VIP passes - Mark 10:1-31
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The conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, had a real problem in remembering people. Crossing the foyer of his hotel in Manchester one evening, returning from a rehearsal with the Halle orchestra, he spotted a woman he just knew he knew, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember who she was. Since there was no way of avoiding her, Beecham made a few polite enquiries while he racked his brains trying to remember something about her. ‘I hope you are keeping well’ he said. ‘I am, Sir Thomas. Thank you’ she replied. ‘Are you in the city for long?’ he asked. ‘Only for one day’ she replied. ‘So you shan’t be coming to the concert?’ he asked. ‘I’m afraid not.’ She replied. ‘My engagements are rather full at the present.’ There was something in that remark which rang a bell with Beecham. Then it came to him. Didn’t the lady have a brother in public life? So he asked, ‘And how is your brother these days?’ feeling more confident. ‘He’s very well Sir Thomas’ she replied. ‘Still busy?’ ‘Yes he is.’ ‘And what’s he up to these days?’ ‘Oh, he still the King’ answered the Princess Royal.
It really must be difficult when you are as important as the Princess Royal not to be recognised. But the thing is, we all like to be important because we think that being important is important. If you don’t think that you like being important, you might want to reflect upon how you feel if your opinion is ignored, or if you are at a party full of guests and you are left standing alone. Why do we think being important is important? I guess that for most of us our sense of value and self worth is bound up with other people’s estimate of us. It feels nice to be the centre of attention. In fact some of us can be so perverse that we make a fuss of not being the centre of attention in order to become the centre of attention. And of course, what makes us really feel important is when someone we recognise as being important treats us as important, that really strokes our ego and causes us to grow in stature by a few inches. But is what we think is important really that important? Are the people who we think are important- kings, prime ministers, head of major companies, university lecturers, that important? Who is to say? Surely, no Being is more important than God? And so it is who and what he considers important that are the most important things- and what those are we are about to find out in Mark’s Gospel and chapter 10.
What I want us to do tonight is to focus on the central episode in verses 13-16 where children are brought to Jesus-which links together the other two episodes on either side of it, the Pharisees questioning of Jesus about divorce and the encounter with the so called rich young ruler. And it is going to be by way of contrasting these two episodes with the central one that we shall discover that when it comes to matters relating to the kingdom of God, that is God’s saving, loving rule in his Son Jesus Christ, our ideas of importance are turned upside down. And it is important that we get this right because our eternal destiny depends on it-for that really is important!
What we see going on in verses 13-16 is really quite extraordinary. Something happens which triggers in Jesus one of the few occasions where he is actually angry with his disciples and shows it- he is ‘indignant’ according to verse 14. And what Jesus does and says would have bewildered them. A bewilderment which simply gets more intense after the encounter with the rich young man, so much so that the disciples almost throw in the towel when they say in verse 26, ‘Who then can be saved?’ So you see, salvation is the issue here- ‘who can be saved?’, and by the same token ‘who won’t be saved?’ And I am sure that you will agree with me, there can’t be anything more important than that- where will you be in a million years time?
So what is going on? We are told in verse 13, ‘People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them.’ The word used here to describe the children is one which refers to tiny tots, toddlers, although there may have been even a few babies as well. Now hold that picture in your mind, little children being brought to Jesus and contrast it with what has just gone before and what is about to come. At the beginning of the chapter we have the Pharisees, the religious experts par excellance who rather arrogantly, it appears, strides up to Jesus in order to test him. Perhaps they had a snide smile on their faces as they did so, confident that they are going to trip him up this time. And so they ask Jesus about his thoughts on divorce: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" It was one of those ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’ kind of situations. If Jesus said, ‘No’, then he would appear to be overthrowing God’s law about divorce as we have it in the Book of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which would make him a law breaker. If he said ‘yes’, then he might appear to be a bit liberal undermining the sanctity of marriage. Either way he would lose some supporters. But Jesus in a stroke of genius gives an answer which must have caused his interrogators a bit of a headache tinged with guilt. He knows they know the answer, so why are they asking him, v3? It is there in black and white- yes Moses did permit divorce. But even when something is permitted doesn’t mean it is basically right because God had a higher intention when he instituted marriage, it was for life and people were not to feel they could smash it to pieces whenever they felt like it, even if they had a piece of paper to justify it. That is why God gave the law of divorce in the first place, to limit the fall-out of sin. And so even the law of divorce, which was and can still be abused-especially by men- highlights the underlying problem which Jesus has already spoken about in chapter 7- the sinfulness of the human heart. We should feel shame that God had to regulate marital breakup because selfishness at some point, by someone-especially in the case of adultery- has been involved. And these religious men whose brains are stuffed with the Bible are no exception-they have hard hearts too. And the fact that they use God’s holy law as a weapon to try and discredit and destroy Jesus is a testimony to that dreadful fact. Can these people be saved? That is the question! Well, not with that attitude they can’t.
