I love quizzes! I really enjoy the challenge of coming up with an answer to tricky questions about sport, music, or general knowledge. I’m delighted our nearby pub, The Ship, runs a regular quiz night, and even more pleased that our fundraising event for November will be a quiz. I even organised a couple of evangelistic Sports Quizzes at my previous church.
In Mark 10 we meet a man who really wanted to know the answer to a tricky, and vitally important question. A question about eternal life. Mark’s Gospel tells us that this man had “great wealth”. Matthew’s Gospel also tells us that he is young, and Luke’s Gospel adds the detail that he was a “ruler” of some kind.
This man seems to have everything going for him. He’s young; he’s powerful; and he’s very wealthy. But still he falls on his knees and asks Jesus a question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice two things this young man says to Jesus: he calls Jesus “Good teacher” and he asks what he has to “do” to inherit eternal life. Jesus picks up on both of these as he helps this man to understand two truths. Firstly, only God is good. But secondly, God’s grace is enough for us.
- Only God is good
Firstly, Jesus wanted to teach this man – and us today - that only God is truly good. It’s easy to compare ourselves to someone who is dishonest, or violent, or cruel – someone like Jack the Ripper or Adolf Hilter, or a contemporary ISIS fighter - and decide that compared to them we’re good. But Jesus shows that we’re comparing ourselves to the wrong person. The question isn’t whether we’re better than any other human being. The issue is how we match up to God himself. He is genuinely and completely good. He is perfectly just, perfectly wise, perfectly pure and perfectly loving. As Jesus puts it: “No-one is good – except God alone.”
Now it seems that this man did consider himself to be good. Jesus asks him if he has kept some of the 10 commandments. ‘Teacher,’ replies the man, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ Interestingly, the commandments Jesus quotes to the man are all about how we relate to other people. There were also four commandments about how to relate to God, which we will come to later.
It seems this rich young man mistakenly believed he could earn a place in God’s kingdom, he thought he could be good enough for God to accept him. He wanted to be able to work for eternal life, and to receive it as a well-deserved reward, like a footballer’s trophy, a student’s exam certificate or an Olympian’s medal. He wanted to be told what more he could do to gain eternal life – so Jesus answered him, saying: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
But when Jesus gives him the answer, he doesn’t respond with joy. Instead, his face falls, he turns away, and goes home sad. Why? Because “he had great wealth”. The young man was rich, and being asked to give away all his money was too much for him. What this actually shows is that he isn’t keeping all of God’s laws at all. The first four of the ten commandments are about how we relate to God. They include this one: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-5).
The man’s reaction shows that he wasn’t keeping all of God’s laws after all – he is treating his money as an idol, as more important than the God who made him. He loved his treasure on earth more than treasure in heaven.
This rich young man was wrong in believing that he was fully keeping God’s laws, wrong to see himself as good, and wrong to think that he could do something to earn eternal life. Listen to Jesus’ summary of the situation: “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 were stunned by what Jesus said. So they ask their own question: “who then can be saved?”. And Jesus replies: “With man this is impossible”.
None of us can live a perfect life. None of us can satisfy God by our own efforts alone. Whether we are rich or poor, It is impossible. As impossible as passing a camel through the eye of a needle. One of my previous vicars used to challenge his congregation to go just one day without thinking, saying or doing anything wrong. It can’t be done. If eternal life was a reward for us living a good life, none of us would pass the grade. As the Bible says elsewhere, we have all fallen short of God’s perfect standards.
- God’s grace is enough
But what then is the answer to the disciples’ question? “Who then can be saved?” Should we throw up our hands in despair? Thankfully not, because God’s grace is enough for us.
Just before the rich young ruler came to Jesus, in Mark 10 verses 13-16, some other people were brought to him. They were little children. These children had nothing to offer Jesus. They hadn’t done anything to deserve his love and acceptance. But listen to what Jesus says: “…the kingdom of God belongs to such as these … anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).
These children did nothing to earn acceptance by Jesus. All they did was come to him. And Jesus took them in his arms. He put his hands on them, and he blessed them. Jesus words about the children provide the answer to the rich man’s question about inheriting eternal life, and to the disciples’ question about being saved. The answer is that only those who receive the kingdom of God like a child will enter it.
We can’t do anything to earn eternal life. We can’t work our way into the kingdom of God. We can’t do anything ourselves in order to be saved. But we can receive it as a free and undeserved gift, a gift paid for by the death of Christ on the cross. The Bible calls this “grace” – God’s forgiveness freely offered to us, like a father who gives good things to his little children. And like a child, all we can do is gratefully receive it.
Our passage today reminds us that only God is truly good. We cannot earn eternal life. But the good news is that Jesus’ death and resurrection has already achieved everything necessary for us to be saved. So when we trust in what Jesus has done, we can be accepted by God and be given eternal life. God’s grace is enough for us. Free forgiveness is open to anyone who will receive it from our Gracious Saviour. We only need to ask.