Gospel of the Twenty Eighth Sunday (11 October 2015)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:17-27 – NRSV)
1. Similar accounts are found in Matthew 19:16–30 and Luke 18:18–30.
2. Mark reminds us once again that Jesus is on a journey. More specifically, as with all four Gospels, Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem. This is where the victory of God will come about. Thus the centrality of the Cross in Christian faith. One scholar writes: “If we take the testimony of the New Testament consistently as our starting point and if we make this testimony the basis for the speculative development of our faith in Christ, then we must take seriously the fact that the Gospels are passion narratives with extended introductions (M Kähler). The cross is then not simply the consequence of the earthly ministry of Jesus but the very goal of the incarnation; it is not something adventitious but the very meaning and purpose of the Christ-event, so that everything else is ordered to it as a goal. God would not have become truly a human being had he not entered fully into the abyss and night of death. (Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, Crossroad, 1986, 189.) This sets the context for everything we read in the Gospels.
3. Matthew refers to the individual who approaches Jesus as a “young man” and Luke refers to him as a “ruler”. Mark literally refers to him as “one” (εἷς). “Unspecified designations such as this are typical of Mark, and in the present instance the ‘one’ enhances the applicability of the story for all readers.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Eerdmans, 2002, 309.) Matthew’s designation of the “young man” has given the common name to this story: “The rich young man”.
4. The man “ran up and knelt before him”: There is a sense of urgency about this. This man seems very keen to be a disciple? Or maybe just impress Jesus? Or perhaps his “running” and “kneeling” are put there to match the magnitude of the question he is about to ask?
5. The man’s question gets to the heart of Jesus’ mission: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The reference to “eternal life” is to be taken as a synonym for “the kingdom”. In the passage immediately prior to this one, we hear Jesus tell the disciples that “it is to such as these (ie little children) that the kingdom of God belongs”. The dramatic interaction between Jesus and this individual – an adult, not a child – is going to reveal to us another dimension, particularly relevant to those who think observance of law – rituals, moral codes, doctrines etc – can give them entry to the kingdom.
6. There is an obvious tension here between the intensity with which this man approaches Jesus and the preceding passage where Jesus points to the children as examples of life in the kingdom. This man – let’s assume his good will – needs to learn the lesson of the children. He seems to be assuming that if only he knows the “process” – gets the key! - he will apply himself to it and “inherit” eternal life/the kingdom. The kingdom, as is indicated in the situation of Jesus with the children, is in fact gift not conquest.
7. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus’ response seems to be a little sharp. Does he sense some insincerity in the question? Does he perhaps think the man is trying to manipulate him? It would not be the only time someone in the audience has put him to the test – see 10:2 concerning the question of divorce, and 12:13 concerning tribute to Caesar.
8. “You know the commandments etc.” Interestingly enough Jesus’ cites only five commandments and they are from the second part of the Decalogue – concerning murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, fraud and honoring your father and mother. These are commandments that focus on how we should relate with other human beings. He does not mention coveting your neighbour’s house or wife or ox or anything that belongs to him. What is perhaps more noteworthy is that the five commandments cited only make sense in the context of the first three – particularly the first two. About these Jesus is strangely silent. These commandments concerning our relationship with “Yahweh your God who brought you out of Egypt” tell the people: you shall have no other gods to rival me, you shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God and you shall remember the Sabbath. Compare this encounter with the “scribe” in Mark 12:28-34 – see parallel passages in Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28.
a. Perhaps we can find a clue in the man’s original question: “what must I do?” This man has a functional approach to the kingdom – for him it is simply a matter of right behaviour. This echoes the focus on law rather than the unmerited gift of life in Jesus himself. Herein lies one of the core messages of Jesus’ teaching. As is indicated in the episode with the children, what is on offer here is not about what the man does but what God does. Or, more precisely, what the man allows God to do in him. Jesus’ reference to the commandments concerning right behaviour towards one’s brothers and sisters, could be interpreted as ironic. In other words, he is saying to the man: the rules are there for all to see, what is it you expect me to add? Jesus might also be prompting this man to listen to his own heart, to see if he can hear the deeper question that will take him beyond right behaviour and observance of moral codes into the depths of the kingdom. Speaking of the parables, John Dominic Crossan makes an observation that is pertinent here: “The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs. We want good precepts and we want sensible programs. We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables.” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables - The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 82.)
b. This interpretation might be supported by the incongruity of Jesus telling this apparently good man not to murder anyone!
c. That remarkable moment where Mark tells us that Jesus “look(ed) at him and loved him”. Nowhere else does Mark record such a moment of Jesus “loving him/her”. Interestingly enough, it is the verb agapao (ἀγαπάω) that is used here.) Perhaps Jesus thinks this man is worth spending some time with and using some tough words to awaken him to what he does not yet see.
