17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
I suppose because my child is now in college I did not realize until some time after the movie “Frozen” came out in 2013 just what a big deal it was. I did see the movie because, even though my daughter rarely watches Disney films anymore, my wife will forever. Even so, I just did not get what a big deal it was. But a year or two after that movie I kept hearing the song, “Let It Go.” That song was everywhere. I started hearing that song so much that it occurred to me that the film “Frozen” and that the song “Let It Go” represented a genuine cultural moment.
That song one the Academy Award in 2014 for “Best Original Song” and it won a Grammy in 2015 for “Best Song Written for Visual Media.” “Let It Go” sold 10.9 million copies in 2014.
The song’s Wikipedia page reveals that some people think the song has an almost narcotic effect on children in particular.
By spring 2014, many journalists had observed that after watching Frozen, numerous young children in the United States were becoming unusually obsessed with the film’s music, and with “Let It Go” in particular. Columnist Yvonne Abraham of The Boston Globe called the song “musical crack” which “sends kids into altered states.” A similar phenomenon was described in the United Kingdom, where Lorraine Candy, editor-in-chief of Elle UK, wrote of a “musical epidemic sweeping the nation, relentlessly gathering up every child … in its cult-like grip”.
All of this leads one to the extremely ironic and humorous conclusion that lots of people became so obsessed with “Let It Go” that they could not…wait for it…let it go!
At the end of the day, it is hard to let go of that which has a hold on us. It is hard to let go of that which will not let go of you.
Our text is about a man who likewise could not let go. Jesus calls on Him to let go of one thing, but he cannot. It raises the obvious question: what is the one thing that you need to let go of that you find you just cannot let go of? Take a moment and think of it: what is the one thing you need to let go of in your life?
It is possible to let one thing keep you from Jesus.
We will begun by considering what is at stake with the one thing you cannot let go of. What is at stake is simply this: the one thing you cannot or will not let go of may just keep you from Jesus. It is possible to let one thing keep you from Jesus. Consider:
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
“You lack one thing,” Jesus said.
One thing can keep you from Jesus.
The man comes to Jesus and asks how he can “inherit eternal life.” And Jesus, in good Jewish fashion, appeals to the commandments. The man declares that, as far as the commandments go, he is, in his own opinion anyway, in good shape. Interestingly, Mark tells us that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” But then Jesus does it: He tells him he has to let go of the one thing that stands between them, in this case, wealth. Jesus tells the man to sell all that has and give it to the poor. Mark tells us that the man was “disheartened” and walked away refusing to let go of his one thing, his “great possessions.”
This all seems fairly straight forward: the man is rich and will not let go of his riches, much less give them to the poor, and this keeps him from truly coming to Jesus. But if you read this carefully you will detect something else that is going on, something beneath the surface, something deep, something confrontational, something that reveals what is actually happening here.
In short, there are two very interesting things that Jesus does with the commandments He lists. It has long been observed that the commandments Jesus quotes are the last six commandments, the commandments that have to do with a human being’s relationship with other human beings (whereas the first four are more explicitly vertical and have to do with a human being’s relationship with God directly). These are the six Jesus provides, but a close reading will reveal that He did two surprising things in the way He revealed them:
- He changed the verb in the tenth commandment from “covet” to “defraud.”
- He made the fifth commandment (“Honor your father and mother.”) the tenth commandment.
Both of these changes are extremely interesting and very telling. Let us first consider how Jesus changes “covet” to “defraud.” It has been observed that coveting and defrauding are not wholly unrelated, for if a person defrauds another, cheats someone out of something he wants, he has likely coveted it first. Even so, the change is significant because the two words are indeed different. So what is going on here?
In a fascinating article for the Journal of Biblical Literature entitled “Torah for the Man Who Has Everything: ‘Do Not Defraud’ in Mark 10:19,” Michael Peppard has explored this issue. Peppard begins by noting that the word Jesus uses, “defraud,” is used in the Jewish scriptures to speak of stealing another person’s wages or land. He points specifically to three passages.
You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning (Leviticus 19:13)
Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:5)
He then goes on to argue that the economy of first century Palestine was such that the wealthy became wealthy in that area and at that time to a large extent through defrauding the poor.
In their lucid social history The Jesus Movement, Ekkehard Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann rely on the “embedded” economic analyses of Karl Polanyi to articulate a summary of “everyday behavior” of the “rural population” in Mediterranean antiquity, which was “determined by reciprocity, by mutual economic behavior that resulted, economically speaking, in a zero sum balance. Making a profit at the expense of a neighbor was not part of the reciprocal system of distribution of village neighbors.” Thus, there were no markets in antiquity in the sense that we moderns think of markets. Production was localized and oriented toward local consumption and therefore usually afforded no surplus. The main breach in these normal reciprocal relations existed between those with land and the vast majority without. According to Horsley and others, the already cavernous disparity between the landed and the landless grew worse precisely in Roman-era Palestine. The self-sustaining household and village economies “began to disintegrate…Herod had exhausted his economic base of peasant producers to underwrite his massive building programs.” Families fell into the spiral of debt and foreclosure on inherited lands, “with the prospect of becoming tenants or completely dependent on day labor.”
