13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. 17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard 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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” 28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!” 29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Prior to becoming a writer, I worked as a teacher. During that stage of my professional life, I was surrounded by children, day after day after day. I couldn’t begin to guess how many children I have come into contact with, but it easily runs into the thousands. I have to admit that I have forgotten many of those children; if one was to come up to me in the street, it would take me a while to realise who they are. A surprisingly large number, though, are etched onto my brain. It might be because they were badly behaved or spent their life in detention, but I remember a lot of them because they impressed me with their understanding of life. Untainted by the worries of the adult world, children approach life with an innocence that is always refreshing. If you listen to children, they often speak with real clarity of the world around them, and show amazing insight into things that we adults think they couldn’t possibly know about. It saddens me that there are so many children in our world who are ignored and mistreated because they are “only children,” and I fervently believe that, if we listened more to our young people, we could learn a great deal about life and the world.
It’s refreshing in this passage to see Jesus’ approach to children. Parents, who had heard that Jesus was in the area, had brought their children to see him. They had clearly heard all about Jesus and the incredible powers that he seemed to possess, and they seemed in no doubt that it could only be a positive experience for their children to meet this man. The disciples, though, rebuked the parents for pushing their children towards Jesus. Jesus was a very busy man, after all, and had many people who wanted to meet him. He had no time for children. This was simply not the case, though. Jesus had plenty of time to speak to the children, to hold them, and to bless them. His view is not to ignore the children because they were too young to understand, but that actually, adults could learn a great deal from them. He tells all those gathered around him that “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” and further, “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Just as a young child approaches its parents with open arms, asking for a hug, trusting completely that they will hug them back, look after them, and protect them, so we should approach Jesus. We need to have faith and believe that he loves us, and just draw close to him. He is waiting with outstretched arms to receive us, to bless us – but we have to take that first step and go to him.
The attitude of the children contrasts strongly with that of the rich man we encounter next in the passage. He’s a man who has clearly done well for himself, but there’s one thing that he still craves; eternal life. He has kept the law and followed the ten commandments, but, despite that, clearly still feels that he is lacking something in his spiritual life. He is desperate to be a good follower of Christ, and Jesus recognises this; he might not have gained his salvation, but Mark tells us that, despite this, Jesus still loves him.
The problem is that there is a real stumbling block preventing the rich man from gaining his salvation; he doesn’t have the faith that the children we have just encountered displayed. He doesn’t trust God to provide for him, to ensure that he always has all he needs, and has worked hard to gain as many riches as he could, placing his trust in his wealth. He might try to follow God, but he doesn’t really have faith. This is something that has particular resonance in the western world today, a world in which many of us are rich and have so much. There are many, many Christians in our society who believe themselves to be Christians, who follow all of God’s rules, but, when it comes down to it, they don’t have real faith. They place their faith in themselves and all that they have to see them through life. Now, there’s nothing wrong, per se, in having “stuff.” Indeed, it can be useful, because we need people who can use their wealth to feed the poor, pay for medicines to heal the sick and support the work of the Church. The problem comes when that “stuff” becomes our focus, and prevents us from having real faith. For the rich man, there is only one solution; he must divest himself of all his riches, sell all his “stuff,” and give the money to the poor. Only by giving up what has become his stumbling block will he be able to enter heaven.
A little later in our passage, Jesus clarifies this point very clearly. The disciples express shock at what Jesus says to the rich man. They may have been his disciples, but there were elements of his message that they were still struggling to understand. No doubt they had heard Pharisees talk in the past about how riches were a sign God’s grace, and they were therefore horrified when Jesus suggested that the rich man, despite his obvious success in human terms, was not guaranteed a place in heaven. If he isn’t saved, they thought, how can anyone be saved? Jesus tells them, though, that there is nothing at all that a man can do to gain eternal life; that can only be gained through God. Relying on yourself or on what you have shows a complete lack of faith; what is needed is faith in God’s love and is promises.
The disciples were astounded at what they had heard. They might not have been as rich as the man Jesus had just encountered, but many of them had come from profitable fishing businesses, and felt that they had given up a great deal to follow Jesus. Reading the passage, it’s almost possible to feel their hearts sink as the realisation of what Jesus has just said dawns on them. Why had they given up everything that they had to follow Jesus? Jesus, in response, makes an amazing statement. Those who make sacrifices to follow him will be receive a hundred times as much, and in the age to come will receive eternal life. That’s not to say that they will find themselves living in palaces with pockets full of gold, but they will experience the riches of God’s blessings in their lives as they see his kingdom grow and develop before their very eyes. That’s quite a promise! All that is necessary is for them to put their complete trust in Jesus, to have total faith that he will provide for them, and not to put their faith in material things that will serve as a barrier between themselves and God.
Jesus also tells his disciples that following him will not be without costs. Yes, God will provide for all their needs and they will gain eternal life if they acknowledge him, but they will also be persecuted for their faith. With the benefit of hindsight, we know just how painfully true this was for the disciples, almost all of whom were martyred; most notably, Peter, who asks Jesus the question here, who was crucified upside down in Rome.
This is quite a message for us. We might call ourselves Christians, but do we really put our complete trust in God? How complete is our faith? Do we know without doubt that he will provide us with all that we need? Or do we stockpile stuff just in case? Are we aware that there is every possibility that we will be subjected to persecution as a consequence of our beliefs?
Let’s strive to be more like the children we see at the beginning of this passage, who approach Jesus with complete faith and total trust. Their faith is rewarded by an encounter with an open-armed Jesus who blesses them. Many of us will feel the same way as the rich man we read about here; we think we’re doing all the right things, but we can feel a hole inside us that we want God to fill. The only way to fill that hole is by trusting completely in God’s grace and providence. We will have to give up a great deal, we may experience persecution, but ultimately, we will be so much better off.