In Mark 10:17-31, Mark shares a story about an encounter Jesus had with a certain man one day. In sharing this story, Mark reports the actions taken and the words spoken. But in verse 21 Mark slips in more than just a record of the actions and the words; Mark adds an editorial comment. He tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said….”
When Mark tells us about Jesus “looking at him,” he is reporting what he saw. When he goes on to tell us what Jesus said, he is reporting what was heard. But in between, Mark asserts that Jesus “loved him.”
This isn’t as much what Mark saw or what he heard, but it’s what Mark knew about Jesus in general, and it’s what he knew about Jesus’ heart toward this man in particular. Because of this editorial comment, we must keep in mind that the rest of what takes place in this encounter flows from Jesus’ love for this man and is an expression of Jesus’ love for him.
What is it that takes place after this declaration of Jesus’ love?
Jesus tells him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
How can it be an expression of love to tell someone to sell everything they own and to give the money to the poor?
It is only loving if what Jesus offers is better than the treasures this man holds onto.
When I was in college, I flipped my bicycle and my body over a car. I landed on the sidewalk with a twisted bicycle and a separated shoulder. Doctor cut my shoulder open and fastened the bones back together with a couple of nuts and bolts. For the next 10 weeks, my arm was strapped to my side, immobile. Shortly before Christmas, I was to return to the hospital to have my shoulder opened up again for the removal of the nuts and bolts. I was apprehensive and suggested to the doctor that he could skip the surgery and leave the nuts and bolts in my shoulder. He answered matter-of-factly, “We don’t have to operate again. We can leave the nuts and bolts where they are, but you will never be able to use your arm again.” His tone did not strike me as particularly loving, but the truth was. Despite my apprehensions about the surgery, he was offering me something far better than life with an immobile arm.
On November 12, 1859, a young Frenchman named Jules Leotard climbed to a platform high above the crowd at the Cirque Napoleon in Paris, France, and performed a fete that no one before him had ever done. Holding onto the trapeze bar, he swung away from the platform, then he let go of the bar and dashed unsupported through the air for 15 feet before grabbing a bar that had been sent swinging toward him. No one before him had ever let go of the bar away from the safety of the platform without first taking hold of another bar, but Jules did so. For the first time in history, a daring young man on the flying trapeze had actually flown through the air with nothing to hold onto. That day, Jules Leotard brought to the trapeze a marvelous new sense of thrill and excitement. It only happened, though, because Jules was willing to stop clinging to the bar.
That’s what Jesus invites this rich young man to do. Because he loved him, Jesus invites this man to let go of the possessions he is clinging to so that he can told hold of something far better.
After the man turns away from Jesus’ offer, Jesus tells his disciples, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
Some have suggested that the “Needle’s Eye” was a low and narrow gate beside one of the main gates of a city. During the day, all the trade and traffic would pass through the larger main gate, but at night the main gate would be locked and guarded so that no invading army could sweep into the city. But the low and narrow gate was normally left open, allowing a straggler who came along after dark to enter into the safety of the city walls. This low and narrow passage was barely large enough for a man to walk through. For a camel, it was even more difficult. It could be accomplished only if the camel was stripped of the load it carried then led through upon its knees.
Like the camel going through the eye of a needle, the rich man who inquired about inheriting eternal life is welcome in the kingdom of God, but the only way he can get in is by taking off his load and coming through upon his knees.
Over and over again, Scripture circles back to answering a critical question for us: How does God feel about me?
The reason Scripture answers this question so often is because we struggle so frequently with questions about our worth.
Our struggle begins early in life when it feels to us that our own parents are too busy with other matters, leaving us with the impression that even our parents’ interest in us is lacking. An article at www.studyfinds.org from November 8, 2019 reports on a recent survey of 2,000 U.S. parents (with children between the ages of 3-16) conducted by OnePoll. More than half of the respondents (55%) admitted that they are too busy with other commitments to spend quality time with their children. Forty percent admit to having missed out on at least one major milestone in their child’s life due to a more pressing obligation. Even when they do spend time together, 78% of the surveyed parents said that their children had complained about the parent not being fully focused on them.
Our struggle with questions about our worth is reinforced by negative comments aimed at us while growing up. Another survey asked parents to record how many negative versus positive comments they made to their children. The results showed that children were typically criticized 10 times for every favorable comment, leaving them with the feeling that they are more of a pain to their parents than a joy, and wondering whether God feels the same way.
