by David Sanford
In the closing chapter of his devilishly fun book, The Atheist Who Wasn’t There, Andy Bannister explains the problem with the Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us what Jesus actually did, unfiltered, unvarnished, regardless of how any given statement or action of Jesus might “hurt” the Church.
Take the problem of circumcision, which plays prominently in Acts and the epistles. Not a word from Jesus.
Take the problem of Gentiles becoming Christians. Oh, actually, Jesus said several things about that, but not the one and only Complete Answer for Everyone for All Time, Amen.
Take the problem of exactly how one becomes a Christian. Never once does Jesus say, “This is the way.” Oh, actually, He did. “I am the way.”
Yikes! Does that mean falling in love with Jesus, loving others well, and following Jesus Christ for the rest of my life, is the way of salvation? If not, what?
So, how am I supposed to know with 100 percent certainty that I’m a Christian? And, what if Jesus is asking way too much?
“Jesus is asking way too much” is precisely what I thought when I slowed down enough to really ponder the story of the Rich Young Ruler. You have to like the guy. The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus likes him a lot too. In fact, Jesus loves him.
Immediately after telling us, “Jesus felt a love for him,” however, we read that Jesus told him: “If you wish to be complete, one thing you lack: go and sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Here is a distinguished, wealthy, popular, well-behaved, young leader who asks the ultimate question: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus says, “Keep kneeling, son, and pray this prayer.”
No. Instead, Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
Why in the world didn’t the Gospel writers sanitize what Jesus just said?
Maybe because they had a lot of time to think about what Jesus said, and realized He is saying things far more profound than are obvious on first reading.
“No one is good except God alone” isn’t trying to dissuade us from believing that Jesus is God’s Son. Instead, Jesus is trying to remind the rich young ruler what the Hebrew Scriptures say over and over again: All have sinned. (Sorry, the apostle Paul didn’t make that up.)
The young man thinks, and a couple of sentences later says, “Teacher, I’ve kept the Ten Commandments religiously from the time I was a boy.”
But Jesus isn’t talking simply about the Ten Commandments. He slips in the second half of the Great Commandment: “…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And therein lies the problem. So, in love, Jesus shocks the wealthy young man by saying, in essence: “Go. Sell. Give. Come. Follow me.” Six words. Five imperatives. Four times too much to ask of anyone.
The young man’s mouth drops open, but nothing comes out. He is visibly shaken. The gift of eternal life costs that much? Impossible. Utterly impossible.
So, the extremely rich young ruler walks away stunned, tears in his eyes, grieving. And the disciples are freaking out. What in the world did you just do, Jesus? Heck, what in heaven’s name did you just say?
Again, they had a lot of time to ponder these questions. Especially John Mark who, unlike his fellow Gospel writers Matthew and Luke, adds the statement: “Looking at him [the rich young ruler], Jesus felt a love for him.” Like the apostle John, Mark can’t resist telling his readers, “Jesus loved me.”
But wait, you may be thinking. Matthew and Luke tell us the young ruler was rich. So was John Mark. The early chapters of Acts inform us that his mother was a wealthy woman named Mary, wealthy enough to open her spacious home for secret prayer gatherings of the early Church.
“Go. Sell. Give. Come. Follow me.” It worked. The rich young ruler walks away grieving, only to realize, “Go? Wait, Jesus tricked me. I’m going, all right. Now what? Am I really going to do what else He said?” And, just a few chapters later, follow Jesus is exactly what Mark does.
“Jesus felt a love for him” isn’t the only unique statement in Mark’s Gospel. He also adds that a young man follows behind Jesus and the twelve in the Garden of Gethsemane. As Jesus is being arrested, the young man rushes from the shadows only to have several Roman soldiers tear off his Calvin Klein designer robe. People didn’t wear boxer briefs back then so, yes, he “escaped naked.”
Why such a random couple of verses? To make his intended readers laugh? Hey, the story raised laughs and snickers everywhere Mark went for years. Why not document it for all posterity?
Besides, laughter is to Jesus and to the Early Evangelists—and to today’s New Apologists—what sarcasm and ad hominem arguments have been to the New Atheists…disarming ways to make your points, right or wrong.
One of the newer books by the brilliant British social critic and apologist Dr. Os Guinness may strike some as rather odd…that is, unless you add “and humorist” to his bio. Before the table of contents, he includes five pages of notable quotables on the place of humor, satire, joke-telling, laughter, imagination, exaggeration, etc.
My favorite is by one of history’s intellectual giants, Blaise Pascal: “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees.”
That “surprising disproportion” is exactly what we see in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is praying His heart out in the Garden of Gethsemane. The twelve minus Judas are all asleep. Suddenly Judas appears with a mob, Peter lashes out with his sword, Jesus rebukes the mob, is willingly arrested, and…the eleven flee? No, instead, Mark tells one of his most embarrassing stories…to let his intended readers in on another good laugh.
Laughter. Love. Both are wonderful gifts to share with your neighbors.
This guest blog post is an excerpt from the new book, Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It’s Not What You Think, © 2017 David Sanford and used by permission.