20th Sunday after Pentecost 7th October

Mark 10: 17 – 31
There is a remarkable correspondence between the account in Genesis:2 from today’s lectionary reading and the issues raised by the conversation between Jesus and the rich man and the disciples regarding salvation or eternal life. In trying to understand this connection we also see the truth of Martin Luther’s words in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians

Therefore, whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian (Luther LW Vol 26 p115.)

 What Luther is saying is that in one way or another we are all theologians, we all have views about ourselves, the world and God. But what distinguishes real theologians from fake theologians is their knowledge of the difference between God’s Law and God’s Gospel. This ability consists in the right use of both the Law and the Gospel. God’s Law confronts us with God’s commands. It constantly reminded us just how far we are from knowing and loving God. It tells us that in fact we hate God, we would rather be free of God’s commands and be the judges of what is good and evil for ourselves. How very post-modern is that!

The Gospel on the other hand is God’s Word of free forgiveness in Christ, the covering of our waywardness and hatred of God by God’s gift of Christ’s righteousness; whereby we are set free from being haters of God’s law to embracing his will for us and our neighbour, in which we express our thanks to God for His grace toward us in Christ. 

In the scriptures from Genesis to the Gospel of St Mark read today, we see how the difference and unity between the Law and the Gospel has a very drastic effect if they are not understood or rejected.

In the garden of Eden man (Adam/Adamah means ‘earth’ from which God created man) Adam is put amid a flourishing garden planted with all manner of edible fruits which are there for his benefit and sustenance. There is however one important proviso or exception. He must not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God says if man eats the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil on that day, “you will surely die.” So, the fruit of this tree has fatal consequences and thus God’s command to avoid the fruit of this tree is a prohibition to safeguard and protect the Adam’s life. God’s command is life giving and life preserving. In this command God’s protective hand is stretched out over man. God wills to protect what He has created from death, with all its negative connotations. God’s command concerning this tree is a powerful promise of life and abundant nourishment for Adam in the garden.

The threat posed by the fruit of the tree, which man is forbidden to eat, is that God knows that once eaten man will have his eyes opened and he will have the knowledge of good and evil. For Adam this is the fatal threat that this tree poses. It promises the knowledge of good and evil. Once man has this knowledge God cannot stop the fatal consequences flowing from the decision to eat the fruit, this occurs in Chapter 3 of Genesis. But once the fatal step is taken man will become himself like God. He will possess in the knowledge of good and evil that which distinguishes the Creator from the creature. The knowledge of creation established in its lawfulness as good. God’s act of creation consists in the establishment of that which is not God within the limits of creaturely being, as created. In relation to God and this limitation of the creature is being a creature is as part of the good creation that the Lord God makes and loves. God knows the creation in its earthly reality as created is limited, is not divine, it is not unlimited but limited, it has boundaries set by God’s act of creation and which is declared ‘good.’

In transgressing the commandment that is meant to save and secure the creaturely life of the creature, man becomes the possessor of divine knowledge; man become as the Bible puts it “like God knowing good and evil”

But such knowledge, once attained, cannot become unknown. Man is burdened with it and it becomes the seed of his destruction as the creature God has made from the dust of the earth. For the creature makes the impossible attempt to be like God and therefore rejects the gracious life preserving truth of God’s command regarding the tree of knowledge. In seeking and achieving this knowledge man hates the limit of his creaturely being and life as the one who God had created and willed to relate to in love. But instead seeks to be equal with God; man grasps the impossible possibility for a creature of being “like God”. Adam thus embraces his own death as a creature in his rejection of God’s good command to “not eat of the fruit tree of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Instead of allowing God to be God and rejoicing in the promised goodness of God’s commandment towards him that wills to preserves life; Adam and all his subsequent generations hurtle headlong to destruction in hatred of God’s commandment and reaching for the unattainable goal of being like God. Possessing the ability to know good and evil, having a conscience, being the judge and therefore being like God. Rejecting the love of God encapsulated in the command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; rejecting this love, rejecting the life-giving life preserving commandment, Adam chooses the death of separation from God as a would-be god with all its awful consequences. This is immediately revealed by the book of Genesis in Adam’s family. His descendants multiply and destroy each other as generation succeeds generation.

When we come to the New Testament, the reading from the holy gospel of St Mark 10, we are presented with the difference between those who are obedient and those who are disobedient to Jesus. Who’s in and who’s out of the kingdom. It has two main sections: one dealing negatively with the disobedience of the rich man and the other positively dealing with the nature of the disciple’s obedience.

We shall begin by trying to see the difference by looking at the second section first: The obedience of the disciples. They ask Jesus, “Who can be saved”, for they are “astounded” and “amazed” at Jesus saying that it “is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than that rich man should enter the kingdom of God.” When the rich man seeking eternal life says he has kept the commandments turns away from Jesus when confronted with the meaning of God’s commandments.