Mark 10:13-16 reports that people were bringing children to Jesus to be blessed by him. Here is a wonderful opportunity for these children to discover how deeply God cares for them! But Jesus’ disciples send a contrary message. The disciples buy into the common misconception that God is too busy with “important” matters to take an interest in children. Mark reports that the disciples “spoke sternly to them.” The message the disciples delivered was that the children were an annoyance to Jesus, a distraction from more important work, and a pain in the neck.
At this, Jesus was “indignant.” Whenever God’s care is denied to others, God becomes indignant. Whenever God’s interest in even the “least” among us is blocked, God becomes indignant.
Jesus affirms the worth of these children (and of all children) by giving his time and attention to them, even forbidding the disciples from getting in the way of bringing children to him. And he affirms their worth by giving them the ultimate compliment, stressing that the kingdom of heaven belongs to “such as these” and that no one can receive the kingdom of God unless we do so as a child. And he affirms their worth by taking them in his arms and blessing them.
This passage of Scripture calls for two applications from us:
1: Take to heart how deeply valuable we are to God!
2: Strive to treat others in ways that affirm rather than deny their sense of worth.
It can be a great joy for persons who were born blind to gain sight, but inevitably they discover that learning to navigate through life with vision is far more challenging than they would have guessed.
In their book In His Image, Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand point out, “At a precise time in each of our lives, normally around the age of twelve months, a profound change takes place. A person’s perception of the world moves from a predominant reliance on touch to a reliance on sight. Touch precedes and teaches sight, until the sight cells gain dependable notions of shape and distance and solidness. This learning process occurs in everyone—everyone, that is, except the blind.” (p. 153)
Those who gain sight later in life must struggle through the process most of us went through naturally as infants. Yancey and Dr. Brand report the experiences of some who gained their sight later in life: “Once these patients could see, a bewildering world of size and perspective confronted them. Previously they had a firm conception of size: an orange was about the size of a cupped hand, a face two hand-widths. In a shocking reversal, after surgery none of these rules applied. ‘How big is your mother?’ a researcher asked a sixteen-year-old girl. The girl held her index fingers a few inches apart, the same distance she had estimated for the size of a book. Her mother, standing across the room, took up about that much of her field of vision. And the sun? Obviously, it was about the size of a dime—who could believe the sun was larger than the earth?
“Gradually, over a period of months these patients had to learn the meaning of space, distance, and perspective. Vertical distances remained unfathomable for a long time, for the newly sighted had no prior conception of space beyond what they could feel by touch. Skyscrapers and trees loomed high, but how could they gauge height over ten feet, the height reachable with a cane? One patient, observing some interesting activity on the street below, stepped off the balcony of a tall apartment building and was killed….
“One young girl played with a pet cat for twenty-one days, four hours each day. Then, upon seeing a hen in a garden she squealed with delight, ‘My cat!’ After all, the thing was small and somewhat gray and it moved…. The simplest sights provoked great alarm in her: a black coat on the floor looked like the mouth of a well, a column of smoke from the chimney appeared to crack the sky in two, and the spots on her dog Muffy seemed like holes through him….
“‘How is it that I now find myself less happy than before?’ one distraught woman wailed in the midst of her training. ‘Everything that I see causes me a disagreeable emotion. Oh, I was much more at ease in my blindness!’…. Virtually all patients muddled through such despondent periods for a time. They were being asked to relearn the world, like persons abruptly deposited on another planet where the laws of physics do not apply.” (pp. 153-156)
In the spiritual realm, we need to recognize that having our souls filled by the Holy Spirit is as radical a change for us as it is for a person to gain sight. Learning to live by faith will be as rewarding and as challenging as it is for a blind person to learn to live by sight.
Perhaps this is why we encounter such a surprising healing in Mark 8:22-26 in which Jesus heals a blind man and the blind man describes people looking to him at first like trees walking. Mark’s report offers a wonderful insight into the accuracy of the gospel, for what we have here is Mark recording an incident that he could not have made sense of but which fits perfectly with modern medical knowledge.
On top of that, Mark’s report paints a picture for us of what happens not only in the physical realm but also in the spiritual realm. The restoration of sight involves two steps: the repair of the optic capacity and the expansion of the mind to learn how to live by sight. The miracle of salvation also involves two steps, both of which are encompassed in the word “salvation.” The first step is to be rescued, as when a drowning person is pulled out of the water by a lifeguard. That is what happens to us when we receive salvation from Christ. The second step has to do with salvaging. It has to do with fixing that which is broken in us. It has to do with setting things right in who we are and in how we live. It has to do with transforming our character so that we can begin living in ways that match the heart and the mind of the Savior who sets his Spirit in us. This is no easy matter. It is as challenging as it is for a formerly blind person to learn to live by sight. It requires the ongoing work of Christ in our lives.
