1. And having stood up from there, He comes into the borders of Judea, through the other side of Jordan; and the crowd goes together again to Him; and, as He was accustomed, He again taught them.
2. And the Pharisees having come to Him, asked Him, “Is it permitted for a husband to send away [his] wife?” tempting Him.
3. But He answering said to them, “What did Moses command you?”
4. And they said, “Moses permitted [us] to write a document of divorce, and to send [her] away.”
5. And Jesus answering said to them, “Because of your hard-heartedness he wrote you this commandment.
6. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.
7. For the sake of this, man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife;
8. And they two shall become one flesh, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.
9. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
10. And in the house again His disciples asked Him of this [matter].
11. And He says to them, “Whoever shall send away his wife, and wed another, commits adultery against her.
12. And if a wife send away her husband, and be wed to another, she commits adultery.”
The great divorce
At the end of the previous episode, Jesus said to His disciples, “Have salt in yourselves.” Just as salt and fire were used to burn away impurities in the meat offering brought to the temple, Jesus knew that God’s love and wisdom could burn away every impurity in the human heart. Whenever greed, arrogance, and hostility are burned away in the sacred fire of God’s love and wisdom, the opposite qualities of generosity, innocence, and peace will flow in and take their place. Therefore, when Jesus told His disciples to “have salt” in themselves and “be at peace with one another,” He was speaking about the effort to purify themselves of every selfish desire. Self-purification, however, takes great effort. In the language of sacred scripture, Jesus describes it as being “salted with fire.”
This is consistent with the message that Jesus had been giving throughout that episode. Whether it was “cutting off the hand,” “cutting off the foot,” or “plucking out the eye,” Jesus used powerful language to urge us to get rid of anything that might be an “offense” — that is, anything that might be an obstacle to our reception of what flows in from God. This kind of “cutting off” and “plucking out” refers to the vital separation which must take place in all of our lives. It is, so to speak, a “divorce.” It is not a divorce of husband and wife, but rather a divorce of goodness from selfishness, cruelty, manipulation, and all forms of evil. It is also a divorce of truth from lying, deceit, corruption, and all forms of falsity. In brief, it is the great divorce of heaven from hell.
In the very next episode, which we will now consider, the subject of divorce is continued, but from a different perspective. This time, it is from the perspective of the religious leaders who approach Jesus and ask Him, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2).
Hardness of heart
Jesus understands that the religious leaders are trying to trap Him in a legalistic debate. Therefore, rather than answer them directly, Jesus asks them a question, “What did Moses command you?” And they respond, “Moses permitted us to write her a bill of divorcement and send her away” (Mark 10:4). The religious leaders missed the point. Moses may have permitted the men of those days to divorce their wives, but he commanded them to not commit adultery.
The actual regulation regarding divorce, as stated in the Hebrew scriptures, is that a husband was permitted to put away his wife if he found something about her that was “displeasing in his eyes.” Whatever it was that “displeased” him was in some way related to a Hebrew word which means “indecency” or “nakedness” or something objectionable. In that case, Moses said, “Let him write her a bill of divorcement, put it in her hand, and send her out of his house” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
The Hebrew words translated as “displeasing in his eyes” and “indecency” were a subject of heated debate among the religious leaders at that time. Some insisted that these words were speaking about very specific and limited conditions, while others argued that if a husband found his wife to be “displeasing in his eyes,” it was sufficient reason to divorce her. In a male-dominated, rule-oriented society, where women were expected to be obedient to their husbands, there were numerous opportunities for husbands to be “displeased” with their wives. While this permission was originally intended to provide order and protect marriage, hard-hearted husbands regarded anything that they found “displeasing” or “objectionable,” however slight, as a reason to justify divorce.
Jesus, however, refuses to fall into their legalistic trap. He will not side with those who have a stricter interpretation of the Mosaic regulation, nor will He side with those who take the view that a husband may divorce his wife for any reason. Instead of getting entrapped in a superficial debate, Jesus goes to the root issue which is hard-heartedness. “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives,” says Jesus, “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Mark 10:5).
In biblical times, if a husband “put away” his wife, she would be left destitute and without any means of support. As we have seen, some believed that the only thing that the husband had to do was write a “bill of divorcement,” hand it to his wife, and send her away. It’s no wonder that Jesus refused to talk about legal technicalities, but rather warned against “hardness of heart.” It is, above all, the hardness of heart that opens the door to every injustice, every insensitivity, and the inability to forgive. Hardness of heart is the offspring of the infernal marriage of evil and falsity — the source of all human misery. It is the very opposite of the tenderness that should be at the heart of every marriage, whether it be the marriage of good and truth within an individual, or the marriage of a husband and wife who devote themselves to each other and to God.