Herod’s overextensions thus exacerbated the primary economic problem in Roman-era Palestine…: “acute lack of land, that is, a shortage of agriculturally usable land per capita of population…At the same time, confiscations and the oppressive tax burden narrowed the possibility for self-sufficiency, and thus more and more small farmers lost their land.” As Jesus’s parables and other evidence illustrate, “the indebtedness of small farmers and expropriation of their land are the hallmarks of this Roman epoch.”
Under these circumstances, which precluded self-sufficiency or any kind of “bootstrap” philosophy, the rich were becoming so by defrauding others of their inheritances and their wages.
On this basis, Peppard concludes thus:
To conclude, the explanation for why Mark’s Jesus adapted the Decalogue during his encounter with the rich man becomes clear, once one sets aside an economic imagination formed by modern capitalism. In the localized zero-sum economy of agrarian Palestine, there was little chance one could become rich without having defrauded people along foe way. Thus, Jesus’s clever adaptation of the Decalogue’s commandments about interpersonal relationships was neither a mistake nor shorthand for another part of the Torah. The commandment “do not defraud” was, in fact, the main point of the encounter: a prophetic indictment intensifying a halakic expectation.
In other words, by changing “do not covet” to “do not defraud” Jesus was likely putting His finger on the primary issue behind the man’s wealth. He was pointing to the systemic problem of which the man was a part and a practitioner. Joel Marcus observes that verb “missing” that Jesus uses when He says, “You lack [are missing] one thing” “is phonologically but not etymologically connected with the word for ‘defraud’ (apostereses) in 10:19” and concludes that “Mark may wish to suggest that the man’s spiritual lack is related to a violation of the tenth commandment.”
Second, in addition to altering the ninth commandment, Jesus adds the fifth commandment after the tenth commandment. That is, Jesus adds the commandment about honoring your father and mother to the end of His list though traditionally that commandment was and is seen as the fifth or as the concluding the commandment of the first table. Marcus observes that this order is “unusual” and “seems to assign special prominence to the commandment about honoring parents” through what is called “end-stress,” which is “[a] rhetorical principle according to which what comes at the end receives the greatest emphasis.” Why does Jesus do this? Why does Jesus put the fifth commandment, the commandment about being a good child to your parents, last?
Perhaps it might help us to remember what Jesus had just finished saying to the disciples immediately before His encounter with the rich young ruler:
13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
By putting “honor your father and mother” at the end of His list Jesus was drawing special attention to it. We enter the Kingdom of God as little children. The rich young ruler needed likewise to enter the Kingdom as an obedient child of his Father. And how was he to do that? By selling all that He had it giving it to the poor. This was too much for the rich man so he walked away despondent.
What a tragedy! One thing can keep you from Jesus!
When the one thing is tied to your sense of security and value it is very hard to let it go.
The one thing can be very difficult to let go of, especially if it is tied to your sense of security and value. Jesus put it like this:
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!
Note the repetition. Twice Jesus says that it is “difficult” to enter the Kingdom of God. He has to repeat it because the disciples were “amazed.” And why were they amazed? They were amazed because as Jewish people of the first century they held to an assumption that frankly many people today also hold to, namely, the assumption that the wealth and ease of life is a sign of blessing from God, that those who have much have it because they had lived rightly and God had given it to them! You can see this mindset operating in the words of Job’s friends in the book of Job (i.e., if wealth is a sign of divine favor then calamity is a sign of divine anger) and you can see it in the TV preachers today who tell you that God wants you to be rich and who tell you that if you will sow a seed you will gather a great harvest of wealth!
So it was shocking when Jesus said that it is hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom. But note that the second time He simply says it is “difficult to enter the kingdom of God” without mentioning wealth. Meaning, there are many things that make it difficult to enter the Kingdom, and most of them are bound up with our sense of security and value. It might be wealth. It might be safety. It might be security. It might be beauty. It might be status. It might be rage. It might be lust. It might be anything, that one thing that keeps us from the Kingdom. Even so, the things that are bound up with security and status are particularly difficult to shake.
Jesus illustrates His point by calling offering one of His most famous sayings.
25 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.”
This was likewise a shocking thing to say to an ancient audience. The image is absolutely absurd, a camel passing through the eye of a needle! It was not an utterly unknown saying. A saying from the Babylonian Talmud refers to the idea of “an elephant going through the eye of a needle.” Clinton Arnold observes that an elephant as the largest animal in Mesopotamia and a camel was the largest animal in Palestine.