But what of the following incident with the rich young ruler? Initially at least, this looks a little more promising, v17, ‘As Jesus started on his way (that is, his way to Jerusalem and the cross), 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?’ That kind of question is an evangelist’s dream. But notice how Jesus answers, “Why do you call me good-no one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother’.” So like the Pharisees, this man knows God’s law. But not only does he know them, he is quite confident in his own mind that he has kept them too-v20. He is Ok on the second table of the law-so he thinks. But what about the first table which begins, ‘You shall have no others gods before me, you shall not make for yourself an idol.’? Well, here is a crashing failure because when Jesus told him to get rid of his other god, his idol, which is his wealth in order to follow Jesus, he either can’t or won’t do it- v22, ‘At this the man’s face. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.’ His heart is hard too, you see? For this kind of person, says Jesus, getting into the kingdom of God is hard, and how hard it is, is underscored by this humorous picture, (well it would be humorous if the situation were not so tragic), that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle’ –impossible I would say. So if someone like this can’t get into the kingdom of God, someone really important, someone really good, then who can? That was the question on the disciples’ minds according to v28. Well, the answer had already been given, if only the disciples had had the wit to realise it, the answer was there with the toddler group back in vv 15-16.
You see, here by way of contrast are little children who are brought to Jesus. Unlike the Pharisees they don’t come to attack Jesus, unlike the young ruler they don’t come with lives stuffed with money- they simply come. They don’t ask anything, or do anything, the only asking is by the parents for Jesus to do something- to touch them. And what is the disciples’ response? It is to rebuke them, they tell the parents to clear off and stop bothering Jesus. Notice that they didn’t do that with the Pharisees, and they certainly didn’t do that with the young ruler because you don’t do that with people who are important do you? The Pharisees were important-the self-appointed custodians of God’s law. The young man was important, he was a ruler, that is the top man in the synagogue-the centre of Jewish life and he was rich to boot-both of which means he had power-of course he was important, so he would be let in to see Jesus. But not the children, they were considered not that important.
Now to understand that the disciples were not being callous or Victor Meldrew type figures who simply disliked kids, we need to unsentamentalise this scene. Our society, quite rightly, values children. I love them, the smaller the better-I am a great softy when it comes to little children. And so when we come to this event we read into it 21st century Western values- for we believe that everyone (except King Herod) loves little children, , including Jesus, that is why he wants to pick them up for a little cuddle. That is not quite what is going on. You see, in this society children as children were not that well thought of. They were valuable in that they continued the family name; they ensured that the family kept the property and when they grew up would provide for the parents in their dotage. But otherwise, little children were nobodies, they didn’t have any status, any standing, they had achieved nothing and they really had nothing to offer apart from dribble! So, the disciples thought, Jesus is on his mission heading towards Jerusalem which, as next week’s passage illustrates, they hoped would result in a palace and some governmental positions for some of them-they were gearing up to become people of some importance, therefore Jesus doesn’t want to be bothered and delayed by some pesky little kids-they are nobodies. And so, in no uncertain terms they let the parents know this-they rebuked them.
And when Jesus saw this, we are told, then he became angry-indignant- livid actually. But why? Jesus tells us in v14, ‘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. I tell you the truth (here is a solemn pronouncement that Jesus is about to make, so get this), ‘anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Do you see what the issue is, what is at stake? It is all to do with ‘entering the kingdom of God’- ‘inheriting eternal life’.
For a while now Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God, what it is, who belongs to it, what is meant to characterise its citizens. And it was taking some time to sink in. Back in chapter 9: 33, after Jesus had been telling his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem in order to be crucified and raised from the dead, it was then, believe it or not, that an argument broke out as to who was the greatest-that is who was the most important. And to drive the point home of what importance looks like in his kingdom, Jesus takes a little child-same word- a toddler- stood him in the middle of them all and said, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’ There is something about toddlers, infants, that Jesus points to and says-this is the key to everything- my kingdom, eternal life, salvation-what is important is to be found in what you people think is unimportant.
