It’s not what you think…it’s better.
One of my favorite expressions is ‘adventures in missing the point.’ It’s a fun little phrase used to relay the idea that someone is misinterpreting or misunderstanding a situation. Most of the time people use it when someone does something ridiculously, obviously out of touch with the situation. Kind of like when a supposed ‘great princess’ of France said, “Let them eat brioche/cake” to the starving people of France. Whether the history is accurate or not, the sentiment is definitely out of touch with the reality of the moment.
The stories of a certain rich man and James, John, and the thrones around Jesus give us two such adventures in Mark 10. Oddly enough, they follow Jesus speaking about entering the Kingdom of God as a child would, but we’ll get back to that momentarily.
First, the story of a certain man who turns out to be rich in the end. Most of the time we call this the story of the rich, young ruler. The truth is, in Mark he is only regarded as a certain man. We get the other two descriptive terms from the same story retold in Matthew and Luke. This man came running up to Jesus and knelt down and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This question is one that many people have asked through the years, one fraught with meaning for us and the way we have come to interpret it? But what was the man really asking?
If you dig into this a bit, you find some differences between the way we look at this and the way they did. The question may be better translated as what do I do to become an heir in the coming age? The difference is in how they understood the idea of time in the way we relate to God. We see it as a now and then – now we live physically in something we call life and when we die we’ll live spiritually in something called the afterlife. The people of Jesus day had no concept of that. They thought they lived in a certain age and later, after the coming of the Messiah, another age would come and the world would be remade after the original intent of God. Anyone who died as a follower of Jesus would be resurrected in the next age to live with him and the Kingdom there. So, what the man was really asking was, “What do I need to do to be a part of the next age, after the Messiah?”
Jesus asks the man about whether or not he has kept the law and the man says that he has. Jesus tells him that he is almost there, there’s just one last thing: give up all your wealth – wealth that Jesus earlier hints in the commandments recap might be the result of defrauding people. This call to discipleship becomes a big fail as the man walks away from Jesus sad and disheartened over having to loose his wealth.
Jesus offers an explanation of the difficulties of being part of the Kingdom while at the same time trying to live a life of wealth. The disciples are a bit perplexed at this because most Jews of the time assumed that God must have blessed the wealthy or they wouldn’t be wealthy. Peter, of course, asks Jesus, “Then who in the world can be saved?” or better yet, “Who can be brought safely to the new age of the Kingdom?
Jesus tells him that with God all things are possible and the conversation goes on with Jesus telling them that those who have given up everything, as they have, will receive a place in the Kingdom in the next age and as a little extra extra on the side, persecution. The first will be last, the least will be great, it will be a tipsy-turvy kind of world that makes no sense to the world we live in now.
The second part showcases the same question but from a different angle. James and John want to know if they can have honored seats on either side of Jesus when his crowned king of the new age. Makes sense, right? They are his favorites; they must be, they are always around for the big events: baptism, transfiguration, miracles, teachings, the whole nine yards. Rather than rebuke them outright, Jesus asks them if they can drink the cup he drinks. In other words, can they walk the road he is going to walk, suffer what he will suffer, and still remain committed to the Kingdom and the Kingdom way of life? They answer yes, and it starts a big ruckus with the disciples who begin arguing among themselves.
Jesus, probably exasperated, finally answers them saying,
You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else.
And again, we are reminded that greatness isn’t what we think it is. But what ties these stories together is the idea that in both cases – the wealthy man and the disciples – they are missing the point of Jesus ministry and the Way of Jesus. The point of the Kingdom is the transformation of lives and through that the transformation of the world. The point is that if they live into lives of complete humility and service and commitment to the Way of Jesus, they will be part of the next age, the age of God’s Kingdom. Not only will they be part of it, they will help bring it to be.
Because of our cultural influences and changes to the way people have interpreted the Bible through the years, I think the church has lost sight of this in favor of a soft or easy version of Christianity. Just think right and behave right on a personal, individual level and you get to go to heaven. But is don’t think going to heaven was the point. I think bringing heaven to earth – as Jesus prays in the Lord’s Prayer – is the real goal. Notice anywhere in this that Jesus says being part of the Kingdom is easy? Me neither. Kingdom work is hard work and lucky for us, we live in a time when hard work is needed.
The church has at times really lived into the Kingdom Way, especially during times of great trial. They took care of one another and their community, particularly the least and the hurting. They worked hard to provide for those who could not provide for themselves. They were the hands and feet of Jesus, doing the work of Jesus, and being Jesus to those in need.
And so should we be. It is a time for us to live into the old Franciscan idea – preach the gospel; if necessary, use words. So, go and in these difficult times, bring the Kingdom of God to the world, one life at a time, one act at a time, one person at a time.