Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Mark 10:23-31 23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Many of you remember the old TV program Mission: Impossible, and some of you have become acquainted with it through the more recent movie versions starring Tom Cruise. Basically, the television program revolved around an agent, originally by the name of Dan Briggs and later replaced by Jim Phelps, receiving dangerous government assignments. The tagline was a tape recording at the beginning of each show that said, “Your mission, Mr. Briggs (Mr. Phelps), should you decide to accept it, is . . .” And then after relaying the message, the tape would self-destruct “in five seconds.” The name of the show came, I suppose, because these assignments appeared impossible. They certainly were difficult. However, by the end of every show, Agent Briggs or Phelps and his team of agents had triumphed, had done the “impossible.” I suppose Mission: Very Difficult just doesn’t have the same zing.
In our Gospel today, Jesus talks about entering the kingdom of heaven and life as one in that kingdom. In one case, he describes it as very difficult, like the Mission: Impossible assignments—not really impossible but really, really difficult. In another, he describes it as truly impossible. So which one is it?
Is the Mission Just Difficult, or Is It Impossible?
Remember what happened immediately before today’s text? A rich young man came to Jesus, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. He addresses Jesus in a very complimentary way, “Good Teacher.”
The man asks his question: What must he do to inherit eternal life? Thus, Jesus points the man to the commandments. The man responds that he has kept these from his youth. Jesus tells him that “you lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v 21). The man leaves saddened because he had many possessions.
Jesus then turns to his disciples and comments how difficult it is for the rich to enter heaven: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (v 23). Difficult. Very difficult.
This surprises the disciples. Perhaps they assume that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and therefore an indicator of one’s relationship with God. Money is a good gift from God, but “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim 6:10). How many of us are rich toward God by supporting the preaching of his Gospel? The text as it stands warns us today about the danger of allowing riches to get in the way of our total devotion to God. Riches, rather than always being a sign of God’s favor, can actually get in the way of one’s trust in God.
But it gets worse—or at least it appears to. Jesus goes on to teach his disciples a deeper truth.
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how difficult 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.’ And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man it is impossible’ ” (vv 24b–27a). Humanly speaking, no one can slip a camel through the eye of a needle. Not only are riches a huge hindrance to entering the kingdom and thus merely difficult, but Jesus also says it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom. And not just the rich! “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answers: it’s impossible for anyone to enter the kingdom of heaven on one’s own.
It’s not just riches that can get in the way of heaven. Indeed, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). But any of God’s greatest gifts can and often are used by Satan as his greatest temptations and most powerful idols. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me” (Mt 10:37) shows that parents, children, and spouses can become idols. How many people forego church because of their family members? How many leave a church where God’s Word is properly taught to join a church that errs in some doctrine because they want their kids to have a “better” youth group?
The Gospel account of the rich man serves as a narrative example of our Epistle’s warning to all believers: “Let us [all of us!] therefore strive to enter that rest” (Heb 4:11) and, as was urged earlier in this same Letter to the Hebrews, to “exhort one another every day . . . that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13)—any sin.
The truth is that no one can save himself. It is impossible. And unlike “difficulties,” there are no grades of “impossibility.” With man, it is simply impossible. With any man, all men, anyone, anywhere. There are no exceptions. No matter what race, no matter how smart, no matter what age, no matter what gender, no matter how rich, no matter how poor. Man cannot and does not do it, not even with a little help from God. It isn’t that man does his part and God does his. Man’s only part in the equation is the impossible. What man brings to the table is the impossible. Man merely brings sin. The only thing men supply is man’s need.
No, man needs the God of the possible to do the impossible. “ ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at [the disciples] and said, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God’ ” (vv 26b–27). For us, it’s not just difficult; it can’t happen. But with God, nothing shall be impossible.
Are you willing to believe in the impossible? The Gospel is the Good News that God does the impossible for you. He paid the price that was impossible for you to pay. He paid for your sin, my sin, the sin of the whole world. No mere mortal could do that. But with God all things are possible. God became man so that you and I might be saved. In Jesus, God died for you. The impossible is possible with God. Indeed, he and he alone opens stony hearts to believe. He truly can make a camel go through the eye of a needle. Whether you are rich or poor, you believe. You are saved. We confess this truth whenever we say with Luther in the Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” Not only your salvation but also your conversion is all God’s doing. God doing the impossible.
Even though God has done the impossible and redeemed us, paying for all of our sins, and even though he has done the impossible and turned our hearts of stone into believing hearts, until we enter fully into the kingdom in the resurrection, the road will be hard. Jesus calls us to our own Mission: Difficult—very, very difficult, as in the TV show. Jesus, the one who did the truly impossible job of the cross for our salvation, calls upon us to pick up our cross daily and follow him.
Jesus wants to alter the simplistic thinking of his disciples in this regard—especially in regard to prosperity being the sign that we are among God’s blessed people. Quite to the contrary—being a follower of Jesus might entail persecution. And such persecution will seem to the world and even to our own flesh as if God is abandoning us. Contrary to many popular health, wealth, and prosperity preachers, your best life now might entail the cross.
In today’s Gospel from Mark, Jesus explains to the disciples that the benefits are huge—“in the age to come,” Jesus says, “eternal life.” But in the meantime, he says, God’s many blessings come “with persecutions” (v 30). The difficulties are also great. Jesus implies that we might lose family members over our faith. As he says elsewhere, “I have come to bring division . . . a son against his father” (cf Lk 12:51, 53). And he specifically warns about persecutions. In this life we will have great blessings, as fellow believers will make up our new family. But we will also have trials and tribulations. And along with these there will be constant temptations, not least of them the desire to look for our security and comfort in wealth.
But remember, no matter how difficult it gets, the “Mission: Impossible” is “Mission: Accomplished,” because Jesus has completed his mission for us. We are assured of the victory in Christ because he did the “Mission: Impossible.”
And by the way, this promise of God will not self-destruct in five seconds. Amen.