9. The above interpretation might help us to understand the next, rather startling, statement by Jesus: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” We might paraphrase this: “Alright, you want to reduce the kingdom to right behaviour. Here’s what you should do. You know all that stuff you own? Give it away!” Like a Zen master, Jesus is giving the man a wake up slap on the face! The subtext here is, as we have indicated above, that we become part of the kingdom by responding to God’s grace. God takes the initiative. The very notion of the kingdom of God only makes sense when we see that it is a state of being where God is in charge! St Paul speaks in this vein in his wonderful hymn in praise of love (agape – ἀγάπη). “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).
a. Note further that, in the case of the little children who presumably possess nothing, Jesus does not speak of their lacking something. In the case of this man who possess much he does speak of a lack. What is lacking? Is the lack to do with possessions as such? Or is it perhaps to do with what possessions might potentially do to the heart? There is always the danger that possessions possess us, they can make us unfree. That is a problem of the heart not the possessions.
b. At the beginning of his Gospel Mark tells us that John the Baptist came proclaiming a “baptism of repentance” (1:4) and Jesus’ preaching begins with a similar proclamation: “The time has come ... and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” The Greek word used for “repentance” in both instances is metanoeo (μετανοέω). One scholar writes of this concept: “Repentance” (Gk. metanoia) is a compound word meaning ‘to change one’s mind’ or ‘to alter one’s understanding’, thus connoting rational decision and willful act as opposed to emotive feeling. But the Greek etymology of the word needs to be augmented by the concept of repentance and conversion in the OT, particularly in the prophets, if John’s call to repentance is to be appreciated. Repentance was the message of the Baptizer reduced to a word. It entailed, according to Mark’s brief report in v. 4, a turning away from sin, and also, according to Matt 3:8 and Luke 3:8, a sign or ‘fruit’, perhaps water baptism but more likely moral transformation. Above all, John’s call to repentance is more urgent than that of the prophets; it is the only thing necessary to prepare people for the imminent judgment of God. Nor can John’s call to repentance be compartmentalized. It lays claim to the totality of one’s life, and not just for notorious sinners (Luke 3:12–13) or Gentiles (Luke 3:14) but even for righteous Jews (Matt 3:7–10). In the only reference to John’s baptism outside the NT, Josephus underscores the intention of reform inherent in John’s call to repentance. “[John] exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism” (Ant. 18.116–18). Baptism in such a state of moral reform accomplished, in Mark’s words, “the forgiveness of sins.” (J R Edwards, J. R, The Gospel According to Mark, Eerdmans, 2002, 31.)
10. “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” What a contrast between the confident way this man ran to kneel and ask Jesus the question and his reaction when Jesus invites him beyond his comfort zone! Maybe control is the issue here? Jesus invites him to surrender his life to God and this is not exactly what he had in mind. If Jesus had given him a set of behaviours that could have been accommodated within his current little world, this man would have probably gone away full of good intentions and feeling good about himself. The Greek word describing this man’s reaction – here translated as “shocked” – is stygnazas (στυγνάσας). Some translations render it as “his face fell” and that might get the mood of the moment better. One scholar writes: “The verb stygnazein, which appears only here in Mark, means ‘be or become gloomy or dark’, and by extension ‘be shocked or appalled’.” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, D. J., The Gospel of Mark, The Liturgical Press, 2002, 304.)
a. We should also note the practical side of Jesus words. If the man is seeking to become one of Jesus’ disciples, he needed to know that it involved an itinerant lifestyle, literally leaving everything behind and living a hand-to-mouth existence on the road. He could not be lugging a lot of baggage or worrying himself about who is handling his business affairs and so on.
11. “Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words.”
a. There was a common belief in the Jewish tradition that possessions were a sign of God’s blessing – see for example Deuteronomy 28:1–14. We might explain the perplexity of the disciples here in terms of the shock of being given a teaching that is so contrary to their ingrained expectations.
b. Jesus does seem to be introducing a very challenging teaching here, one which has been taken very seriously in the tradition – see Acts 4:32-35 as well as the Desert Fathers in the 3rd and 4th centuries, monastic tradition and the general tradition of consecrated life in which men and women take a vow of poverty.
c. One scholar writes: “The greatest enemies to faith and obedience are self-satisfaction and pride, and nothing removes those bulwarks more effectively than poverty.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 313.) Poverty as such is not the focus, freedom and availability are. These are primarily internal affairs, affairs of the heart. Poverty could get in the way actually.
d. The metaphor of the camel passing through the eye of the needle seems to be nothing more nor less than a gross exaggeration to make a point. One scholar writes: “We should like to see the glint in Jesus’ eye as he made this comment. The humor of this saying does not lessen its pungency, of course. Commentators have tried to eviscerate the force of this inimitable saying by suggesting that the original Greek meant “rope” instead of “camel.” Not only is there no textual evidence for such a reading, but it is equally impossible for a rope to go through the eye of a needle. Nor is ‘the eye of the needle’ a small city gate through which camels might enter Jerusalem by kneeling—as though the rich may enter the kingdom of God if only they humble themselves. There is no evidence for this legendary gate until the ninth century A.D.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 314.)
This poem by Cecil Day-Lewis might capture the heart of Jesus' teaching for the rich man:
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with the leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away,
Behind a scatter of boys I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.
That hesitant figure eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something that I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give and take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying that God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
(Cecil Day-Lewis in The Complete Poems, Sinclair Stevenson, 1992.)
A brother asked one of the elders: ‘What good thing shall I do and have life thereby?’ The old man replied: ‘God alone knows what is good. However, I have heard it said that someone one inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros the great, the friend of Abbot Anthony, asking: ‘What good work shall I do?’ and that he replied: ‘Not all works are alike. For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elias loved solitary prayer and God was with him; and David was humble and God was with him. Therefore, whatever you see your soul desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe’. (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, New Directions, 1960, 26.)