s not one of the point-scoring timewasters who have plagued Jesus’ ministry. He is law-abiding, the epitome of the upright citizen. We would like him; and we would want to give him the benefit of the doubt; but it is not enough. Not even this élite, successful, well-meaning character can offer anything to God. The only way to eternal life is to come to God in unconditional surrender and let him do the impossible. In this one human heart, Jesus identifies his wealth as the main problem. It will have to go – otherwise there will be no surrender. But the main focus is on what will happen afterwards. ‘Come and follow me’, Jesus says (v.21). His demands are absolute. The Lord does not ask all of us in literal terms to give it up. We are not all called to give everything away. Many things the Lord picks up and uses in new ways when we come into the Kingdom. But for all that, we cannot enter unless we are willing to let it all go. The demands of the Kingdom are absolute and unconditional. If any of us hasn’t got hold of this, then we are probably still outside.
Secondly, unconditional surrender brings us into a new world. Look again at vv.29-31. These are the sacrifices which a disciple makes: Peter and friends have made them quite literally. They haven’t sold great country estates or stately homes like the rich man would have had to, but the end result is the same. Sometimes if you have very little to begin with, it is even harder to give it up. But when Jesus said ‘follow me’, the Twelve did exactly that. Jesus recognises their sacrifice. That’s right, he says, that’s what a disciple does – for my sake, because you love me, and for the gospel message which brings life to those who accept it. But just look at the blessings which will follow. Notice how he says this – the NIV doesn’t quite bring it out: ‘No-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and fields...)’ – as if to say: You may have given up only one of these – but you will receive a hundred times everything on the list! Except for fathers, you see, because in the Kingdom you have a new Father, and he is unique!
Clearly this is not a promise of material wealth and prosperity. These are not things that we will own for ourselves in the Kingdom – who wants a hundred literal mothers, anyway! – but rather, all these will be yours because you will belong to a new family. In ch 3, Jesus’ own human family came to see him; his reply was to look around at the people who were listening to him teach, and to own them as his family (3:34-35). Jesus is saying, This is what God’s Kingdom, will be like. It’s the family of God, where everyone is related to God and to each other in deeper and sounder relationships than the outside world ever knows. Unlike many merely human families, it will be a family at peace. It’s not a place of grasping hold of what we can and defending our own patch. Those days are over when we join the Kingdom. So we should make sure that our own little corners of the Kingdom, in our own churches, actually look like this. In the Kingdom there should not be anyone who’s in real need, none who is lonely. There should be hospitality – and not just for those who we think are our type. That kind of thinking doesn’t belong in the Kingdom.
Uniquely among the gospels, Mark includes a pointed little addition at the end of Jesus’ list. ‘And with them, persecutions.’ That is also in store for people who come in to the Kingdom. That is normal. Persecution was normal for Mark’s first readers, just as it is in many parts of the world today. Joining the Kingdom brings persecution – which we share as members of the family even before it touches us personally.
Jesus sums it all up in v.31. What he means is quite simple. Jesus is talking about the last day, the day of judgement. It will be a day when fortunes are reversed. The rich man, with all his advantages, a man who would be at the front of every queue, who is ‘first’ in every sense, will find himself ‘last’ – because he would not surrender to Jesus. The disciples, who have left everything behind to join up with Jesus, the one who will shortly be disgraced and executed, and who will later be executed in their turn – this scum of the earth, these rejects of society – they will be ‘first’ on that great day. Where will you and I be, when we stand before God to give an account of ourselves at the last day? The answer depends on what we have done with Jesus.