It is for this reason that Jesus then takes them back to the beginning of creation and God’s own plan for a true marriage. “From the beginning of creation,” says Jesus, “God made them male and female. Therefore, a man shall leave father and mother and cleave to his wife. And from being two they shall become one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mark 10:6-9). Jesus was letting them know that true marriage is a blessed union, created in the beginning by God, and not to be put asunder by hardness of heart. 1
Teaching the disciples about marriage
After answering the question raised by the religious leaders, Jesus speaks privately to His disciples who are seeking to learn more about the subject (Mark 10:10). Jesus begins by referring not to what Moses permitted concerning divorce, but rather to what Moses commanded regarded marriage, specifically, the commandment against adultery. As Jesus puts it, “Whoever sends away his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11). And then Jesus adds something new. He says, “And if a wife sends away her husband, and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:12). This was a new thought. At that time, wives had very limited legal power, and no authority to end a marriage. This was solely at the husband’s discretion.
Jesus’ additional comment about a woman putting away her husband is not about women’s rights and social reforms. His words always contain deeper meaning. In this case, Jesus is using the language of marriage and divorce to deliver an eternal message about our spiritual development and our relationship with God. Each time Jesus takes His disciples aside to speak to them privately, we can be sure that He is about to give them a glimpse of the inner meaning of His words. The disciples rarely understand, but that is not the point. That’s because these teachings are not just for the disciples, but rather, Jesus is sharing truths that will endure for all time. 2
When Jesus is talking about a husband who puts away his wife, and a wife who puts away her husband in order to marry another, He is speaking about spiritual adultery. It is the adding of impurities to that which is originally pure. In God, love and wisdom are pure and unadulterated. But as these heavenly qualities descend into human minds as goodness and truth, they can be divided and adulterated. Goodness, without the protection and direction of truth, becomes infested, corrupted, and adulterated by falsity. It lacks discernment, clarity, and principle. It has become adulterated goodness. This is what Jesus means when He says that a wife commits adultery when she “puts away her husband and marries another.”
Similarly, truth without the moderating influence of goodness becomes infested, corrupted, and adulterated by selfish desire. It becomes cruel, compassionless, condemning, and hard-hearted. It becomes adulterated — a falsified truth. This is what Jesus means when He says that a husband commits adultery when he “puts away his wife and marries another.” Jesus is conveying the message that committing adultery is putting away what is good or true to conjoin with what is evil or false. 3
The heavenly marriage
This, then, is the interior lesson contained within Jesus’ message to the disciples. He is telling them — and us — that good should never be divorced from truth, and truth should never be divorced from good. They belong together in what is called a “marriage.” That’s because it’s God plan of creation from the very beginning. Marriage, then, is a central theme in sacred scripture, whether it is the marriage between a husband and wife, the marriage of goodness and truth within an individual, or the marriage between God and His people. Every type of true marriage has its origin in what is known as “the heavenly marriage” — the union of divine love and divine wisdom which are united as one in the Lord. 4
This can be compared to fire. Just as the essence of fire is heat and light, the essence of God is love and wisdom. The heat of the fire corresponds to love; the light of the fire corresponds to wisdom. These two qualities, love and wisdom, are one in God, just as heat and light are one in a flame. As human beings, we receive God’s love in our will as goodness, and we receive God’s wisdom in our understanding as truth. Our goal is to unite the truth and goodness that we receive from God in a “heavenly marriage” that produces useful service. 5
Ultimately, every person, male or female, husband or wife, is called to enter the heavenly marriage. This is the marriage that takes place when a person freely chooses to receive the love and wisdom that flow in from God. The “children” born of this marriage are the fruits of useful service, the manifold ways we love the neighbor. Putting goodness and truth together in useful service is what it means, in the spiritual sense, to “be fruitful and multiply.” 6
A practical application
Whether single, in a relationship, or married, each of us can always strive to be a finer person by uniting the truth we know with the will to do it. Our “old will” (or lower self) of course, will resist, because that is its very nature. Therefore, as a practical application of the effort required to enter the “heavenly marriage,” we can ask God to give us a new will, a new heart, a “heart of flesh.” As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). The next time you are feeling some form of stony resistance, trying asking the Lord to remove your “heart of stone” and give you a “heart of flesh.”
13. And they brought to Him little children, that He should touch them; and the disciples rebuked those that brought [them] to [Him].