One day Jesus was invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, but when Jesus arrived at Simon’s home, the common courtesies that were normally extended to a guest were omitted.
Normally, when a guest arrived at a home, the host would greet the guest by placing both hands on the guest’s shoulders, then kissing him on both cheeks. If the guest was a Rabbi, all the family members would wait at the door and kiss his hands as he came in. But with Jesus, this was omitted.
The roads of that day were dusty tracks. The shoes were merely soles held in place by straps across the foot. Cool water was normally provided for the guest, to wash and refresh his feet. To neglect such water for the washing of one’s feet would be to imply that the guest was a person of very inferior rank. For Jesus, the water to wash his feet was neglected.
With the omission of these common courtesies, the message becomes clear: Jesus has not been invited to Simon’s home as a guest but as a curiosity. He is there so that Simon and his Pharisee friends can scrutinize Jesus, to figure out whether he really is from God.
They recline at the table, eating the meal, engaging in deep theological debate, when suddenly a prime opportunity to scrutinize Jesus presents itself. A woman with a reputation in that town as “a sinner”—a woman whom the Pharisees would never have invited within spitting distance of their dinner—enters Simon’s house. Standing behind Jesus, in the home of a Pharisee, her emotions catch up with her. She is suddenly paralyzed. She just stands there. As she does so, her tears begin to fall. And oh how they fall! She blubbers all over Jesus’ feet. Feeling bad about the mess she has caused, she falls upon her knees to dry Jesus’ feet with her hair. Thought it was considered highly improper and immodest for a Jewish woman to unloose her hair in public, she wants to clean up the mess she has made of Jesus’ feet from her tears and from the dripping of her runny nose. Then she breaks open an alabaster jar of ointment, filling the room with the sweet smell. All the while, she continues soaking Jesus’ feet with her tears, rubbing the ointment into his feet with her hands, drying his feet with her hair, and covering his feet with kisses.
How sloppy! How embarrassing! But how genuine!
The Pharisees became convinced that their scrutiny of Jesus had been answered: If he were a legitimate prophet, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him” (Luke 7:39).
The Pharisees were concerned with propriety, and what Jesus was allowing this woman to do was not proper! Pharisees were upright and proud people—proud of their propriety and goodness. C.S. Lewis, though, points our attention to the danger of pride: “As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” (Mere Christianity, p. 111)
Something other than pride is motivating this woman. Victor Hugo once remarked, “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.” That’s what brought this woman to Jesus. That’s what overwhelmed her with emotion. That’s what prompted her sloppy, embarrassing, genuine display of gratitude!
Jesus looks beyond the sloppiness and the impropriety; he delights in the love and gratitude that motivated her. He tells a parable about everyone’s need for forgiveness, then he says to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Ann Kiemel tells a similar story of a boy who wanted to express his love to his grandfather: “Grandfather was in the backyard, and it was midmorning. His small grandson kept begging him, ‘Gramps, can I fix you a hamburger?’
“‘No, honey, gramps is full. He just had breakfast.’
“‘Hmmm. Can I fix you a hot dog?’
“‘I don’t think a hot dog would mix well with the eggs inside.’
“The child tugged on his grandfather’s arms, and burst into an enormous smile. ‘I know, Gramps . . . a glass of water?’
“Grandfather looked into the dirt-smeared face. He wasn’t thirsty, but he could see the boy’s desire to do something special for the man he most admired. ‘Yep, I think Gramps could use a drink.’
“The child ran into the kitchen. He happened to pick up a dirty glass from the sink instead of a clean one. He turned on the hot water tap, instead of the cold. As he ran out the door with the water, the mud from his hands smeared over the outside of the glass, dribbled inside, and clouded the hot water. ‘Here you are, Gramps.’ (Oh, his enthusiasm.)
“Gramps looked at the awful glass of water, and caught the sparkle in the small face. He drank it all, and wrapped his arms around the lad. ‘You know, that was the best glass of water Gramps ever had.’” (I Love the Word ‘Impossible,’ pp. 92-93)
What God delights in is not our propriety, but the genuineness of our love and gratitude.