And yet the disciples still hadn’t got it, otherwise they would have been bringing the children to Jesus, not driving them away. That is why he is fuming with his disciples; they are missing the very heart of his teaching and were in danger of perverting that teaching with their worldly ideas of who is important. They want top jobs in government, to have political clout, they will allow similar ‘movers and shakers’ to get close to Jesus like the Pharisees are the rich young ruler, but forget about those like children.
So what is it about little children that Jesus is pointing to and saying- ‘this is what anyone has to become like in order to get into my kingdom’? If you are here tonight and have not yet become a Christian what is it about tiny tots that you have to emulate if you are going to get even a chance of forgiveness and eternal life? Let me ask those of you who are Christians,: what is it about small children that you are to keep on holding on to and copying if you are going to stay in the kingdom of God and be effective for Christ?
Well, to get the answer we again have to be careful that we don’t sentimentalize this episode. What we tend to do is to try and find some virtue we think little children have and say, ‘That’s it, we have to be like that in order to be received by Jesus’. So some speak of a child’s innocence- well people who think that can’t have had any children- our Scramblers are fantastic children and a real blessing to us, but they are hardly innocent. Some point to a child’s humility and say, ‘That is what we are to be like-humble’. That is nearer to the answer, but yet is not quite right- I would not have put humility as being a child’s strong point. But do you see what we are doing? We are looking at this story through 21st century spectacles when what we need to do is put on 1st century spectacles. And as we have seen this means that little children are viewed as unimportant, lacking status, lacking clout, they have achieved absolutely nothing and have nothing to offer-they just come as they are in order to receive. And in this sense we have to humble ourselves in order to become like a child, viewing ourselves as non-achievers in the salvation game, recipients not claimants, if we are going to be in this King’s kingdom. We are to see ourselves as God sees us- helpless and hopeless, achieving nothing with nothing to offer- in total need of his touch of blessing. We receive we don’t give.
This was not the case with the Pharisees. They thought that they had arrived and it was Jesus who was the ‘Jonny come lately’ who had to give an account to them-big shots that they were. It was the rich young ruler who had all the status, whose importance was bound up with the wealth he refused to let go of, that went away sad, more impoverished than he could ever realise-hell bound as he was. But not these -children and not anyone like these children who see themselves as nothing, not that very important, whose hands are empty so that they can receive. And that this is the way into Jesus kingdom is movingly portrayed by what Jesus did next- he took the children in his arms, as tiny, as vulnerable, as unimpressive as they are, and blesses them-v16.
Let me give an illustration of God’s approach to us in Jesus, of what the Bible calls grace- which is really what this is all about. Most tourists, who go to California, go to Disneyland. And one of the most spectacular sights is Cinderella’s castle, which is the logo of Disney. Well, on one such evening, parents and children were packed into Cinderella’s castle when suddenly all the children rushed to one side as Cinderella arrived. This gorgeous young girl was perfect for the part, with every hair in place, skin which shone, and immaculately dressed with beaming smile she stood waist high in a sea of children, each wanting to be touched. But, on the other side of the castle now vacated by most of the kids, stood a little boy maybe seven or eight years old. It was difficult to determine exactly his age because of his disfigured body. His height was dwarfed, his face contorted from some congenital defect and he stood watching quietly and wistfully, holding the hand of his older brother. Of course what he wanted was to be with the other children. He longed to be near Cinderella calling her name, reaching out his hand to touch her hand. But he held back because he was afraid. Maybe he was self-conscious, he certainly didn’t feel important, he felt deficient in some way. Sure, he wanted to go to her, but he couldn’t. So what happened? Well, she came to him. She noticed the little boy and politely but firmly made her way through the crowd of children and finally broke free. She walked quickly across the floor, knelt at eye level at the stunned lad and placed a delicate kiss on the side of his face. The rejected became accepted. The other children had only received a touch, he received a kiss.
And you know many people today are missing out on the greatest thing that the Lord Jesus can offer- eternal life, not even receiving a touch, because deep down they think that they are far too important to come to him or other things are far too important- that career, the family, the hobby, the sport, and he is not important enough. What a tragedy that is. But the wonderful thing about Jesus is that he is willing to overlook all of that, if we are willing to become like these little children- which is what we are like anyway if only we could see it- not pointing to our achievements, our abilities, our connections- but only aware of our need, the need of a saving touch, a restoring embrace and he is the one who alone can give them.
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