42. Mark 10:17-31: Stuff
We draw near to the threshold of Jerusalem (ch.11). This set of teachings rounds out Jesus’ essential teaching on discipleship.
A deferential man accosts him with a question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s not asking about salvation as we tend to. It’s not post-mortem life in another sphere (“heaven”) he’s interested in (he would not have known about that because it did not exist as a part of Jewish faith). Rather, it’s the new age here on earth after God intervenes to judge evil and set all things right that he asks about.
Why does the man call Jesus good and Jesus reject this appellation? Remember that Jesus was in conflict and competition with the four other views offering guidance for how Israel should be the Israel God wanted it to be: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. This seeker perhaps knows Jesus’ reputation as a teacher and come to find out what his vision for Israel is in light of the coming clash with Rome. Jesus, “Good teacher,” how do you think I can make it into God’s coming age?
Jesus rejects this appellation because he has no plan for Israel other than the one God had already made known through the covenant with Israel. “I have no new and innovative plan for you, my friend,” he replies. “But the one who is only and truly good, God, has told you what is necessary – don’t murder nor steal nor bear false witness nor defraud and honor your parents.” Jesus cites the second table of the Law, our relations to others, the community. The word “defraud” (aposterō) is interesting. Boring notes,
“The verb apostereō is found elsewhere in the New Testament only in 1 Cor 6: 7–8 (NRSV ‘defraud’); 7:5 (NRSV ‘deprive’); 1 Tim 6:5 (NRSV ‘bereft’); and Jas 5:4 (NRSV, the wages of laborers have been ‘kept back by fraud’; cf. the echo of Mal 3: 5; Sir 4: 1). This last instance is particularly telling, though the word need not imply deceit, but only injustice.”
This word has associations with one’s conduct with wealth. The man professes to have handled all these things faithful to God’s torah (v.20). But no, he hasn’t.
Jesus did not include the tenth commandment prohibiting coveting in his list of commandments he gave to the man. The commands he did give were susceptible to external observance. Coveting is not. Jesus opens the man up precisely at this point.
And he does so out of love for him. This is the only time in Mark where Jesus is said to love someone. And it is most appropriate here. Our passion for our stuff is, excepting only our love for ourselves, the deepest of human drives. And only love, another love, an other’s love, only an Other’s love, can free us from our covetous hearts. Jesus gives this man his love!
And in the face of Jesus’ love the real issue surfaces. He calls the man to divest himself of his stuff, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him. Here’s the answer to the man’s question: follow me! (v.21). But to follow Jesus requires a self-emptying of all that fills his heart so will be room for Jesus.
And for this man. So also for us. He remains unnamed in this story. I suspect this is deliberate on Mark’s part. This person is every person, you and I. Procuring and holding on to our stuff is a perennial to mark to publicize our self-wrought significance and security. His question is ultimately focused on himself: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ love exposes this self-love and in a moment of terrible honesty the man confesses himself unwilling or unable to let go of all that. He could not use his treasure to meet the need around him and receive treasure in heaven, and follow Jesus.
And that’s a crucial point to get. The gifts we have, especially our financial resources, impact – and as the wealthy and affluent part of the world we have special need to zero in on this as Jesus does here – others around us. “The good is distributed by God and is to be distributed by us in imitation of God, in an indiscriminate, profligate fashion,” writes Kathryn Tanner (Economy of Grace [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005], 25). If we hold our resources as something we have gotten rather than something we have been given, we like the man in this story will walk away sorrowfully because we too are wealthy. And it is a mighty lure to resist.
Jesus can see the looks of disbelief and incomprehension cloud the disciples’ face in the aftermath of this encounter. Jews of that time took wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus is turning their world upside down in yet another way.
Jesus stresses, even exacerbates, the disciples’ difficulty here. In one of his most well-known images, he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (v.25).
“A few clarifications may be in order. Some report that there was a small gate in Jerusalem, called “the eye of the needle,” which a camel could just barely pass through. There was no such gate, and the first reference to this way out of the problem does not appear until the ninth century. Another claim is that the word translated “camel” here actually means “rope,” but this is dubious and dodges the problem that a rope cannot get through the eye of a needle either. The reality is that for most of Jesus’ or Mark’s audience a camel was the largest animal they would ever see, a needle’s eye the smallest aperture they knew about, and one going through the other was impossible” (Placher, Mark:2883-2889).
This pushes the disciples to the end of their rope. They ask each other desperately “Then who can be saved?” (v.27). Not through their own efforts or the efforts of others, says Jesus. Only God, for whom nothing is impossible, can accomplish their salvation. Which is equivalent to Jesus call to the rich man to follow him without the accoutrements of wealth holding them back.
Peter, speaking for the disciples as always, declares that they have done what Jesus asked. And Jesus answers that they will not be disappointed or left to fend on their own. Those who have done this to follow Jesus/trust God/and for the sake of the gospel will have shelter, and family “a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” Yes, they will have persecutions too, but the family and provisions Jesus provides will see them through this age and into the age to come.
This new family Jesus promises is itself an expression of the new age. Placher tells us how.
“First, people will leave ‘brothers or sisters or mother or father or children’ and will receive ‘brothers and sisters, mothers and children’—but no fathers. They will have one father, God. Given the patriarchal society of the time, where fathers thought of themselves as owning their wives and children, there is no place for human fathers in the family of Jesus’ followers. Second, they will leave fields and receive a hundredfold ‘fields and persecutions.’ Mark slips that last word in so casually one can almost miss it, but it is central to Jesus’ promise here. Following Jesus will be tough. One will be supported by the community of a new family, but one will suffer persecution. No promise simply of a life of rewards. Third, ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ The hierarchies of current society will be radically overturned. Anyone who enters the community of Jesus’ followers confident of retaining their status and social position is likely in for a rude shock” (Mark:2941-2949).
Here is the New Exodus people. They are a sign, sacrament, and servant of God’s kingdom.
-sign: this community points beyond itself to the reality of a world as God intends it.
-sacrament: this community is itself a taste of that world as God intends it.
-servant: this community in its life together and work in the world serves the advancement of God’s kingdom.