“He went away sorrowful.”
Of all the reactions Jesus elicited during his ministry, sorrow was not common. It was more typical for people who encountered Jesus to be filled with hope, and to leave everything and follow him. Or to be filled with rage, and to pick up stones to kill him. People usually responded with the extremes. Marveling or mocking. Rejoicing or renouncing. Astonishment or anger.
But not the man in our text. After asking Jesus serious questions about the most serious matters, he was filled with neither love nor hate, neither confusion nor curiosity.
“He went away sorrowful.”
Mark tells us why. He was sad because he had a lot of stuff. Which should make us pause. In a culture like ours, which builds bigger and bigger houses, which needs more and more storage space to collect more and more stuff, a preacher who chooses this text should be prepared to speak some words of confrontation.
To help understand the significance (and the tragedy) of this man’s sad reaction to Jesus, it might be useful to consider at least two of types of circumstances that create sorrow. The first is when we lose something we once held dear: A long-term relationship ends, a dream job is cut, a loved one dies. We grieve at these times because we’ve lost something we cherish. This is grief born of loss. The second type of sorrow happens when we fail to get something we never had in the first place. This is grief born of lack. A couple cannot have children, a college application is rejected, an absent father never shows up. We grieve because of what might have been—what we hoped would be, what we wanted and needed—never came to pass.
In our text, the man’s sorrow stems from the latter. His lack made him sad. His refusal to let go of the things he held dear showed that he never had (and never would have) the salvation he was ostensibly seeking.
It’s worth asking your hearers this week to consider what they hold dear. The options are many. It could be possessions, like the man in the text. Or perhaps more likely investments. Or retirement. Maybe it’s more to do with reputation. Or career. Or status. Perhaps it is leisure. A hobby, a habit. Maybe it’s family. A child. A spouse. The problem isn’t the thing we hold dear. It’s our holding it too dear. Clinging too tightly. It’s when something—anything—becomes more precious to us than Jesus.
It’s called idolatry. It’s front and center in this text and in our lives, even as Christians. The man’s possessions were his god. They were more important to him than Jesus. More important even than salvation. His god, of course, could not deliver. Which is what made him sad. And it’s what makes him such a sad case.
A sermon on this text could pose some serious and penetrating questions for hearers today. “What would be the hardest thing in your life to give up?” “What would you rather die for than sacrifice?” “What really is most important to you?” Don’t let them get away with a knee-jerk Sunday School answer. It’s a serious question because idolatry is a serious matter. The woman in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce comes to mind. For her it was mother-love. Even before the gates of heaven, she could not release grip on her love for her son. Even when it kept her from eternal life. She was a sad case, too.
Proclaiming good news from this text could come from several angles. The preacher could take a cue from Jesus’ words about the man’s lack. “You lack one thing,” Jesus told him. And it wasn’t fulfillment of all the commandments. It was fear, love, and trust in God. The word Mark uses for “lack” is ὑστερέω. It’s the same word in the Septuagint that appears in Psalm 23:1. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.” That’s a promise. It’s a promise that the preacher can make today. The beautiful irony is that, when we no longer lack Jesus, we ultimately lack nothing. Paul speaks this way. In Philippians 4:12-13 he uses the same word. In Christ he has learned to be content, whether in abundance or in lack.
The preacher could also point to and proclaim the grace with which Jesus responds to the man. In verse 21 Jesus responds to the man’s inflated claim about following the commandments: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” He looks at us today and loves us, too. Jesus continued by graciously inviting the man to follow him. Even after his claims to perfection, Jesus extended the call to let go of his possessions and cling to the one who could save. The preacher could offer the same gracious call today. A call to let go of the idols and cling to Jesus alone.
As the preacher proclaims the promises of God in Christ from this text, the goal is that the hearers will let go of any and every idol that keeps them from clinging to Jesus; that they will believe and accept Jesus’ gracious invitation to follow him, even when it involves sacrifice of things they hold dear; and that following him, they will learn to be grateful in every circumstance for God’s generous and gracious provision.
Concordia Theology: Multiple Resources on Mark 10:17-22