14. But when Jesus saw [it], He was indignant, and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God.
15. Amen I say to you, whoever shall not accept the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter into it.”
16. And having taken them up in [His] arms, [and] putting [His] hands on them, He blessed them.
As we have been pointing out throughout this study of the gospels, all things in the Word of God are seamlessly connected in a wonderful way. Each word leads on to the next word, each sentence leads on to the next sentence, and each episode leads on to the next episode in a perfectly arranged sequence. Nothing is extraneous, missing, or out of place. While this is not always evident in the literal sense, which sometimes seems disconnected, a careful study of the spiritual sense reveals that the Word of God is a perfectly ordered coherence of all words, phrases, and episodes from beginning to end. 7
For example, in the middle of Jesus’ discourse with His disciples about marriage, young children are brought to Him so that Jesus might touch them. While this appears to be an interruption, it is perfectly connected with the subject matter of Jesus’ teaching about marriage. On the literal level, it is evident that one of the primary purposes of marriage is the procreation of children. Therefore, it would naturally follow that the divine narrative would move seamlessly from the discussion about marriage in the preceding episode to the subject of little children in the next episode.
This seamless connection becomes even more evident when these episodes are understood on a more interior level. As we have mentioned, marriage on earth has its origin in the union of love and wisdom that is within the Lord. The innate attraction between men and women, which often appears to be merely physical, has its origin in the way love is attracted to wisdom, and wisdom is attracted to love. In human beings who have risen above their animal nature, it is the longing of truth to become one with goodness, and the longing of goodness to become one with truth. The result of this longing for oneness is the “marriage” of goodness and truth, and the fruit of that marriage is the procreation of children. In heaven the spiritual offspring born of this marriage are the various forms of goodness and truth, and on earth the natural offspring born of this marriage are little children.
Fittingly, then, this episode is about children. It begins when young children are brought to Jesus, so that He might touch them. The disciples, however, are not happy about this interruption, and so they rebuke those who are bringing the children to Jesus (Mark 10:13). Apparently, the disciples have already forgotten what Jesus said to them after He heard them quarreling about which of them would be the “greatest” in the coming kingdom. At that time, Jesus told them that those who wanted to be first, or “greatest,” should desire to be last of all and servants of all. In other words, they were to be humble, not proud, and small, not great. Then, to emphasize His point about being humble and small, Jesus picked up a child saying that whoever received a child, would also receive Jesus, and whoever received Jesus would also receive God” (Mark 9:34-37).
In the Word of God, little children represent innocence, especially the innocent willingness to be led by the Lord. Because they are still tender vessels, uncorrupted by worldly influences, well-disposed children are open and receptive, eager to learn and happy to obey. They love their parents and playmates, do not worry about the future, do not take credit for their accomplishments, and are content with simple gifts. Because of this, heavenly thoughts and feelings can easily be received, and a tender faith in God can easily take root. In this regard, children represent an image of what adult faith can be like. 8
When Jesus notices that the disciples are trying to prevent the people from bringing children to Him, He is not pleased. As it is written, “When Jesus saw it, He was indignant, and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God” (10:14). To emphasize His point, Jesus adds, “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Mark 10:15).
The last time Jesus instructed His disciples on this topic, He said that those who received a little child received Him, and those who received Him received God. This time, however, Jesus, provides an additional perspective. It’s not just about “receiving a child,” but rather about the way a child receives the kingdom of God. As Jesus puts it, we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child. Saying this, Jesus “took the little children up in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:16).
The picture of Jesus blessing the little children is an important one. It represents the way the Lord’s love and wisdom can flow into each of us, without obstruction. All we need to do is innocently open ourselves to receive what the Lord wills to give us. This kind of reception, which is relatively easy for children, becomes increasingly difficult as they grow older and insist on doing things their way, assert their independence, and choose to govern themselves. This is, of course, an essential aspect of human development. At some point, we need to become autonomous, self-governing beings. Nevertheless, as we continue to develop spiritually, it is important to return to those early states of childhood, understanding that we are entirely dependent upon the Lord for every emotion we feel, every thought we think and every step we take. Without this kind of innocent faith in the Lord, we cannot receive the kingdom of God. 9
The Problem with Merit
17. And when He had gone out into the way, one came running to [Him]; and kneeling before Him, he asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?
18. And Jesus said to him, “Why callest thou Me good? None [is] good except One, God.
19. Thou knowest the commandments: thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not defraud, honor thy father and mother.”
20. But he answering said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have guarded from my youth.”
21. And Jesus looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing thou lackest: go, sell whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me, taking up the cross.”
22. But he, being gloomy at that word, went away sorrowing, for he had many possessions.
Suddenly, there is an abrupt change of scene and topic in the divine narrative. With a minimum of transitional wording, Jesus simply sets out on a journey. Before Jesus has a chance to get very far, a man comes running toward Him, kneels down before Jesus, and says, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I might inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).
