Rich young ruler

When I approach this passage, many people ask me whether they, too, are required to sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. I answer, “Maybe.”

February 26, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 10:17-31 

When I approach this passage, many people ask me whether they, too, are required to sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. I answer, “Maybe.”

This story reveals what we cherish most. It is about the relationship between a person’s greatest treasure and the self-denial required to follow Jesus. A close reading unsettles our view of discipleship by demanding that it consist of radically following Jesus rather than simply following the rules.

The Context: Jesus Teaches His Disciples Radical Discipleship

This story is part of the teaching block on discipleship that runs from 8:27-10:45, united by Jesus’ three-fold prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34). After each prediction, the disciples expose their misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission and their participation in it, and Jesus teaches what it means to follow him (8:32-37; 9:32-37; 10:35-45). To follow Jesus means to deny oneself and take up one’s cross, in imitation of Jesus’ own self-sacrificial service. It means to lose one’s “soul” or life in order to save it (8:34, 35). Its goal is life in the kingdom of God that Jesus has come to bring. The eschatological coming of the Son of Man provides a warning and the Transfiguration gives a prophetic view of Jesus’ glory (8:38-9:8), encouraging those who serve and suffer that God has the last word.

The Story: Jesus Calls a Man to Radical Discipleship

While on the way to Jerusalem, a man approaches Jesus and asks how he can inherit eternal life. The man comes kneeling before Jesus and addressing him with respect. From the preceding context, we know how to gain the life the man desires. At first, Jesus responds by repeating parts of the Decalogue that have to do with how to treat people. That is, the commands reflect what Jesus elsewhere cites as the second great commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31; cf. Leviticus 19:18).

The man replies that he has kept all of those commandments. Now Jesus escalates the requirement by identifying what this man treasures most. He challenges him not only to follow the letter of the law but also to follow Jesus through radical self-denial and service to others. In fact, Jesus calls not for the law’s elimination but for its escalation, similar to what he tells his disciples in John 13:34, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” 

The new element to this commandment is the line, “just as I have loved you.” Disciples are to love their neighbors with the same self-sacrificial service to others that Jesus does, which demands personal engagement and self-denial. Returning to our story, Mark mentions the man’s wealth only at the very end of this account, and it is at this point — if we resist letting our Bibles direct our reading — that we feel the rhetorical impact with the comment, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had great possessions” (verse 22). This story recalls the connection in 8:34-38 between the denial of self and life with salvation. The man walks away from Jesus, unable to embrace eternal life, choosing to keep the world and forfeit his soul.  

When the rich man leaves, Jesus teaches that wealth has a way of distracting people from seeking the kingdom of God. In the interpretation of the parable of the sower, the desire for money and possessions were key elements that enticed people from the word of God (4:19). Perhaps this is why Jesus had sent out his disciples on their mission with only a staff, to rely on divine providence through the gifts of those to whom they minister (6:6b-13). Still, in our text, the disciples are amazed at Jesus’ teaching because a pious rich man appears to have all the resources necessary for gaining eternal life. If a man such as this cannot be saved, then who can (10:26)?  Jesus attributes the faithful following that leads to eternal life to the power of God: “with human beings it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (verse 27). 

Peter picks up where the rich man left off. Jesus had called the rich man to sell all he has and follow him. He has not responded, but Peter does. Peter cries out that he and the other disciples have given up everything to follow Jesus — their families and their livelihood (verse 28; cf. 1:16-20). In other words, they have fulfilled the conditions that the rich man has not. Jesus promises that they will receive the eternal life that the rich man sought. Not only that, but they will also receive in abundance what they have given up, new family and land. On the one hand, Jesus reminds his disciples of the cost of discipleship: those who follow Jesus will be persecuted now, and will be last now. On the other hand, he reminds them of the dividend of discipleship: God has the last word. Those who follow Jesus are vindicated with abundance beyond imagination. 

We Are Called to Radical Discipleship

Jesus calls us to radical discipleship. Money is an object of desire in our wealthy society, and so this passage challenges us. Are we following the rules, while seeking to gain the whole world? Or are we following Jesus? Perhaps there is something other than money that we treasure most. Whatever it is, the exhortation in this passage is not to give up out of a martyr complex, but to give up to follow Jesus, in service to others for the sake of the gospel. This passage reassures those who have made personal sacrifices to follow Jesus, and who imitate his self-denial for the sake of others. It also challenges notions of discipleship that remain easy and complacent. We may suffer great loss with the assurance that God has the last word. The Kingdom of God can break into our world and transform our service now.