In between Jesus’s illustration of his kingdom being one of “fire and salt” and the inquiry of the Pharisees, there is a gap, a vacuity in Mark’s Gospel record. (Mark 10:1) This Mark does frequently throughout his Gospel, jumping ahead chronologically in order to continue his narrative thematically — namely, the theme of those in close proximity to Jesus completely misconstruing his message regarding the coming kingdom of God. St. Mark carries that motif into chapter ten, turning the conversation back to the matter of one’s “entrance into the kingdom.”
This theme was first introduced in chapter three, where Jesus describes his family as “whoever does the will of God.” (Mark 3:31–35) Mark returns to discuss this concept by means of a triad of some of the most significant vignettes recorded in Scripture: one with the Pharisees, another with a “rich young ruler,” and another the apostles themselves. On the surface, these pericopes appear largely disjointed — as though they have no true connective tissue keeping them together other than the fact that they appear in the same chapter of your Bible. But these scenes are intricately and intimately related. In fact, the crux of each interaction deals with the same exact thing, only through three different lenses — that is, how someone is justified.
The Purity of the Pharisees.
Jesus’s old pals, the Pharisees, reappear after receding into the shadows for a while. (Mark 10:2) This is the first mention of them since the beginning of chapter eight when Jesus refuses to acquiesce their request for a “sign.” (Mark 8:11–12) Nothing much has changed about them, though, as they’re still about their conniving and pietistic ways. They were not genuine in their inquiry. Rather, they approach the Lord to “test him,” in hopes of entrapping and exposing him. And with all the bravado of those who are self-proclaimed experts on the law, they ask: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2) Disguised as curiosity about Jesus’s views of the law, they conceal their scheme to determine what was allowable under the law, that is, what would fulfill the law’s demands.
The Pharisees have an agenda, of course. They come representing two schools of thought that were popular in the day. One group, those who followed Rabbi Hillel, was more liberal when it came to matters of divorce. Under this rabbi’s teaching, anything that displeased the husband could be cited as legal grounds for divorce. The other group was far stricter. The followers of Rabbi Shammai insisted that the only legitimate, scriptural grounds for divorce was infidelity (or any other sexual sin). Both groups, however, saw themselves as the “lawful” group, as the ones who were properly carrying out the law’s demands. But their views of “lawfulness” were not according to God but only according to their conceptions and interpretations of the law. I imagine that Pharisees of both camps were in Jesus’s audience, anxiously waiting to see where he would draw the line. Their question, then, is more: “What’s your view of the issue, Jesus? Where do you land?”
Jesus replies by asking a question of his own. “What did Moses command you?” he says, turning the Pharisees back to Scripture, back to the law in which they claimed to have authority. (Mark 10:3) The Pharisees reply accurately, though, citing the Mosaic ordinances for letters of divorce. (Mark 10:4; Deut. 24:1–5) Jesus, though, does the unexpected thing. Rather than give commentary on the law of Moses, which the Pharisees so desperately wanted, Jesus reorients their understanding of marriage not by a code written by Moses but by an ordinance created by God. (Mark 10:5–9) He reinforces the notion that man’s standard of lawful purity is nowhere near God’s standard, clarifying that this “bill of divorcement,” while allowable, was not “from the beginning.” (Mark 10:6) It was not part of God’s design. “From the beginning of creation,” God’s intent was for life-long union between “male and female.” The bond between a husband and wife was to represent the bond between he and his creation. In Jesus’s eyes, the marriage relationship, then, is not something that is so easily dissolved by a “bill,” by something manmade. Rather, marriage is an undertaking wherein the husband and wife give of themselves to each other — and, as Jesus says, “they are no more two, but one flesh.” (Mark 10:8)
What’s more, if that were not enough, the apostles inquire of Jesus the “same matter.” (Mark 10:1) They, too, are curious where Jesus falls on the matter. “That doesn’t leave much room for error,” the apostles might have been thinking. And Jesus, perhaps knowing this, proceeds to say, “Yep, there’s zero room for error.” “ (Mark 10:11–12) Jesus’s words are unflinchingly rigid, an intense reminder of the law. Divorce is unallowable by God’s standard. Jesus’s point, though, is to respond to the Pharisees on the same level with which they inquired of him. The Pharisees came to him with their understanding of “lawfulness,” purity, and righteousness. Jesus, then, shows them that their conceptions “lawfulness,” purity, and righteousness fall woefully short of the actual righteousness of the law. The law’s standard for purity is not keepable by human effort or energy.
The Activity of the Young Ruler.
Jesus is then approached by one who ran and knelt before him. (Mark. 10:17) Though he is not identified by Mark, we know from parallel passages in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels that this is the “rich young ruler,” as he is commonly called. This young, wealthy, religious aristocrat finds Jesus and asks him a most pressing question. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) We know this question burns inside of him because he sprints to catch Jesus in order to get his answer. But, of course, Jesus does not answer this young man’s question in the way that he expected.
Jesus pauses and answers the young man’s question with a question of his own. “Why do you call me good?” (Mark 10:18) This odd turn of phrase is there to hint at what is coming next. The young ruler had approached Jesus with the title “Good Teacher” or “Good Master.” The inference being that the rich young ruler wanted to be told what deeds, what activities could he perform to secure his inheritance of “eternal life.” “One who is good, teach me how to be good that I may be assured of eternal life,” he effectively says. “Good Teacher, tell me what I have to do or what I can do in order to enter into the kingdom.” In the young ruler’s mind, therefore, as long as he knew specifically what “to do,” he would be safe.