The key to understanding this apparently disconnected episode is in understanding that which immediately precedes it. Jesus has just demonstrated that the essential condition for getting into heaven is to receive heaven as a child. In the internal sense, this means that we cannot enter heaven until we allow heaven to enter us. And this can only take place when we remove all obstructions — especially the most difficult obstruction of all, the illusion that we live autonomously, independent of God.
As we noted in the preceding episode, infants have no awareness of what it means to “take credit” for their accomplishments, nor do they fully understand the difference between right and wrong, selfish and unselfish, moral and immoral. The onset of consciousness, however, initiates the process of maturation. In early childhood, they begin to become aware of their behavior. Gradually, they learn to observe themselves, to reflect upon what they are doing, and to decide whether their actions are right or wrong. This is an important stage in their spiritual growth, but it also contains a major challenge: as they become aware of their “good” actions they tend to take credit for them. While this is fine for younger children, it becomes an increasing problem in adult years — especially when it leads to a feeling of self-righteousness and meritorious pride. For religious people, it can lead to the feeling that they can earn their way to heaven through piling up “good works.”
Selling what we have
With this in mind, we can take a closer look at the opening words of this episode, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I might inherit eternal life?” Aware of the man’s emphasis on the word “good,” Jesus asks him to reflect on the salutation, “Good Teacher.” “Why do you call Me good,” says Jesus. “There is only One who is good. That is God” (Mark 10:18). Jesus is reminding the man that people should not claim merit for any good thing that they have done. After all, if anyone does something that can be called “good,” that goodness comes from God alone. Also, Jesus has probably noted that the man’s question contains another tip-off. The question is not merely, “What shall I do?” but rather, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life? In other words, it appears that the man is looking for a reward. He seems to be asking, “What will I get for my efforts?” “What’s the payoff.” 10
This is another opportunity for Jesus to offer instruction about the dangers of seeking a reward for good works. The disciples, who are with Jesus, if they are watching closely and listening carefully, may finally get the message. Jesus wants them to know that merit-seeking behavior will prevent them from experiencing the kingdom of heaven. He knows that at a certain stage in our spiritual development it certainly feels as though the good we do is from ourselves and not from the Lord. But this is one of the fallacies of the senses. Though it feels like the good we do is from ourselves, the truth is that all goodness is from the Lord, and nothing from ourselves. This is why Jesus reminds the man that goodness can only be ascribed to God and not to people. 11
Next, Jesus says to the man, “You know the commandments. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not defraud. Honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:19). On the truth side, the man knows the commandments. But on the side of goodness, there may be a problem. And the problem might be related to the order in which Jesus lists the commandments. In the Hebrew scriptures, whenever the commandments are listed, the commandment against murder precedes the commandment against adultery (Exodus 20:13-14; Deuteronomy 5:17-18). But when Jesus lists the commandments in this episode, the first commandment that He names is “do not commit adultery.” As we have just seen in a previous episode, Jesus had much to say about adultery. In the internal sense, adultery is committed when truth is separated from goodness and joins itself to a lower desire. In this case, the man knew the truth, but adulterated it with meritorious thinking. Whenever truth is done for the sake of a reward — and not simply because it is good — it is adulterated. 12
When Jesus lists the commandments, the man says, “All these things I have kept from my youth” (Mark 10:20). It sounds like he might be proud of himself. Recognizing that the man might still be quite young in terms of his spiritual maturity, Jesus looks at him with love and says, “You still lack one thing. Go, sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me, taking up the cross” (Mark 10:21).
It is not difficult to imagine how this must have come across to the man. Proud of his ability to keep the commandments, especially since he has been keeping them since his youth, Jesus is now challenging him to sell everything he owns, give it all to the poor, and then follow Him, taking up his cross. Growing up in a culture where keeping the commandments was everything, this must have come as a shock. Unable to understand what Jesus means, and unwilling to part with his possessions, the man goes away “sorrowing,” for, as it is written, he had “many possessions” (Mark 10:22).
In the process of regeneration, it is natural that we begin by attributing the good we do to ourselves. Like the man in the story who had learned and kept all the commandments from an early age, we tend to say, with an element of pride, “All these I have observed from my youth.” But as we make progress in our spiritual development, we eventually come to the humbling realization that our goodness is not so good. We begin to notice that the good we do is tainted with the desire for recognition, praise, and reward. We have been doing good for the sake of ourselves, and not out of a genuine love for the neighbor. Unless we have first removed evil, the good that we do is always a form of self-love. As Jesus puts it, “there is only One who is good, and that is God.” 13
That is the first and most important lesson that the man must learn if he is to “inherit eternal life.” He must “sell” all that he has. He must get rid of pride, arrogance, and the false belief that he can do good from himself without God. And there is only one way to get rid of these things: he must “take up the cross.” That is, he must be willing to undergo temptations, however severe. He must surrender self-love, however difficult; in essence, he must fight against the evils and falsities that flow in from hell, however fierce the combat.
