The teaching on taking up the cross continues with the story of the rich man and culminates in the third and final prediction-misunderstanding-teaching instance. The whole section comes to a climax in Jesus’ statement about his own vocation. The story of another blind man healed contrasts with the parallel story that opened the section (8:22-26), providing the bookend to the teaching.
It hardly needs saying that money is one of the greatest obstacles to true discipleship. Jesus deals with this issue on numerous occasions, but perhaps none is more direct and abrasive than the story of a rich man who desires to follow but cannot. The news we proclaim about the kingdom of God--that is, our evangelization--cannot skirt the question of wealth.
The power of the story is that it refuses to let us focus on the wrong thing. The rich mans asks a good question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17). But it is the wrong question. Jesus’ response, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (10:18), redirects the conversation with an implicit question about Jesus’ identity. Does the rich man recognize him? Who is Jesus? That is the only question whose answer can bring us to follow him no matter the cost.
Pointing to the commands of God, Jesus suggests that the man, as a Jew, should already know the answer to his question: be a covenant keeper. Now for the stunning revelation: this is a godly rich man. He is not rich because of exploitation and injustice. He is a good person. When it says that Jesus loved him, it is not a patronizing love for a deluded sinner. It is true, God loved us when we were yet sinners. It is true, this man is not perfect. But that is not the point. No, he was a godly man, a righteous man, a seeker of God and eternal life. And Jesus loved him for being that way. Yet, again, it is that “one thing” he lacks that really matters. And we must not, in the practice of evangelism, fail to proclaim this one thing: “Follow me” (10:21).
The money is not the point. It is a point, and Jesus is aware that across all humanity it is among the most difficult of points, but it is not the point. The point is that everyone most recognize who Jesus is and on that basis remove every obstacle to following. When it comes down to it, the call to believe the good news will always be a call to do away with whatever it is that stands between us and Jesus. It is insufficient to believe that he is the best of teachers; the teacher who knows all about getting eternal life. If is insufficient to assent to his kingship. He calls us to follow him to the cross, and we must remember that death is the last extreme. Death makes money, and everything else, irrelevant.
Like this man, many who hear the call will not follow. They will not hear good news but sad news. It is no light thing to give away a fortune, much less to die to oneself. And yet, if this man realizes that God is standing before him in the flesh, there is nothing that will keep him from following. Money is nothing. A tremendous amount of money is absolutely nothing. But he does not follow, because he does not recognize Jesus. We must let no other question distract us, because only Jesus’ identity can validate the sacrifice he demands.
For many, money will not be the problem. Among the poor, it is often family that causes one to go away grieving. As Jesus mentions a few verses later, it is often homes and family and livelihoods that stand in the way of following. Make no mistake; he is asking us to leave those things if they stand in the way. He is saying that we cannot join the kingdom if there is anything that would compete for our allegiance. Note well: this is the message. It is false evangelism to tell people all about what they can get-- salvation, eternal life, forgiveness, blessing, joy, or whatever--without calling them to this nonnegotiable commitment to Jesus before everything else that is good and precious.
This is still good news, because Jesus is who he is. And it is still the upside down kingdom where, he reiterates, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” It may seem ludicrous to leave it all behind and risk poverty and loneliness in order to follow a man who talks incessantly about death, but things will not be as they now seem. God will provide homes and families and livelihoods in unexpected (and perhaps difficult) but very real ways “now in this age” and, to answer the rich man at Having predicted his humiliation, death, and resurrection one last time, James and John demonstrate that the disciples, who have left everything to follow, still have yet to grasp what it means to be the Messiah. They want to be vice president and secretary of state. They are quite explicitly asking for glory in the way that it is dealt out in every other kingdom. Glory in the kingdom of God, however, only comes by Christlikeness--to grant them glory is to grant them a bitter cup and immersion in fire. Glory comes through the cross.
Therefore, Jesus’ last teaching deals with the way taking up the cross is manifested in leadership. It is essentially a repetition of the same teaching, this time in contrast to the way the nations usually exercise leadership. The followers of Jesus will not rule by positional dominance. In fact, the positions are reversed in the kingdom of God. The great are servants, and the first are slaves of all. This is what the people of God must look like, and any church that does not operate in this way is suspect. That is good news indeed, because the world is full of the kind of leadership that Jesus rejects. There is hope in the vision of an alternative to the selfishly governed kingdoms all around us.
After so costly a call, we wonder how it can be that God asks us to die. The cross is terrifying. Selfishness is easy. But the punchline is simple: “For not even the Son of Man came to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The most authoritative, powerful, entitled being ever to walk the earth did not chose to be served. He became a servant, even to the point of death. He made his life into the means of liberation for others. So, who am I to do anything less? It is impossible to excuse ourselves by saying that Jesus’ self- sacrifice held special value; the argument runs the other direction. If he can give himself for others, we certainly must as well.
The short recounting of Bartimaeus’ healing rounds out the section. Whereas the first blind man needed the second touch, Bartimaeus represents the fullness of understanding. He knows Jesus for who he is. “Son of David” is a designation of the Messiah. He calls out this title and will not be silenced. He believes. He sees. He follows.
Here, Jesus’ ministry comes to an end. The nature of the Messiah has been redefined, the call to follow has been issued, and all that is left is fulfillment. Now he enters Jerusalem and begins his final week.