Sunday’s sermon: The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Last Are First


Texts used – Mark 10:17-31; 1 Peter 4:7-11

  • It’s just around the corner, folks. It’s coming to a mailbox near you. It’s the thing that every child dreams about and every parent dreads with every fiber of their being: the giant Christmas toy catalog.
    • Used to be Toys ‘R’ Us → “Big Book of Christmas Magic”
    • Other stores have since followed suit: Sears, JC Penney, just to name a few
    • I vividly remember this coming in the mail when I was a kid. The minute it arrived, my brother and I would sit down with our markers and start turning pages.
      • Eyes would get bigger and bigger the deeper we got into the catalog
      • Scour every single page
      • Circle everything our little hearts could possibly desire
      • I mean, really, how else were we supposed to know what we wanted for Christmas? There were things in that book that I didn’t even know I needed until I turned the page!
        • List got longer and longer → unsettlingly long, ridiculously long, impossibly long
    • But in our consumer-driven culture, what else can we expect?
      • Bombarded every which way by advertisers trying to sell us something bigger, better, shinier, prettier and definitely more expensive than what we have now
      • Wealth gap in America[1]
        • Richest 1% hold 38% of all privately-held wealth in the US
        • Poorest 90% hold 73% of all debt in the US
        • Which means that the richest 1% hold more wealth than the poorest 90%. So if you pulled that 1 richest person out of 100, he or she would have more wealth alone than the bottom 90 people combined.
      • All about the bottom line
        • How much can I make?
        • How much can I spend?
        • How much can I have?
        • How much … how much … how much
    • Grappling with this in our gospel text this morning, too → Last week, we started talking about how this 10th chapter of Mark finds Jesus basically turning the world and all its expectations upside down and how, if we’re going to be followers of this Upside-Down Messiah, we, too, need to work to bring about this upside-down Kingdom of God in our world today.
      • Last week = talked about inverting power priorities with children – lowest of the low in society – being blessed – text: God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.[2]
      • This week = talking about inverting economic priorities
  • Couple of key elements of this story
    • First, Mark tells us basically nothing about this man that approaches Jesus. – text: As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”[3] → just “a man”
      • Mt = “young man”[4]
      • Lk = “ruler”[5]
      • But all Mark gives us is that he is a man. He’s a person. Period. In Mark’s version of this story, the one who approaches Jesus is a person, plain and simple. Any person. Every person. This man could be anyone – just a regular guy who likes his stuff. → shows that the desire for/love of stuff that we grapple with today is certainly not a new concept – scholar: In the ancient world (Greek, Roman, and Hebrew), material prosperity was widely seen as a reward or byproduct of spiritual value. Things go well for the good, for men and women of good character, and poorly for the bad, for those who lack good character and self-discipline.[6]
    • Leads to 2nd important element = what Jesus is actually asking of this man – text: [Jesus] said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.”[7] → It sounds like Jesus is talking about stuff, right? “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. … And come, follow me.” We cannot deny that a statement like that is about the man’s possessions. And even though Mark doesn’t tell us explicitly that this man is well-off, it’s implied in what Jesus says here. He isn’t going to ask someone who has nothing to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor.
      • reveals this is about more than just “the stuff” – Gr. “follow” = very particular word: akolutheo
        • Root of a word we know today: acolyte = assistant or follower, especially in a religious sense
        • Only used a handful of times throughout the NT → same word that Peter uses later in the passage: Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.” Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”[8]
        • You see, there is an element of devotion inextricably tied up in this word. Jesus isn’t just asking this man to tag along for a while. He’s asking him to shift his attachment and his adoration from the things he has accumulated to the Savior standing in front of him.
          • Fundamental shift
          • Powerful shift
          • Life-altering, world-inverting shift
          • Jesus is truly asking this man to turn his world upside-down – to abandon the social recognition and status that he has acquired for a life solely focused on someone else: God. – scholar: Jesus knew that one’s relationship with money is, for many people, the greatest obstacle to living a life of full commitment and faithfulness. How much of not just our money but our time is spent in the procurement and upkeep of our possessions? Whether we like it or not, what we own has a tendency to define, or at least influence, who we are. If people can get their economic priorities right before God, then they can give their entire lives to God.[9]
          • Brings to mind Jesus’ words in Mt: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[10]
    • The man’s response – text: But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.[11] → Of all the stories in the gospels and all the reactions to Jesus and his teachings that we see scattered throughout the gospels, this is probably one of the hardest, one of the most heartbreaking. We don’t know whether the man ever does was Jesus asks him to do. We’re sort of left dangling. But this statement certainly infers that this was a pretty hard sell for Jesus.
      • Gr. “dismayed” = shocked, appalled, and “become gloomy”
      • Gr. “saddened” = irritated, distressed, offended
      • Neither indicate an encouraging response from the man → Whatever it was that he wanted Jesus to say when he asked his question – “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” – Jesus’ response was clearly not what he had expected, nor was it what he wanted to hear.
  • But this gets down to the crux of this whole passage. From the very beginning, the man is asking the wrong question – text: As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”[12]
    • Other translations: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
    • But that word that gets translated as obtain or inherit isn’t the problem. It’s a teeny, tiny, seemingly-inconsequential word that shows up just before it: What must I DO. It’s about grace.
      • Man is asking how he can earn the Kingdom of Heaven → “What can I do? See how good I’ve been? I’ve kept all the commandments. I’ve done everything right since I was a boy. Have I done enough? Have my previous actions merited me a place in the Kingdom?”
      • Jesus’ message from the beginning: the Kingdom of Heaven is not something that can be earned → Grace is grace exactly because it is free and un It’s not about what we do. It’s not about what we earn. It’s about God’s gift, given not because we deserve it but because God loves us. Period.
        • Made clear in the rest of our passage – text: Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words started the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”[13]
      • Grace is where our 2nd Scripture reading from 1 Pet comes in this morning, too: Whoever speaks should do so as those who speak God’s word. Whoever serves should do so from the strength that God furnishes. Do this so that in everything God may be honored through Jesus Christ. To him be honor and power forever and always. Amen.[14] → The word comes not from us, but from God. The strength comes not from us, but from God. The grace to do these things in love and compassion and hope comes not from us, but from God.
  • This is a powerful statement that Jesus is making. As we said earlier, material wealth and abundance were considered a sign of God’s favor for you and your family in Jesus’ time. But instead of towing the party line on this one, Jesus flips the assumption, the expectation, the established belief on its head: the greatest blessing of all is not material but immaterial and yet wholly substantial grace. The greatest blessing of all is not earned at all but freely given. Welcome to the Upside-Down Kingdom of God, my friends. Let’s hunker in and get uncomfortable. Amen.


[2] Mk 10:15.

[3] Mk 10:17.

[4] Mt 19:20.

[5] Lk 18:18.

[6] James J. Thompson. “Proper 23 (Sunday between October 9 and October 15 inclusive) – Mark 10:17-31, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 164, 166.

[7] Mk 10:21b.

[8] Mk 10:27-28.

[9] Magrey R. DeVega. “Fall Series 2: The Upside-Down Kingdom of God – Proper 23: Where the Last Are First” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 153.

[10] Mt 6:21.

[11] Mk 10:21.

[12] Mk 10:17.

[13] Mk 10:23-27.

[14] 1 Pet 4:11.