Through this process, he can overcome pride, develop humility, and eventually come to the acknowledgement that whatever good he does is from the Lord alone. All this is contained in Jesus’ loving instruction to “sell” all that he has. He must acknowledge from the heart that he can do no good from himself; only then will he be able to “give to the poor.” 14
Giving to the poor
On the most external level, Jesus’ directive “sell all that you have and give to the poor” means exactly what it says. Jesus is asking the man to sell all his material possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. This is useful advice for anyone who thinks that amassing possessions brings true happiness. The man in this episode, who has set his heart on riches, believes that his happiness and security can be found in “many possessions” rather than in maintaining a child-like trust in God.
Most people recognize, however, that selling one’s possessions and giving everything to the poor, can lead to problems. For example, if no distinction is made between people who are people who are truly in need and those who use the money to support their addictions, great harm could come to both the addict and to society. It would also impoverish the person who has given everything away, leaving them without any means for helping others. These are some of the problems that can arise when the Word is understood at a merely external level. 15
Therefore, it is necessary to consider not only the external sense of Jesus’ words, but also their internal meaning. As we have already pointed out, “selling what we have” means that we should rid ourselves of all feelings of self-merit and superiority, acknowledging that without the Lord we are spiritual paupers. To be “poor in spirit” is to acknowledge that all things of value come from the Lord, and that we can do nothing that is truly good from ourselves. When we rid ourselves of false riches — pride, arrogance, egotism and the belief that the good we do is from ourselves — we receive the true riches that flow in from the Lord: love and wisdom, goodness and truth, innocence and peace. These are the “treasures of heaven.”
Whenever we experience the inflow of these heavenly blessings, it is hardly possible to keep these treasures to ourselves. There arises a longing to share them with others, a desire to share the joy one has experienced not just through keeping the commandments, but, more deeply, through knowing that the Lord alone has provided the means and the power to do so. 12
In this regard, “the poor” are not just those humble states in ourselves that must be nurtured, fed, and given attention. It also refers to the “little ones” in others that also need to be fed and lifted up, even as Jesus lifted up the little children. It is, therefore, not only our sacred responsibility but also our great joy to share with others the many blessings we have received through living according to the Lord’s teachings. Whenever we do this, we begin to understand what Jesus means when He invites us to experience the “treasures of heaven.” 17
In an earlier episode, Jesus said to the man who had been delivered from a legion of demons, “Go home to your friends and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you” (Mark 5:19). In brief, Jesus was instructing him to go home and share his life-transforming experience with others — to give to the poor. In a world where so many hunger and thirst for truth that will not fade and goodness that will not perish, there is no better way to bring the blessings of heaven to others. 18
Trusting in Riches
23. And Jesus looking around says to His disciples, “How difficult [it is for] those that have wealth to enter into the kingdom of God!”
24. And the disciples were astonished at His words. And Jesus again answering says to them, “Children, how difficult it is for those who trust in wealth to enter into the kingdom of God!
25. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich [man] to enter into the kingdom of God.”
There is a tendency in each of us to focus primarily on ourselves and our own happiness rather than on the happiness of others. In spiritual terms, this can take place when we see truth as merely a means for self-improvement without considering how “inner work” can lead to “outer work” — that is, to greater service to others. This was illustrated in the previous episode. The man who came to Jesus seeking the secret to eternal life had done well. He had kept the commandments since his youth. These were, indeed, “rich possessions” and Jesus loved him.
But the time had come to make use of these possessions in service to others. Therefore, using the language of sacred scripture, Jesus said to him “sell all that you have and give to the poor.” If we refuse to do this, believing that it is enough to just look after ourselves, we put ourselves in spiritual danger. As Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23).
There is nothing wrong with riches. There is nothing wrong with taking care of one’s self and enjoying the pleasures of life. But when this is the only thing we do, without any thought about how we can use our resources and talents to help others, we are leading a selfish rather than a heavenly life. The reason we must first take care of ourselves and our families is that that we can be in a better position to help others and be of greater service to society. If we do not take care of ourselves, and if we neglect our families in the name of “serving others,” thinking that we are somehow practicing moral virtue, we are greatly mistaken. There is much truth in the saying “charity begins at home” when it is rightly understood. 19
One of the central lessons of the previous episode, then, is that there is an order to everything. While the commandments must be learned first — as a means for clearing out evils and falsities — that is not the final goal. The goal, or the purpose of keeping the commandments is to become a vessel through whom the Lord can love and serve others. When our bodies are cleansed, rested, and nourished, physically and spiritually, and when our families are properly cared for, it’s time to do something useful for others. Inner work, which comes first, must lead to outer work, which is the goal. 20
The danger of merely doing the inner work is so real that Jesus speaks of it again, with a minor but significant change in the wording: “How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God,” He says. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). It is interesting that when Jesus repeats this warning, He does not warn against having riches, but rather trusting in riches. “How hard it is,” says Jesus, “for those who trust in riches” to enter the kingdom of God.
