The man’s face fell. He went away sad... Mark 10:22
As Christians we naturally focus on things Jesus did - he calmed the storm, he healed the sick, he welcomed sinners, he opened blind eyes, he even raised the dead.
But sometimes it’s worth reflecting too on things he didn’t do.
A young man comes and kneels before him. He wants to know how he can “inherit eternal life”. He is obviously genuine, for he risks humiliation by making this request in a very public way. Jesus responds with a really tough demand: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor... Then come and follow me...”
This is the point where we read that “his face fell and he went away sad.” Personally, I imagine a second or two of total silence as the man, shocked, digests what Jesus has said. If somebody was making a film of the scene, the camera would zoom in on his face - “No, surely not! Is he serious! Can I really do that! That’s just too much to ask!”
Everybody waits with bated breath. It’s a massive moment as he slowly turns and walks forlornly away. Can you see him, with his head down and his shoulders hunched?
And what is it that Jesus doesn’t do? He doesn’t shout after him, “Come back! Wait a minute. Perhaps we can talk it over.” He doesn’t negotiate. He doesn’t try to make it easier for him.
Well, we are living at a time when, according to the statistics, the churches in the main are shrinking. People are “leaving in droves” according to the rather dramatic expression sometimes used by the papers. Not entirely true, of course - some churches are experiencing encouraging growth. But close enough for discomfort.
A natural reflex to this situation is to do what Jesus didn’t do: to compromise, to make it easier for people, to water down our message. And also to “beat ourselves up” over the situation. “We’re failing! We’re no good! We’re driving people away.”
Certainly it can only be good to take a hard look at ourselves as Christians and church members and to ask where we may be going wrong. No doubt we are at fault in many ways, and there is no room for complacency.
But are we guilty sometimes of forgetting that people are also personally answerable for how they respond, or don’t respond, to God and to the gospel? Doesn’t some of the responsibility rest fairly and squarely on their shoulders? We may feel sad as they seem to turn away; but need we necessarily feel bad as well? Isn’t that how Jesus felt that day?
Is there an irony here? The young man in the story went away sad because the demands Jesus made were too high. But I wonder if today people sometimes turn away because the demands we make are too low. We are so anxious to draw them and then to keep them that we soft-pedal the call of Jesus to give our everything to him, indeed, to “take up the cross and follow him”. We allow people to think that they can meet Christ’s call with a shrug of the shoulders; we have turned it into a take-it-or-leave-it thing.
Putting it bluntly, is it wrong to be so, well, nice all the time? Psychologists tell us, after all, that people are more likely to respond positively to a real challenge than to a milk-and-water suggestion.
Some years ago I got to know a lady who came to church just occasionally. (To be fair, she had mobility problems, so getting along could be difficult.) I made it my business to visit her regularly; we used to talk and pray together, but there never seemed to be any response to the gospel.
It gradually dawned on me that the main reason she welcomed my visits was just to have a good chat. I don’t particularly blame her for that, of course, but it seemed that while she happily put up with the “spiritual” bits and the prayer they didn’t really mean anything to her.
One day, while I was praying for her on my own, I felt God was telling me that these visits were not time well spent - ministers, believe it or not, are pretty busy people, and I had plenty of other calls on my time. I decided I needed to talk frankly to her. I told her that if ever there was a serious need she could call me and I would be round, but that otherwise I didn’t feel I would be able to continue my regular visits. I promised her my continuing prayers. And I reminded her of Jesus’ love and of his call on her life.
Well, within weeks she was getting to church pretty regularly. She asked for some basic Bible teaching in her home. And within a few months I had the privilege of baptising her into the body of Christ.
Was Jesus wrong to take a tough stance with that young man? Of course not. Was I wrong to take a tough stance with that woman? I dare to think not.
Lord Jesus, thank you for your plain speech and your uncompromising demands. Help me to receive them for myself, and also to set them clearly before others. Amen.