What Jesus is saying is that it is possible to get so big in one’s own estimation that you become too big to enter the Kingdom. Again, remember what Jesus had just said immediately before this scene: you must enter as a child. That is, you must become small. You must humble yourself and set aside your idols.
Why, then, is it so hard? Because everything within us revolts at the idea of laying aside the idol of security and status and value. Deep down we think we need these things! Truth be told, I suspect that many people really do agree with Faulkner’s words from Absalom! Absalom! when he wrote:
…he had learned that there were three things and no more: breathing, pleasure, darkness; and without money there could be no pleasure, and without pleasure it would not even be breathing but mere protoplasmic inhale and collapse of blind unorganism in a darkness where light never began.
In other words, we think, “If I do not have wealth and security then what on earth do I have! If I do not have this I do not have anything!” This is why the teachings of Jesus are such a threat to the establishment, to the power brokers of society, to the guardians of status and safety and security and power and wealth!
When the one thing is tied to your sense of security and value it is very hard to let it go.
By God’s grace, however, we can let go of the one thing that is killing us.
Even given how difficult it is, by God’s grace we can let go of the one thing. There is hope!
26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
The shocked and amazed disciples ask a question that, to them, was most reasonable: “Then who can be saved?” If the wealthy, who (they erroneously believed) are wealthy because they are good and God has blessed them for their goodness, cannot be saved, then who can? And Jesus responded, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
It is possible to be saved because salvation is of God and God is love. This means it is possible to set aside the one thing that stands between us and salvation and take hold of the One who is our salvation. How? By God’s grace!
How do we let go of the one thing that is killing us? We fall at the feet of God and cry for His mercy and grace! When we do so, He always gives it. We must believe that Christ can set us free! And to do this we must first believe that we need to be free. And to do that we must first stop ruling out the possibility that Christ might call us to let go of something we deeply cherish. The rich young ruler simply would not let himself seriously entertain the thought that he should sell all that he had and give it to the poor! But that was the one area where Jesus was calling for him to let Him enter.
So it is with us: the one area that we will not put on the table for consideration is usually the one area where we need to meet Jesus and is usually the one thing we most need to let go of.
In a recent book on the church and the church’s mission, Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchin referred to “the so-called Semmelweis reflex—where the work of Ignaz Semmelweis, in discovering that mortality rates in patients with infections could be reduced tenfold if doctors would wash their hands with a chlorine solution, was rejected by his contemporaries.” That story, the story of Semmelweis’ advice about hand washing being rejected by the medical community, has been proven to be somewhat apocryphal. Even so, the “Semmelweis reflex” is in no way apocryphal but is instead very, very real!
The “Semmelweis reflex” is that instinctive reaction within us that refuses to entertain or take seriously any proposal that conflicts with assumptions and beliefs we hold to be foundational and settled. So just as the medical community allegedly laughed off hand washing, we too oftentimes laugh off and reject the truths we must need to hear because they conflict with our sacred-cow-assumptions. Thus, the rich young ruler’s “Semmelweis reflex” kicks in immediately at the thought that he should give away all that he has. Why? Because that notion was, to his mind, utterly absurd.
How about you?
What is that one thing in your life that your “Semmelweis reflex” protects? What is the one area that you grow agitated about when somebody gets to close to it or leans on it too much? What is the one area around which you circle the wagons? What do you grow instantly tense about when it is brought up?
May I suggest to you that that area is the one area where you most need to let Jesus in! For the rich young ruler it was wealth. For you it might be something else. But that is what you must let go! John Stott has wisely written:
In other words, life on earth is a brief pilgrimage between two moments of nakedness. So we would be wise to travel light. We shall take nothing with us.
Yes, “a brief pilgrimage between two moments of nakedness.” That is right, is it not? That area of your life you protect will one day be dealt with by a holy God. Why not give it to Him now! Why not become like a child and come humble and lowly to the Lord Jesus. Why not embrace the cross and bow before the empty tomb and realize that life is only truly lived when it is lived in light of the Lordship of Jesus.
Dear friend, let it go.
Hear me: let it go.
Take hold of Christ.
Let whatever “it” is go!
 Michael Peppard, “Torah for the Man Who Has Everything: ‘Do Not Defraud’ in Mark 10:19.” Journal of Biblical Literature. 134.3 (2015): 599-600, 604.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27A (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2009), p.722.
 Ibid., 727, 1145.
 Clinton E. Arnold, ed. Matthew, Mark, Luke. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.264-265.
 William Faulkner. Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), p.240.
 Hirsch, Alan; Catchim, Tim (2012-01-06). The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) (Kindle Locations 6951-6952). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
 John Stott, The Radical Disciple (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.21.