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The One Thing You Lack

Updated: Feb 26






Sermon Preached by Jack Cabaness

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA

February 18, 2024

Sermon Text: Mark 10:17-31



I have it on good authority that the best way to catch a monkey is to find a jar with an opening just large enough for a monkey’s hand to pass through it. Then you put something enticing in the jar, say, a banana, or some nuts.

Then you put the jar temptingly where the monkey is likely to find it.


When the monkey puts its hand into the jar, the monkey grabs hold of the enticing treat but cannot extract it from the jar. That’s because the opening is just large enough for an extended hand but not large enough for a fist full of fruits and nuts.                                                                 


The best thing for the monkey would be to let go of the catch and remove its hand from the jar and run away fast! But usually the monkey opts to keep trying to pull its full fist of treats out of the jar. With the monkey still struggling to extract its hand from the jar, someone can sneak up behind the monkey and capture it.


I have never personally tried this, so I cannot vouch for how well it works. Through the years the monkey with its hand in the jar has been a popular sermon illustration among many preachers.


Robert Pirsig described a similar method for capturing monkeys in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


Surely the reason that it’s such a popular sermon illustration is that it’ll preach.

I don’t even have to make the explicit connection before you’re already thinking about what’s in your jar. There is something inside your jar that you cannot let go of, even though holding on means that you cannot remove your hand and be free.


We often think of Lent as a time for giving something up, as a temporary discipline, of course. Perhaps we could begin this season of Lent by soul searching and asking ourselves, what is it that I am holding onto that I need to release?


Am I finally at the point where I am ready to admit that I am powerless over an addiction?


Am I finally at the point where I am ready to relinquish my need for control?


Am I finally at the point where I am ready to let go of an ancient resentment?


Am I ready to let go of a paralyzing fear?


And here’s one of the hardest ones: Am I ready to let go of the wealth and status and accomplishments that I have spent years accumulating?


That was the question that confronted the Rich, Young Ruler in today’s Gospel reading. You may have noticed that the Gospel writer Mark merely described him as rich. It’s the Gospel of Matthew that tells us that he is young and the Gospel of Luke that tells us that he is a ruler. Thus, in Christian tradition, this man is known as the Rich, Young Ruler.


Matthew, Mark, and Luke all three describe how the rich man ran up and knelt before Jesus, how he asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” How Jesus responded, why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone. These three gospels tell how Jesus briefly reiterated some of the commandments, and how the rich man replied that he had followed all of the commandments since the days of his youth.


But here’s a detail that is unique to the Gospel of Mark. Mark says that Jesus, looking upon the man, loved him. Within the Gospel of Mark itself, this is the only time that Jesus is explicitly described as loving someone.

Jesus, looking upon the man, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. At that saying the Rich, Young Ruler’s countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.


Will Willimon is a retired United Methodist bishop who served for a long time as chaplain at Duke University. In his own reflections about the Rich, Young Ruler he writes:


Today’s gospel text reminds us that there are good, understandable, reasonable reasons for not following Jesus.

Jesus is too often presented by us,

from the best of motives,

as the solution to all our problems,

the way to fix everything that’s wrong with our lives.

But this story reminds us that Jesus is sometimes the beginning of problems we would never have had if we had not been met by Jesus.

Jesus says, how hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!

And if we are listening, we are likely to start squirming.

[Here ends the quotation]


And then it gets worse.

Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.


Now, we are really squirming!


Then someone says, don’t worry, Jesus must have been talking about the famous Eye of the Needle Gate in Jerusalem, where if you wanted to get a camel through,

you had to remove whatever burdens the camels were carrying,

and then cleverly coax the camel to stoop down low enough to maneuver through the gate.


Thus, getting the camel to go through the eye of the needle is something that is difficult, probably even very difficult, probably much harder than herding cats, but NOT impossible.


But here’s the thing.

There is no mention of the Eye of the Needle Gate in any of the Gospels.

The earliest mention of the Eye of the Needle Gate is in the 8th century,

some 700 years after this story takes place.


The Eye of the Needle Gate is most likely a legend,

invented probably by someone who was very rich,

or at least by someone whom Jesus made nervous.


Jesus was most likely talking about a literal camel

and a literal sewing needle after all.

If ever there was a time when we wanted to say that we should take Bible seriously but not literally, now would be the time.

 But that also begs the question.

How do we take seriously Jesus’ word to the Rich, Young Rule

to relinquish his wealth?


Listen to this observation from the late French sociologist

and theologian Jacques Ellul:


How [de we] overcome the spiritual power of money?

Not by accumulating more money,

not by using money for good purposes,

not by being just and fair in our dealings.

The law of money is the law of accumulation, of buying and selling.

That is why the only way to overcome the spiritual power of money is to give our money away, thus descralizing it and freeing ourselves from its control . . .

To give money away is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us. [Here ends the quotation]


Retired Presbyterian pastor Jon Walton says that the fundamental question of Christian stewardship is not how much we give of all that we have, but how much we keep, and why.


There is something in your jar, something which you have great difficulty letting go. It could be money, but it might also be something else.


This morning during worship we have three Lenten worship stations, and each one invites you to let go of something.


The first one invites you to let go of others’ expectations of you.

The second invites you to let go of your own preconceived notions of success.

And the third invites you to let go of stress and paralyzing worry.


There is indeed something in your jar that you can never let go of, at least not without help. Nonetheless, Jesus promises, “All things are possible with God.”


All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.



Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.












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