According to legend, there was a gate to the city of Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle.” It was a narrow passageway, only large enough for a single person to walk through. If a camel tried to enter, it had to be divested of all of its baggage, get down on its knees, and crawl through the narrow opening. This portrays the way in which each of us must first divest ourselves of the “many possessions” that prevent us from entering heaven. If we are to experience the true blessings of heaven, we must relinquish the baggage of intellectual pride, egotism, and the false belief that we are self-existent beings independent of God. Whether the story is true or just a legend, it effectively pictures the humility that is necessary if one is to enter the kingdom of God. Wealth and riches are not enough.
This was a new teaching. In biblical times it was believed that wealth and riches were a sign that a person had found favor with God. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who delights greatly in His commandments…. Wealth and riches will be in his house” (Psalms 112:3). Interiorly, because “a house” corresponds to the human mind, this passage means that those who keep the commandments will be spiritually enriched with true thoughts and loving emotions. But if the passage is taken literally, it’s easy to conclude that those who keep the commandments will be blessed with physical wealth and riches. This belief, also known as the “prosperity” gospel, was a generally accepted idea in biblical times. What a surprise it must have been, then, to hear Jesus say that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven.”
The disciples, who had been listening to the interview with the man who had kept the commandments, are amazed. Surely, this man was among those who had done all the right things; he had kept the commandments from his youth. Therefore, according to the prevalent ideas of the time, he would not only be rich, wealthy, and have servants, but he would also be among those who would inherit the kingdom of God. And yet, Jesus is turning their value system upside down. “Rich people,” Jesus seems to be saying, “are going to have a very difficult time getting into heaven.” Astonished, they say among themselves, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (Mark 10:26)
Understanding their confusion, Jesus responds to their question, saying, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). In brief, Jesus is telling them that people cannot save themselves. No amount of learning and no amount of doing can save anyone. Earthly riches won’t do it; nor will spiritual riches. That’s because the kingdom of God is not about the many possessions we have — whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual. It’s about what we do with those possessions. And, above all, it’s about acknowledging our spiritual poverty, admitting that we can do nothing from ourselves, but that “with God all things are possible.” 21
28. And Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left all things, and have followed Thee.”
29. And Jesus answering said, “Amen I say to you, there is no one who has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or fields, for My sake and the gospel's,
30. Who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and fields, with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.
31. But many [that are] first shall be last, and the last first.”
Peter has been listening closely, trying hard to understand what Jesus is teaching. He has just heard Jesus telling a man that he must sell all that he has, give to the poor, and follow Jesus. He has also heard Jesus explain that it is easier for a camel go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Although Peter does not fully comprehend what Jesus means by these teachings, he knows that it has something to do with giving up possessions. Therefore, Peter approaches Jesus and says, “See, we have left all and followed You” (Mark 10:28).
Jesus assures Peter that he has made the right decision, is on the right path, and will be amply rewarded. “Assuredly,” says Jesus, “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall 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” (Mark 10:31).
Taking a closer look at Jesus’ words, it is evident that Jesus is raising the stakes. In the previous episode, the emphasis was on freedom from worldly possessions. “Sell all that you have,” Jesus said to the man who wanted to inherit eternal life, “and give to the poor.” This seems to be about material possessions — things we can sell. Similarly, the teachings about riches preventing one from entering the kingdom of heaven suggests that physical assets and worldly treasures, whether they be houses or fields, must be left behind in order to experience the kingdom of God. This time, however, as Jesus continues to instruct His disciples, He takes the idea of non-attachment a step further. Not only are the disciples to free themselves from their attachment to material objects, they must also be willing to sever relationships with living people. Jesus promises that whoever leaves “father, mother, brother, sister, wife and children” will be rewarded a hundred-fold.
If the disciples had been astonished to hear that they should forgo worldly possessions, how much greater must have been their astonishment when they hear that they must forsake their family relationships. It is true that some people have found truth in these literal words. In severing ties with family members who loved themselves and the world rather than God and the neighbor, they have formed new relationships and discovered that they indeed have hundreds of spiritual brothers and sisters, spiritual mothers and spiritual fathers. While they may have left their old houses behind them, they discovered that the doors of a hundred new homes were now open to them — and within those homes were people who truly loved God and the neighbor.
