February 29 – March 1 sermon resource

First Last and Last First

  • Main text: Mark 10:17-31
  • Accompanying text: Psalm 19:7-10

What this passage means to us

Sometimes, out of respect, we approach people in conventional ways. When he called Jesus “Good teacher” or “Good Rabbi”, the young man may have been following the standard polite protocol of the day. It was not anything out of the ordinary. Jesus picks up on it and makes a theological point which would have made those around him wince. Why can’t he leave well enough alone? What’s wrong with the nicety of calling rabbis good? Are they not good? “Good” at the time implied righteous, faultless, someone who is without sin because he or she has kept the commandments perfectly — “all these”, the young man claimed, “I have kept since I was a boy” (Mark 10:20). Paul explained later, “There is no one righteous, not even one…there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). The irony is that the young man did not understand who Jesus was and still is. If any rabbi was truly good, it was Jesus, “the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1).

The Synoptics differ in the details of this and other narratives, which can be regarded as adding to the veracity of the event described. Sometimes different “Gospel writers present rather different accounts of the same events…But apparent contradictions are familiar when several truthful witnesses tell it as they recall it…(these) are the signs that the Gospel records have about them the ring of truth” [1]. Luke agrees with Mark, but Matthew has the young man saying, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). Jesus’ reply is as challenging as it is in Mark and Luke, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). Luke records that the man was “a ruler” (Luke 18:18) – was he a ruler of a synagogue and thus well-versed in the scriptures? It’s interesting that Luke, whose intent was “to write an orderly account” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:3), places this incident shortly after the parable of the praying Pharisee and Tax Collector which Jesus told to “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:3). Was the rich, young ruler there when Jesus explained that “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14), and when he rebuked the disciples by saying, “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15)? Some have thought that this young man ran innocently up to Jesus and then asked his question, but, perhaps, there is more of a background than meets the eye. Could the Pharisees have put him up to asking it in one of their attempts to trap Jesus in his words? Was the question therefore a loaded question, and Jesus knew it, which would explain the apparent terseness in Christ’s reply?

When Jesus says that keeping the commandments is the way to eternal life, he is saying what any rabbi worth his salt would say. It’s a standard reply which the young man would have recognised immediately. To regard Jesus’ words as an endorsement of that concept would be to miss the point. I’ve done that since I was a child, the young man said — was he therefore safe, saved so to speak, a guaranteed inheritor of eternal life? The way to eternal life was to be through the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, not through works: “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law…all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:20, 24), “who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope” (2 Thessalonians 2:16). It is only Mark who notes that, when the young man said he had kept the commandments from his youth, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). This is Jesus’ reaction to each and every one of us, we who are caught up in sin and in the confusion of our own beliefs. He accepts us, looks compassionately on us and loves us with his deep, abiding love. Did Mark alone record this because he identified with the man’s youthfulness? Mark was probably younger than most of the others when he joined the band of Jesus’ followers (Acts 12:12, 25), and some biblical scholars have wondered whether Mark was describing his own actions when he referred to the young man who fled at the time of the crucifixion (recorded only in Mark 14:51).

If we really want to accept Jesus’ acceptance of us and to follow him, we need to let go of the things we treasure more than the things of God. We need to unload them so that we can move on swiftly. This was too much for the young man. He valued his riches and possessions too much, and so, this time at least, he rejected Jesus and went his own way.

“It is common expository practice” when discussing the Narrow Gate “to suggest that in these words Jesus is referring to some actual narrow gate or passageway in Jerusalem…Still, the passage makes just as good sense if taken as plain old Oriental hyperbole…you can’t stuff a camel through an opening designed only to take a thread” [2]. Whatever the preferred interpretation, it’s clear that Jesus is telling us that we cannot enter eternal life while hanging onto the spiritual baggage of our life, be that our riches (as was the case of the young ruler), our successes, our worries, and our sins. “Come to me,” says Jesus, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). “Praise be to the Lord, to God our Saviour, who daily bears our burdens” (Psalm 68:19).

Storyline and Context

As usual, the disciples did not understand what Jesus was talking about. They too thought that keeping the commandments led to salvation and eternal life, and they “said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (Mark 14:26). Jesus looked at them, Mark notes. Just as he had looked at the young man and just as he looks at us — with love and compassion. So, what will be the reward of doing the right thing? That appears to be their thought. Not only have we followed the commandments, but we’ve left everything to follow you. They don’t yet understand that eternal life is not about works or what we’ve done, it’s about accepting Jesus and his grace. Out of the three Synoptic writers it’s only Mark who includes the section about how following Jesus involves sometimes forsaking our relatives and leaving behind what is dear to us, and that, although there are abundant blessings on the way, we might suffer persecutions for following him. Such things may make us feel small and abandoned, as if we are the last people in God’s mind, but put such burdens and worries aside, leave them with Jesus, realize that God is with us still and we, who think we’re last, will be first. And in any event, Christianity is not about a competition to see who gets into the kingdom first. As for all those who may have suffered for the faith and died in the faith before us, though commended for their faith, “none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

After this, they made “their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. ‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’ (Mark 10:32-34). The last Adam will be the first to rise from the dead. He will become the “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Of course, the “disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about” (Luke 18:34).


Scripture resources

  • Matthew 19:16-30
  • Luke 18:18-30
  • Romans 3

Other GCI resources

Footnotes and references

  1. Donald Bridge, Why Four Gospels?, (Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 1996). 24-25.
  2. Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002). 387-388.
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