Jesus, then, reminds him of the law. “You know what the law says, what the law requires,” Christ retorts. “You know what righteousness and goodness looks like — just look at the law.” (Mark 10:19) But the young ruler was so sure of himself. Confronted with the strict standards of divine righteousness, he replies, “I’ve done all that!” “Teacher, I have kept all these from my youth.” (Mark 10:20) “Exactly,” he seems to say, “I’ve obeyed all those things since I was little, since I was a kid.” This young man’s inquiry, then, is not so much a question of what he lacks. Rather, he is looking for affirmation that his religious hustle and bustle has already inherited him eternal life. He wants verification that he has “done enough.” He wants rabbinical endorsement that his activity has earned him the right to be righteous through his long, careful observation of the law. He is probing Jesus, prompting the Teacher to say, “Why of course, you’ve done it! You’re more than righteous enough to enter the kingdom!”
According to this rich young ruler, he has never lied (egregiously). He has never (actually) killed anyone. He has never stolen anything (of real value). He has never been (physically) immoral. And more than that, he gives of his time and money to charity. Therefore, when Jesus says, “You know the commandments,” the young ruler was surely thinking, “I sure do! And if that’s all it takes to get in, then where’s the door? ‘Keep the commandments?’ I’ve done that, I’m good, I’m golden!” Interestingly, the rich young ruler’s swagger doesn’t make Jesus angry. Instead, we are told that Jesus beheld him and “loved him.” (Mark 10:21–22) The expression on Jesus’s face changes. His eyes bleed with agápē compassion. Jesus loves this young man with a tragic, pitiable love, for he had not understood the law. And, therefore, he had not understood righteousness.
“There’s one thing you still lack,” Jesus says. (Mark 10:21) He then proceeds to amplify the law once again. “You’ve done good but that’s still not good enough.” “Righteousness is more than doing good,” the Messiah seems to say. In fact, Jesus takes the young ruler (just like the Pharisees) at his own game. “If you are trying to ‘inherit eternal life’ by the law, this is the standard. Here’s the measure: unflinching righteousness.” Jesus’s point, therefore, is that the law is a code too high, too rigid, too strict for anyone to obey fully and completely. No one can live up to its demands. There is no such thing as self-achieved righteousness. For all the activity of the young ruler, he could not earn righteousness for himself. Such is why “he was dismayed” at Jesus’s words, going away “grieving.” (Mark 10:22)
The Loyalty of the Apostles.
The apostles, obviously privy to all the prior conversations and interactions, have been largely silent until now. We are twice told that they were “astonished” at the words of Jesus. (Mark 10:24, 26) They suddenly chime in, though, with Peter speaking for them. “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” (Mark 10:28) “You know, Jesus, we’ve done all that you told the young ruler to do. We’ve left everything to follow you. What about us? Are we loyal enough, are we good enough to be righteous?” Hearing these words, Jesus answers Peter quite unexpectedly. (Mark 10:29–31) Jesus’s reply indicates that there would, indeed, blessings given to those (the apostles included) who leave everything for the sake of the gospel. But coupled within that response is Jesus’s reminder that no amount of human sacrifice is good enough to live up to God’s standard. To truly understand that standard requires a little backtracking.
After Jesus stuns the young ruler (and the apostles) with an unblinking perspective on the law’s demand for righteousness, he then turns and comments on the difficulty of entering the “kingdom of God” with “wealth.” (Mark 10:23) This “astonishes” the apostles. (Mark 10:24) They are terrified, frightened by this saying. Jesus doubles-down, though, on this stipulation of absolute righteousness — and notice how he gets the apostles’ attention. He calls them “children,” and employs a staggering figure of speech. “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 a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24–25) Make no mistake: Jesus is not condemning finances. He is not saying that poor people are somehow slightly more righteous than rich people. Instead, the “wealth” that Jesus is talking about is wealth in self, in one’s own religiosity. He is referring to self-sufficiency. Those who are rich in wealth and rich in religion have an equally difficult time entering the kingdom because both are inclined to think of themselves as “enough,” in and of themselves. The apostles are now “even more astonished.” (Mark 10:26) Their Teacher seems to be saying it’s impossible. “Then who can be saved?” they clamor. “How is it possible to enter the kingdom at all?”
Jesus surely paused before replying, a wry smile, perhaps, emerges on the Messiah’s face. “Well, you’re right. It is impossible . . . for you.” “With man it is impossible, but not with God, because all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) Entrance into the kingdom is absolutely unachievable without God’s grace. “Saving ourselves is an impossibility,” writes Larry Parsley, “no matter how brightly robed we are in pious deeds.”(1) Realizing the impossibility of self-righteousness is the first step towards God’s redemption.
Righteousness by yourself is not just hard, it is impossible. It does not come about by your purity, your activity, or your loyalty. It comes through one thing: faith. Faith that is daring enough to believe in the impossible. In the incomprehensible conception of a God who would suffer death for the sins fo those who rebelled against him. Such is why we are encouraged by Jesus to become like children. (Mark 10:13–16) The faith that justifies is just gullible enough, just “daring” enough to believe in the impossibility of grace. “Faith,” Martin Luther writes, “is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy."(2)
Jesus himself is the impossible possibility. In his own crucified body, he accomplishes the impossible on your behalf and mine. He fulfills every point of the law for you and for me. And in grace, he gifts that fulfillment to every sinner who comes in desperate faith.