THE CURSE OF PERFECTION
A sermon on Mark 10:17-31
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
October 14, 2018
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
This morning, we will begin with a little bit of church “mythbusting.” This passage from Mark has been the source of a dubious legend that has been spread in pulpits for many, many years. Now I am sure that the ministers who kept this false legend alive did so unintentionally. They probably believed that the story they were telling was true. And I have no doubt that their motivations were good. It does not change anything though. The legend is simply not true…
In verse 25 of today’s text, Jesus said this: “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.” The myth we are discussing goes something like this: For the last two centuries or so, it has been a common teaching in sermons that there was a gate in the wall of the city of Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle.” This was an entrance into the city through which a camel could not pass unless it stooped and had all of its baggage first removed. After dark, when the main gates of the city were shut, travelers or merchants would have to use this smaller gate, through which a camel could only enter unencumbered and crawling on its knees.
The story is admittedly great sermon material! No doubt about it. It is a beautiful picture of coming to God in faith on our knees without all our baggage… a charming story that seizes the imagination. Perfect sermon material. The only trouble is that it is completely unfounded! From at least the 15th Century, and possibly as early as the 9th Century, this story about “the needle’s eye gate” has circulated and been told and retold in churches, even though there is no evidence whatsoever for its existence. Neither archaeological excavations in Jerusalem nor any other 1st Century writings imply that such a gate ever existed. None at all. So consequently, in the words of Adam and Jamie from the “Mythbusters” TV show, “This myth is busted.”
Now tell the truth—how many of you have ever heard the story of “the needle’s eye gate” before in a Sunday School lesson or in a sermon? Let’s see a show of hands…I know that I have. It regularly appeared in sermons that I heard as a child and teenager whenever this passage was preached.
One of my New Testament professors at Southern Seminary was Dr. James Blevins. Dr. Blevins was a bit of an eccentric, to be sure. But he was an excellent teacher, he was beloved in the seminary community and he was a world class New Testament scholar. In fact, he was a member of the committee responsible for producing the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is currently the gold standard for contemporary English translations. Anyway, during one class, he had the whole class stand up beside our desks, raise our right hands, and pledge that we would NEVER, EVER teach about “the needle’s eye gate” and that we would try to prevent anyone else who tried to do so…Let the record show that I have fulfilled my promise to Dr. Blevins this morning…
Today’s text begins as a man runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. In most church circles, he is known as “the rich young ruler.” Mark just says that he was wealthy in verse 22, but Matthew describes him as “young” and Luke describes him as a “ruler.” This man comes up to Jesus kneels before him, and asks the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus’ response is intriguing. His first statement to the man is “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God.” As is our Lord’s custom in the gospels, he often does not give a straight answer when someone asks him a straight question. Instead he questions why the man would call him “good” when only God is good…
Why did he say that? What was Jesus’ point here? Perhaps Jesus was reminding the man that words do matter. It is not prudent just to be throwing words around because they sound good or because they may produce an effect that you desire. I think that Jesus was saying to the man, “Be careful what you say. You are calling me ‘good,’ but the only who is truly good is God. Therefore when you call me ‘good,’ you are confirming that I come from God—is that really what you are intending to say? That statement comes with a price tag, you know. So you better think hard and think twice about the implications of what you say and about how those implications can affect you.”
My guess is that the man was startled by Jesus’ initial response to his question. But then Jesus went on to give more of the answer that he was looking for. Jesus rattled off a bunch of the Ten Commandments to him. I imagine the man’s face brightened when he heard Jesus recite them. He was able in good conscience to answer back, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth…” (WOW—that’s a pretty arrogant statement, isn’t it? How many of us could make the claim that we have always perfectly followed all of God’s laws all of our lives? I know that I could not make that claim—and I doubt if any of us here could either…)
I think that it is instructive to note that Jesus did not challenge the rich young ruler on that point—even though I am sure that he could have called him out. He did not say to the man, “You are so wrong! What about that time that you did thus-and-so? How was THAT keeping the law?” No, he did not do that. Instead, Mark says that Jesus looked on him with love. Maybe it was because he sensed in the man an earnest desire to do what God wanted him to do. And that is a good thing to have. Would that we would all aspire to do the will of God more completely in our lives. It is just that the man really did not have a clue as to what that looked like for him.