Nevertheless, a merely literal understanding of this passage can cause much confusion and heartache. Why would Jesus encourage His disciples to abandon father and mother when the decalogue commands that father and mother are to be honored? Why would Jesus, who just a few verses earlier said, “What God has joined together let not man separate,” now urge His disciples to leave their wives and children, and promise a reward for doing so? Surely there must be another way of understanding these words.
And there is. In the spiritual sense, this passage refers to our willingness to leave behind old forms of thought (house), together with the old understanding (brothers, father) and the old will (sisters, mother, wife), along with the offspring of the old understanding and the old will (children) in order to truly follow the Lord. In other words, Jesus is here calling for a fundamental change of mind and heart. We are to leave old thoughts and attitudes behind; we are to forsake former ways of thinking and feeling. All this is represented by leaving our “houses” and “lands” and all former relationships. This is a call to radical discipleship, a call that goes all the way back to the time when the Lord said to Abram, “Get out of your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
For My sake and for the sake of the gospel
In telling His disciples to leave behind their houses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, wives, children, and lands, Jesus is calling them to leave behind anything and everything that keeps them from truly following the Lord. Similarly, if we are to become disciples of the Lord, we must indeed be willing to give up every selfish attachment for the Lord’s sake, and for the gospel. We must be willing to lose the life we have been leading in order to inherit the eternal life that Jesus is promising. It is something we do for Jesus’ sake “and for the sake of the gospel.”
It is noteworthy that the Gospel According to Matthew also speaks about losing one’s life for Jesus’ sake, but does not add the phrase “and for the sake of the gospel” (see Matthew 9:39). As we have pointed out, in Matthew our focus is upon the recognition of Jesus’ divinity. But in Mark we go one step further. In this gospel, we begin with the recognition of Jesus’ divinity, and then go on proclaim it. In Mark — and only in Mark — are we called to lay down our lives for Jesus’ sake and for the gospel (see 8:35 and 10:29).
In order to do this, one of the first things the disciples would have to give up is their attachment to being “first” in the coming kingdom. In other words, they would have to give up their expectation of being revered, honored, and served like kings. On the contrary, those who would be considered “first” in the coming kingdom would be those who delighted in serving rather than in being served. And those would be “last” who found their delight in being served rather than in serving. As Jesus puts it, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31). 22
Unfortunately, the disciples do not understand. As we shall see in the next episode, they interpret this to mean that the current rulers of the kingdom and the chief priests will be last, and the disciples who are now in last place will be first, sitting on thrones. The disciples still have a long way to go, and much to learn. For example, they will need to learn that the good news of the gospel begins with repentance.
A Better Dream
32. And they were in the way going up to Jerusalem; and Jesus was going before them; and they were astonished; and as they followed, they feared. And taking again the twelve, He began to say to them what was going to happen to Him:
33. “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered up to the chief priests and the scribes; and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him up to the Gentiles;
34. And they shall mock Him, and shall scourge Him, and shall spit upon Him, and shall kill Him; and the third day He shall rise again.”
35. And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to Him, saying, “Teacher, we will that Thou shouldest do for us whatever we ask.”
36. And He said to them, “What do you will that I should do for you?”
37. And they said to Him, “Give unto us that we may sit, one on Thy right hand, and the other on Thy left hand, in Thy glory”.
38. But Jesus said to them, you know not what you ask. “Can you drink the cup which I drink, and be baptized [with] the baptism that I am baptized [with]?”
39. And they say to Him, “We can.” But Jesus said to them, “You shall indeed drink the cup that I drink, and [with] the baptism that I am baptized [with] you shall be baptized;
40. But to sit on My right hand and on My left hand is not Mine to give, but for whom it is prepared.”
41. And when the ten heard, they began to be indignant with James and John.
42. But Jesus calling them to [Him], says to them, “You know that they who are thought to rule the nations exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority over them.
43. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever wills to be great among you shall be your minister;
44. And whoever of you wills to be the first shall be the servant of all.
45. For even the Son of Man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give His soul a ransom for many.”
Jesus is carefully preparing His disciples to proclaim the gospel. Before they do so, there hearts and minds will have to be purified from selfish attachments. For this reason, Jesus calls His disciples to abandon all attachments for His sake, and for the gospel. As we now know, this kind of inner purification only comes about through temptations. That’s why, in the midst of all the promises that Jesus makes about how they will be blessed “a hundredfold” in the coming kingdom, He also adds reminds them that these things will not come easily. Rather, they will come, “with persecutions” (Mark 10:30). 23
This is where the next episode begins. As Jesus begins the ascent towards Jerusalem, He says to His disciples for the third and final time, “The Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and to the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him; and the third day, He shall rise again” (Mark 10:33-34; see also Mark 8:31-33 and 9:30-32).
