Mark 10:17-31
with Tony W. Cartledge

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Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” — Mark 10:17b

Of Treasures and Troublesmoney

If you could kneel before Jesus and ask him just one question, what would it be? Would you want to know what the stock market will do over the next five years? Would you ask how we could best deal with terrorism? Would you try to pin Jesus down on why bad things happen to good people?

Today’s text speaks of a man who had the opportunity to question Jesus. He didn’t ask for market tips, political wisdom, or theological explanations, but focused entirely on his own future: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now that’s a question worth asking.

A lesson from a rich man(vv. 17-22)

We often call the protagonist of this account the “rich young ruler,” but that title is a composite drawn from three differing Gospel accounts of the same event. Mark simply calls him a man (literally, the masculine form of “one, ” v. 17a), while Matthew says he is young (Matt. 19:20), and Luke calls him a ruler (Luke 18:18), probably suggesting that he was a leader of the synagogue. He was clearly Jewish, a man who sought to follow the Torah and probably the oral law as well.

All three Gospels agree that the man was rich, and they contrast his effort to earn salvation (“What must I do?”) with the free acceptance of the kingdom by children in the previous verses.

Mark offers only the sketchiest of settings. The story follows a geographical positioning of Jesus in Judea, probably on his way to Jerusalem (10:1). “As he was setting out on a journey,” Mark says, a man ran up and knelt before him, as if anxious to have an audience before Jesus departed. Perhaps he was afraid he wouldn’t get another chance.

The man’s approach was unusual. He is the only person mentioned in the Gospels who addresses Jesus as “good teacher” (Mark 10:17, Luke 18:18). His posture is also telling: one would not typically kneel before an ordinary rabbi, but the man knelt before Jesus. Evidently he had seen something special in Jesus that was worthy of great respect, so he showed appropriate deference.

The man was forthright about what he wanted: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17b). This suggests that the man was more aligned with the Pharisees than the Sadducees in his thinking: belief in a resurrection after death followed by eternal life in a new age to come was a late development in Judaism. The Pharisees accepted it, but the more conservative Sadducees did not.

Jesus responded with a question of his own: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (10:18). This seems an odd response, for Jesus would have been well aware of his sinless nature and we would not expect him to deny it.
Jesus apparently did not expect a response, but went on to answer the initial question by reciting several representative commandments from Exod. 20:12-17 in random order (v. 19). Scholars have noted that Jesus did not mention any of the commandments relating to God, only those concerning relationships with other people. Perhaps he recognized that the man had a firm belief in God and was in no danger of trusting in other deities, so he focused on relationships with others – an arena in which material resources play a major role.

In that regard, we note that while Jesus did not mention the commandment against coveting, he added “you shall not defraud,” which is not among the Ten Commandments. This suggests that Jesus tailored his answer to the needs of the man before him. As a person of great wealth, the man had little reason to covet what others had – but wealth is sometimes gained through fraud, and fraud has its roots in covetousness.

Few people today would respond with the man’s audacious comeback: “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth” (v. 20). He had worked hard to scrupulously obey the Jewish law, and apparently considered himself to have been successful. What more could the Lord ask?

The inquisitive aristocrat soon found out. Jesus looked at him intently, the text says, “and loved him” (v. 21a). Although Jesus’ actions constantly testified of his compassion, this is the only time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus is said to have loved an individual. Perhaps Mark wanted to stress that Jesus’ next response was not judgmental, but compassionate. “You lack one thing,” he said, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (10:21).

The man was crestfallen, Mark says, and went away grieving, “for he had many possessions” (v. 22). Writers often note that this is the only gospel story in which someone refused Jesus’ direct appeal to follow him. And this – following Jesus – is a part of the story we often neglect. Most of our concern with this text has to do with explaining why Jesus expected this man (and not others) to give away all that he owned, but that command was a simple prerequisite to the more important part of his command: “then come, follow me.”

The point seems clear enough. As long as we remain bound to our physical possessions, or our selfish attitudes, or our sinful lifestyles, we cannot follow Jesus. A dog on a chain can’t run, and a prisoner in shackles cannot go where he will. The ties that prevent us from following Jesus are self-made, but no less effective because of it.

The young man reacted with shock and a saddened face, Mark says, using a word sometimes employed by Greek authors to describe a dark and stormy night. The ties that bound him to his wealthy lifestyle were too strong, and the thought of giving it up was too shocking to accept.

A lesson from a camel(vv. 23-27)

Jesus used this teachable moment for his disciples’ benefit. Perhaps none of them had been wealthy, and so none could understand fully just how the rich petitioner had felt, but he was not the only one who would find it difficult to enter the kingdom. Jesus wanted his followers to realize how difficult it is for any person to escape the magnetic pull of self-interest, so he observed “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (v. 23).

Seeing the perplexed look on his disciples’ faces (v. 24), Jesus pulled together two common images to illustrate his point with a remarkable hyperbole: “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!” (v. 25).

A tradition datable to Medieval times holds that there was a small gate in Jerusalem’s wall called “the needle’s eye,” through which a camel could only enter by removing its burdens and forcing it to crawl through on its knees. While such a gate is unknown, there is a spot beneath the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox church where excavations have revealed the remnants of a wall and gate that some argue was part of the city wall in the time of Jesus. Beside the gate is a hole in the wall, easily defensible by a single soldier, and just large enough for an unburdened person to crawl through when the gate was closed. Church officials insist that it was the original “Needle’s Eye.”

Whether or not this is what Jesus had in mind, both Jesus and the disciples knew what a needle was, and they knew what a camel was. Jesus was not saying it was difficult for the wealthy to be saved – he was saying it was impossible. A camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle. His disciples understood this. Thus, “They were greatly astounded and said to one another: ‘Then who can be saved?’” (v. 26).

The answer, of course, was “No one.” No one can be saved by his or her own efforts. The man had asked “What must I do …” There is nothing we can do; salvation comes from God’s grace, not our works. We must receive it with the open-faced wonder of children. It would be impossible for any of us to be saved by our own efforts, but Jesus reminded them “for God all things are possible” (10:27b).

A lesson from the disciples(vv. 28-31)

Peter, perhaps feeling a bit insecure, observed that he and the other disciples had left everything behind to follow Christ (v. 28), and Jesus did not question it. In fact, he concluded by promising a reward: those who were willing to leave all for his sake would receive a hundred-fold return in this life, along with eternal life “in the age to come” (vv. 29-30).
This is no literal promise that every dollar given to God will lead to a $100 check in the mail, as some prosperity preachers might claim. Nor is it the promise of an easy life: Jesus said such blessings would come “with persecutions.”

This view of rewards is inherently paradoxical. Those who receive the greatest rewards are the very ones who do not seek any gain, while persons with mixed motives who hope for great rewards may discover that they are at the bottom of the list: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (v. 31).

The kingdom of God sets our natural mindset topsy-turvy: Those who give the most are the ones who receive the most; those who put themselves last end up on top of the heap. It may sound crazy, but if that’s what Jesus said, we would do well to listen. BT

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for October 11, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Mark 10:17-31



Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session

I believe our students truly want to follow in the ways of Jesus. That is why they come week after week. Yes, they might enjoy the games and the time with their friends, but I believe they show up week after week because they are seeking to learn the ways of Jesus. It is our responsibility to teach them, but it’s not our responsibility to make them live by what they discover. We can present everything we know and answer all of the questions to the best of our knowledge, but following is their choice. We must also continue to love them and be there for them when they say “no” and walk away.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“And Last Shall Be First” via

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Mark 10:17-31