Commentary on Mark 10:17-31
“ … A man ran up to Jesus.”
That’s how the story starts. We do not know anything about him. Unlike Luke (18:18), Mark gives us no title, nor does he tell us anything about his economic status. He is just a man. However, he is a man who is unlike the Pharisees who seek to test Jesus (Mark 10:2). This man just wants an answer: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v.17). He appears sincere, demonstrating humility in his approach as he kneels before Jesus and ascribing to Jesus an adjective reserved for God alone, “good” (v. 17).
Jesus obliges him and jumps right into the discussion. He begins by rehearsing the latter portion of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:12-16; Deuteronomy 5:16-20). Interestingly enough, all of the commandments that he recites have to do with human beings relationship with each other. The first four commandments that address human beings relationships with God are not mentioned. Yet one command is different: “You shall not defraud” (v. 19). “Do not defraud” replaces the last commandment: “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). The switch may be Mark’s way of identifying the motive behind defrauding as coveting: It is the desire of one to possess the property of another that leads to fraudulent economic practices. This variation is purely Markan. Neither Luke nor Matthew includes it in their versions of this story. Mark may be providing an explanation for how the man acquired his fortune (we shall soon see that “he had many possessions”) and indicting an economic system that takes advantage of the least in its society.
If fraudulent practices are indeed the source of the man’s wealth, the man does not acknowledge it nor does he even recognize it as such. Instead, he insists that he has “kept all these since my youth” (Mark 10:20). In other words, his wealth is legitimately gained. He participates in and has benefited from the economic system according to the system’s rules. Therefore he has obeyed the commandments. Whether or not the system is flawed, does not play into his answer. Yet his wealth, even legitimately gotten, does not have the power to purchase what he seeks.
The young man wants to inherit eternal life. This is not something he can buy; it must be something given. The wording of his question shows that he believes eternal life to be an inheritance, something passed on from parent to child. In this case, eternal life is passed on from God to God’s children. In order to qualify for the inheritance, the man must become a part of the family of God. He must become a child who is eligible to inherit from the parent. Thus, the man’s question alludes to Mark 3:31-35. Here Jesus defines his family as those who do the will of God. By quoting the commandments that deal with human relations, Jesus teaches the man that doing the will of God has everything to do with how people treat each other. This treatment includes economic justice.
Although the man has kept the commandments listed by Jesus, Jesus tells him that he still “lack[s] one thing” (Mark 10:21). He can, however, remediate his condition: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” (v. 21). On one hand, this invitation to discipleship states explicitly what several of The Twelve have done already. Upon Jesus’ command to follow him, Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Levi all left the sources of their livelihood to come behind Jesus (Mark 1:18, 20; 2:14). Peter’s comment in Mark 10:28 juxtaposes their actions with the young man’s inability to part with his material possessions. The disciples follow, but the young man goes away “grieving” (v.22). It is only at this point in story that Mark tells us the reason: “for he had many possessions” (v. 22).
The man’s refusal to follow presents Jesus with another opportunity to teach on discipleship. Two times he states how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God (vv. 23, 24). In the first statement he specifically talks about the difficulty for those who have wealth. In the second statement, the difficulty is more general; it appears to be hard for everyone. However, in some manuscripts the phrase “for those who trust in riches” is added making the second statement consistent with the first.
Indeed it seems as if wealth is being addressed because Jesus follows up in verse 25 by specifically stating that “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” (italics added). And yet, the disciples do not receive this as good news. Instead, they, too, are astounded wondering who can be saved. The disciples’ response suggests that they also view wealth as a sign of Divine favor, a blessing from God. Therefore, it is counter-intuitive for those who have wealth to find it hard to enter God’s kingdom. In their society, wealth grants access rather than prohibits it. Wealth is stepping stone, not a stumbling block.
However, it would be a mistake to assert that Jesus is advocating for the renunciation of all material possessions. Jesus tells Peter that those who make such sacrifices will not be left empty in this age (Mark 10:30). Instead, Jesus’ words point to an allegiance to God that is not superseded by any other relationship. Neither family (Mark 3:31-35) nor material possessions (10:21) are to trump one’s allegiance to God or one’s following of Jesus. Following is primary, not the renunciation of possessions. Should either have to be given up in order to follow, Jesus says that those who make the sacrifice will receive family (brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and children) as well as material possessions (houses and fields) in this life. They will receive them in other ways, in other places, and/or among other people. Yet, acquisition of these things are not without “persecution” during this age (v. 30). In addition, they will receive eternal life: the very thing the young desired and then forfeited when he walked away.
In short, Jesus teaches his disciples that what gets one ahead in this life is not what gets one ahead in the kingdom of God. Once again there is a reversal: “the first will be last and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31). The wealth that can grant one prominence and put one ahead of line according to society’s standards is not what does so in the kingdom of God. It is service, service to the least even if it puts one last.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of abundant riches, when asked to give everything to follow Jesus, a rich man faltered. Give us the courage to give everything that we have to you, knowing that what you offer is more valuable than all the riches in the world. Amen.
Lord, whose love in humble service, Cathy Moklebust (handbells)