Contrary to the rich man who departs and goes away from Jesus. The saying of Peter in v.28., is not contradicted. That they indeed, the disciples, have left all and followed Jesus. They have done in fact what the rich man could not do. But to their amazement Jesus does not then say that therefore they inherit eternal life, as opposed to the rich man. Surely, we may think, Jesus is over emphasising the situation of human beings before God. Haven’t the disciples done precisely what the rich man was unable to do and in so doing, leaving all and following Jesus, haven’t they by doing this shown that entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven is after all a human possibility.

But Jesus words in v.27 puts an end to this illusion. That even they, the disciples, the obedient ones, should enter the Kingdom of Heaven is an impossibility for men. So, Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ urgent question, “Who then can be saved” is effectively – ‘No one’ can, ‘Nobody can be saved’. The disciples, standing as they do before the disobedience of the rich man, are forced by Jesus words to see themselves as standing on a par with the rich man when it comes to reckoning up “Who can be saved.” They are forced to see that their only hope, as it is also the hope of the rich man, that with God, “all things are possible,” and therefore even their salvation as well. For this possibility of God is standing before them and the rich man in the person of Jesus, who as God’s Son is identified in his flesh with the godforsakenness of the human condition. He is God’s possibility which excludes both the rich man as well as disciples from salvation in terms of what they have done or not done: for He is in Himself not simply the divine possibility of salvation He is its actuality.

Even though it is true of the rich man that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of as needle than that he should enter the Kingdom of Heaven, this is also true of the disciples: those who have done what the rich man could and would not do. From the point of view of their own ability the disciples too lack precisely the same thing as the rich man. This is the discovery they are forced to make when, according to the text, they exclaim, “Who then can be saved!” The judgment of Jesus on the rich man, the affirmation by Jesus of the one thing necessary applies no less to the disciples.

These words of Jesus compel the disciples to see the disobedient in an entirely new light. Jesus’ seemingly harsh words directed at the rich man and indirectly to them as well, who have left all and followed Him, that they indeed are included in Jesus saying, “With men it is impossible.” With these words Jesus binds the disciples in complete solidarity with the disobedient rich man. In Jesus encounter with the rich man and in the consequent discussion the disciples are confronted with the yawning abyss of their own disobedience, the impossibility of their salvation apart from the actuality of the possibility of God’s grace present for them in Jesus. The presence of God’s grace in Jesus excludes all people from the Kingdom of Heaven in order that those who enter, enter only because of the gift of grace present in Him. Who can be saved? Nobody can be saved, the affirmation of the one thing necessary for the rich man applies no less to the disciples.

What is it then that distinguishes the disciples of Jesus from the rich man, the disobedient. The difference does not consist in their obedience, what they have done in following Jesus as opposed to the rich man’s disobedience. What distinguishes the disciples from the rich man is not who and what they are but who and what Jesus will to be for them in His call of them. In their following Jesus, their being with Him, they testify to the possibility of grace, the fact that with God all things are possible and that includes their obedience. They remain disciples only in so far as they continue to acknowledge this mystery to be the basis of their existence. For the conversation between Jesus and the disciples ends with the cryptic saying, “many that are first shall be last, and the last first.”

But this gift of grace present in Jesus was there not only for the disciples it was there for the rich man as well. The gospel writer adds the critical words in the context of Jesus conversation with the rich man: “Jesus”, he says, “looked upon him and loved him.” When Jesus goes on to tell him what he lacks, the freedom from his riches, he does so in order that he, the rich man, may see that Jesus is there specifically for him. Jesus call of the rich man to follow him and forsake his riches shows us, as in Genesis, that the command of God is life preserving and grounded in God’s love. It is that rich man, may give up what he has chosen as giving his life meaning and value, his possession and instead receive the gift of God’s grace as that which gives his life enduring meaning. Within the hard shell of the commandment that Jesus gives the rich man is the life preserving love of Christ which he chooses not to receive  

For who else is Jesus on the way to Gethsemane and Golgotha, but for the sake of those who are enslaved by all that negates true human life. Jesus hard words to the rich man, the demand that he lays upon him and which causes him to turn away, this hard demand is in order that the rich man may be set free to allow himself to be loved by Jesus. This was purpose of the command of the law which the rich man could recite but did not know. The rich man can certainly reject what Jesus wills to be for him and he does so. But his actions cannot negate or overthrow the Kingdom of Christ, the fact, so poignantly stated by the gospel writer, that Jesus looked upon him and loved him, loved specifically him with his hard and rebellious heart.

In Him God has taken to himself the sinful humanity of every one of us, children of Adam and become the One, the only one to live a human life before God that allows God to be God. To fulfil the Law not for his own sake but for ours. This involves Him confessing the sin of Adam and all his descendants by allowing God to be in the right in rejecting the foolish creature who sought to be God by knowing good and evil. Allowing God to be the judge. Allowing God to be in the right over against Him and thus embracing his journey to the cross and death in order that a new Adam may come to life in His resurrected glory and be the one who lives to give this new humanity of His to those who accept the gift of His truth and righteousness as the truth about the untruth of their lives and thus live by faith in Him. And we are promised this wonderful gift of Himself in Word and Sacrament

Dr.Gordon Watson.

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