Before going too far down the path toward a sermon on this text, we should consider a few preliminary matters.
First, there’s probably no such thing as a gate called the “eye of the needle” through which camels literally passed. This appears to have been a homiletical invention, perhaps going all the way back to the ninth century. On historical grounds, therefore, the preacher should avoid making this claim. It can also undermine the point of what Jesus is saying. Preachers often repeat the legend to encourage hearers to humble themselves (like a kneeling, stripped down camel). That’s a fine goal, but Jesus’ last word in this text is not that it’s really hard to enter the kingdom. He says it’s impossible.
Second, the reading follows Jesus’ conversation with a rich man, and in verses 23 and 25 Jesus explicitly warns against the obstacles caused by wealth. Still, it seems that Jesus’ teaching in this text is not so much about money. Rather, he focuses on the kingdom of God and the human impossibility of salvation. This suggests that the sermon should too. (Although you should pay attention to the variant reading in verse 24. Nestle-Aland leaves out “for those who trust in riches,” but it’s not obvious which reading is original. The variant fits the context better, which may suggest that the reading without it is more likely to have given rise to the addition. If you read it with the variant, there is more support for focusing on money. But either way, Jesus concludes his teaching with kingdom talk.)
With those two considerations in mind, let’s think about how you might proclaim the Word of Christ from this text. We should start by noticing that this pericope is a continuation of the episode that began in last week’s reading. If you didn’t preach on Mark 10:17-22 last Sunday, you’ll want to spend some time studying verses 17-22 to get the context. (You might also revisit the reflection on that text here.)
Verse 23 begins with a striking statement from Jesus. It’s significant enough for him to repeat. It’s about the difficulty of entering “the reign of God” (τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ). Or, as the disciples pose the question, it’s about the difficulty of “being saved” (σωθῆναι). This is where the real point of the camel and the needle come in. Entering the kingdom, or being saved, is impossible. At least, it is for humans.
This bothered the disciples since they had left quite a bit to follow Jesus. It also bothers self-made hearers today. If it is impossible for us to be saved on our terms, then salvation rests in God’s hands alone. This undercuts any possibility of presumption, arrogance, autonomy, or self-congratulations—all of which come quite naturally for Americans today. Jesus’ teaching here is humbling, but not because he tells us to humble ourselves. Rather, humility is the inevitable response of those who have heard and believed the good news that God owes us nothing and yet gives us everything.
More than everything, actually. The eschatological promises of Jesus in verses 29-30 sustain and encourage those who recognize their dependence on God’s grace. As they obey his call to follow, perhaps leaving much behind, they are encouraged by Jesus’ promise about the extravagance of eternal life. The heart of a sermon on this text, therefore, would be fairly basic. God alone graciously saves. We, in response, do what the rich man didn’t do. We follow Jesus humbly. As we do so, we cling to the promises of eternal restoration.
But how might the sermon communicate these basic ideas?
Jesus’ addressing the disciples as “children” in verse 24 provides a potential connection. At this point in the narrative, Mark’s reader has noticed that Jesus repeatedly lifts up children, both literally and figuratively. He raises Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter (5:22-24, 35-43), exorcises a demon of the daughter of the Syrophoenician (7:25-30), and heals the boy with the unclean spirit (Mark 9:17-29). He illustrates servanthood in terms of embracing children (9:33-37), and he welcomes and blesses the little ones (10:13-16). Mark is more of a children’s story than perhaps we expected. When Jesus addresses the disciples as “children” in verse 24, he simultaneously points out their helplessness and his love and concern for them. (The fact that Jesus uses τέκνα instead of παιδία doesn’t prohibit this connection, for Mark seems to use παιδίον and τέκνον interchangeably.)
When Jesus calls the disciples children, perhaps he is inviting them recognize who they are, and who he is. This turns their world upside down, which makes their exceeding astonishment (περισσῶς ἐξεπλήσσοντο) in verse 26 the right reaction. The gospel of Jesus Christ truly does change everything.
The preacher, therefore, might focus the sermon on proclaiming that God, in Christ, has made us his children. That’s good news, especially in view of God’s eschatological promises. It’s also humbling. It leads us to lives of service, sacrifice, and filial obedience. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. Jesus epitomized such things. The first made himself last for us, and we simply follow his lead.
Dr. Carl C. Fickensher II: Sermon on Mark 10:23-31 at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
Dr. David Adams: Sermon on Mark 10:23-31 at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Lectionary at Lunch: Dr. David Lewis of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis offers translation helps and insights into Mark 10:23-31.