Many of our problems in living for Jesus stem from the root problem that we think we can do it. We assume we have the power. So we set about trying to push the camel through the eye of a needle.
But understanding the impossibility is the first step to obedience. This is the true freedom of what it means to be a Christian: honestly facing up to the impossibility of my own obedience, which leads me not to despair but to the God who is able to do all things.
A man who thinks he can earn eternal life.
Mark doesn’t tell us much about the man in Mark 10:17. He simply introduces us to “a man”. 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?” The man gets a couple of things very right.
He wants to know what he needs to do to be part of God’s great kingdom. It’s good that he’s bothered about God’s kingdom—he can see that it really matters. God is bringing all things in this world together under his appointed King, Jesus. That is God’s plan for the world, and this anonymous man wants to know how to get in on it.
And it is good that he comes to Jesus. Clearly, he has understood that there is something about Jesus that is significant. The man cares about the right thing. He comes to the right place. But this man has got one thing very wrong. He wants to know what he has to do. He has a high view of his own ability. He has a lot of confidence in his power to obey. So that is where Jesus starts.
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 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.’” (Mark 10:18-19)
Jesus points the man to God as the ultimate standard of good and begins to list the commandments. The man is completely unperturbed by all this.
“Teacher … all these I have kept since I was a boy” (Mark 10:20).
He is oozing self-righteousness. What a staggering claim to make. He has worked hard; he has kept the rules; he has tried his best. It all looks good. But Jesus sees things differently.
Jesus loved the man.
The next sentence is key. Here it is: Jesus looked at him and loved him.
This is the only man in the whole of Mark’s Gospel that we are explicitly told that Jesus loved. That’s striking because of what the love of Jesus looks like in this story. Jesus loves this man too much to allow him to continue in his self-deluded little world of sweat, hard work and determination. He is not willing to stroke the man’s ego and tell him how wonderful he is. Instead, Jesus issues a command.
It isn’t hard to understand what Jesus is saying. He isn’t being vague and unspecific. But this one command undermines the whole foundation that the man has built his life on. Here’s the command: “One thing you lack,” [Jesus] said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v 21) There is no room for negotiation or confusion. Here is what Jesus requires of this man. He must sell everything.
At this, the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth. (v 22) The man slowly turns around and starts to walk away. Only at this point in the story does Mark tell us the critical piece of information about this man—he had great wealth.
It’s a very poignant moment. Jesus loves the man— and he lets him walk away. Does that surprise you? Jesus doesn’t chase after the man and lower the bar. He doesn’t negotiate and settle on a figure that the man will be willing to give. Jesus demands it all. That is the command, and there is no budging. It’s not just a hard command, it’s impossible, and it was supposed to be.
Why did Jesus set the bar so high?
The bar is too high. Why would Jesus set the bar so impossibly high? Why would Jesus demand something that cannot be done? Not because he is cruel and harsh, but precisely because he loves this man. The man had reduced God’s commands to something he could achieve. He had a view of God’s word that meant its commands were within his power. Yes, I can do that.
The right response to the command would be to fall on his knees and, with a quivering voice, speak the words, “I can’t do it.” Only then, with his self-confidence in tatters and his heart exposed, would he be ready to receive the kingdom of God like a little child (Mark 10:15). I can’t do it. They are such hard words for us to say, but they are essential words for the Christian to learn.
Jesus loves us far too much to stroke our egos and tell us how fabulous we are. Instead, he issues commands that are far beyond our ability to obey in order to drive us to him. We aren’t supposed to take the commands of God and work out a strategy for how we can make them doable. Think back to what Jesus said to that rich young man. When he says, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” we can very quickly find our reaction becoming, Of course he doesn’t mean I should do that. That would be ridiculous and impractical. He was just talking to that man. He just means I should be more generous. Yes, I think I can manage to be a bit more generous. I will try and give a bit more money this week. Great—well done me.
No, that is precisely the problem. We think we can do it. We find a solution to the problem of obeying the commands—but we aren’t obeying him at all.
Instead, stop and feel the weight of the commands Jesus gives. Feel the way money holds a power over your heart. Let the very commands of Jesus expose you. Every command found in the pages of the Bible will have that effect on us if we stop and listen. Don’t run from that. It doesn’t feel comfortable; it doesn’t give us a warm, fuzzy feeling about how great we are—but it is there, in that place of weakness, that we will truly learn to whisper these two words: I can’t. And that honors God more than you will ever know. It is the first step on the road to joyful, deep and satisfying obedience.