The disciples, like all of us, are slow learners. They keep forgetting; and Jesus, in His infinite patience, keeps reminding them. Their focus, however, is not on Jesus words but rather on the positions of honor they want to occupy. As an example, as this episode begins, James and John approach Jesus and say, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left in Your glory” (Mark 10:36). Jesus is not surprised. He knows they do not understand the significance of what will shortly take place: “You do not know what you ask,” He says. “To sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared” (Mark 10:40).
Jesus does not grant us “places in the kingdom” according to our wishes, but according to our lives. We can only prepare ourselves to be at “the right hand of God” through a life of loving God, and “at the left hand of God” through a life of serving others. The “right” and “left” hands are not physical places, but rather states of love and wisdom that we enter into through striving to learn spiritual truth and applying it to life. 24
When the other ten disciples overhear James and John making this special request, they are “greatly displeased” (Mark 10:41). They also have been hoping to obtain the seats of highest honor in the coming kingdom. Jesus, however, is not preparing His disciples for leadership positions in their idea of an earthly kingdom. Rather, He is preparing them for a life of selfless service in the kingdom of God. For this reason, He gathers them together and says, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever desires to be first shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44). 25
Through this teaching Jesus encourages His disciples to reach for higher levels of understanding, and to give up even more attachments — not just attachments to possessions and people, but also attachment to prestige. As we have seen, Jesus continues to increase the stakes. First it was about material possessions. “Sell what you have and give to the poor,” He said. Then it was about relationships with others, leaving bothers, sisters, father, mother, wife, and children. And now Jesus is telling His disciples to give up their dreams of greatness and replace them with a better dream. “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant,” says Jesus. Even if they had been willing to give up every worldly possession and every earthly relationship, they still entertained hopes of attaining an even better situation in the new kingdom. In other words, they still had dreams of earthly greatness.
But now Jesus is telling them to dream a different dream. In the new kingdom, they will not have the sort of “greatness” that their hearts were still set on. Instead they will experience the greatness that comes from serving rather than from being served. As Jesus says, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom 26
for many” (Mark 10:45).
The Dream of a Blind Man
46. And they come to Jericho; and as He goes out of Jericho with His disciples and a considerable crowd, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat along the way begging.
47. And having heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me!”
48. And many rebuked him that he should be silent; but he cried out much more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49. And Jesus, standing, said [for] him to be called. And they call the blind [man], saying to him, “Have confidence, arise; He calls thee.”
50. And he, casting away his garment and standing up, came to Jesus.
51. And Jesus answering says to him, “What willest thou that I should do unto thee?” And the blind [man] said to Him, “Rabboni, that I might receive my sight.”
52. And Jesus said to him, “Go, thy faith has saved thee.” And straightway he received his sight and followed Jesus in the way.
As Jesus and His disciples continue their journey toward Jerusalem, they encounter a blind beggar man named Bartimaeus, sitting by the side of the road. When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is nearby, he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”(Mark 10:47). The initial request of the blind man should be compared with the request of James and John just a few verses earlier. James and John were not requesting mercy and pity; rather, they were requesting honor and privilege. Jesus, however, responds to the blind man with the same question He put before James and John. “What do you want Me to do for you?” says Jesus.
Unlike James and John, the blind man does not ask for glory, or honor, or power. He merely says, “Rabboni, that I may receive my sight” (Mark 10:1). This is the right kind of request. Jesus does not say, “You do not know what you ask,” as He does with James and John. Instead He says, “Go your way; your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:52).
It is true that blind Bartimaeus has asked only for a physical healing, but implicit in his request is the kind of spiritual healing we should all be seeking. It is a request for the healing of our spiritual blindness. It is a request to know and understand our circumstances in any given moment so that we may see what needs to be done, and do it in the wisest, most loving way. In this way, the words of the blind beggar ring true for all of us. When Jesus asks, “What do you want Me to do for you?” we can respond with the words, “Rabboni, that we may receive our sight.”
The journey towards Jerusalem, which is situated 2,500 feet above sea level, is a journey towards higher understanding. Although there will inevitably be spiritual persecutions along the way, it is a journey we are called to make, but it is a journey that must be taken with our spiritual eyes open. If we agree to take this journey and humbly ask the Lord to open our eyes so that we might circumvent the dangers and see the blessings along the way, our request will be granted. As it is written, “Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road” (Mark 10:52).