And then Jesus instructed him to do the one thing that he was not willing to do. He said, “Sell what you own, give the money to the poor and then follow me.” Mark says that the man’s face fell and he walked away grieving, because he was wealthy and he was not willing to part with his possessions. Not even for the chance to gain the eternal life that Jesus offers…
I am intrigued by the rich young ruler who kneels in front of Jesus in this passage. Do you think that he honestly believed that he had perfectly kept all the commandments of God since the days of his youth? Do you think he was being arrogant—proud in his devotion to God…or was he just being earnest in doing what he knew how to do best…or was he just simply kidding himself? His goal was to be complete in the eyes of God by keeping the commandments. Perfection in obeying God’s law was his goal. For the rich young ruler, being morally perfect was something desirable to be attained. By his teaching here, Jesus said that being a perfectionist was not the goal of the spiritual life…
The trouble is that many people—both inside and outside of the church—believe that this is what God wants and this is who God is. After all, didn’t Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect?” (Matthew 5:28) So how could it be otherwise?
The truth of the matter is this: The God of the one-hundred-percent perfect standard is a real menace to the Christian life. It is a false god of the first order. For too many believers—especially to those who are more sensitive and conscientious—such an understanding of what the Christian faith entails has sucked the joy and spontaneity out of life. For these people chained to this understanding, the God of the one-hundred-per-cent has changed a life of freedom and joy into another form of anxious slavery. The more that a Christian thinks of the spiritual life as mostly following a list of God’s do’s and don’ts, the more guilty and miserable that he or she is likely to become when they realize that it is an impossible task. And if they reduce the size of that list of rules to follow in order to make it, then they will feel that they are betraying their understanding of what it means to be a devout Christian by making it too easy on themselves. It therefore becomes a vicious circle—a no-win situation for the follower of Jesus… The Apostle Paul recognized this danger. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, he writes, “We deal not with the letter [of the law] but with the spirit [of the Law]. The letter of the Law leads to the death of the soul; the Spirit of God alone can give life to the soul.”
The life of the Spirit was not meant to be lived by gritting our teeth and trying in vain to please the God of Absolute Perfection. IT does not work that way. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus extends this invitation to everyone, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” These words of Jesus are not our Lord’s invitation to a life of spiritual frustration and lifelessness. Who wants that?! Instead it is an invitation to learn from him of how to get to know God more intimately. How to work together in cooperation with the Spirit in our lives. How to achieve God’s goal for us—that we become more like Jesus in our hearts, in our actions, and in our attitudes.
Jesus perceived that the rich young ruler had done his best to follow all the rules. That was commendable. No one—especially Jesus— would fault him for that. And yet, this man was still far away from the kingdom of God. He had obeyed God’s laws and yet was incomplete. There was still something that commanded his attention and his loyalty. Jesus could tell that money and possessions had the attention off his heart and mind. Jesus diagnosed that the man’s spiritual problem was that he placed too high a priority on his wealth and possessions. The truth of the matter is that, you can obey the rules and laws the very best that you can—and still be far away from God.
As the sermon draws to a close this morning, imagine with me that Jesus is physically here with us today. Now imagine that you are having this same conversation with him as the one recorded in today’s text from Mark. Only, when we get to the end of the conversation, Jesus tells you, “There’s just one thing that you lack in following me more completely.” Here’s the question for you to consider: What would that thing be?
For the rich young ruler, it was his possessions. Mark records that he went away very sad—grieved even—because he was unwilling to let his possessions go. My guess is that there are a lot of people who are like the rich young ruler. Money and possessions command the loyalty of many people. In that way, we are not too much different than the folks in Jesus’ day, are we? Later on in the passage, Jesus tells his disciples that it is hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God—that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Jesus knew the pitfalls of having too much money and to the danger of being blinded by our possessions to spiritual realities. Not much has changed since Jesus first uttered those words…
But maybe money is not the issue for you. Maybe it is the time that you spend in other pursuits compared to the time spent nurturing your own relationship to God. Maybe it is an attitude that you harbor against someone else. Maybe it is a sin—a bad habit—that you just cannot seem to let go of. Maybe it is an issue of being faithful to what you know the Lord has called you to do. Jesus says, “There’s one thing you lack…” Now it’s your move…
Won’t you settle things with the Lord and resolve that you will not let the one thing keep you from enjoying the full and liberating life that God promises to us in Christ? Decide this morning to let nothing stand in your way.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
 Matthew 19:22 and Luke 18:18.
 I am indebted to J. B. Philips, Your God Is Too Small (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1961), 30-32 for some of these insights.