Commentary on Mark 10:17-31
The story of Jesus and the rich man, presented variously in all three synoptic traditions, is notoriously challenging and has elicited any number of creative approaches to ameliorating what seems to most of us a ridiculously extreme demand.
From concocting a mythic entrance to Jerusalem that required a camel to unburden itself of all it was carrying to reading it as an intentionally impossible demand to drive us to Christ, interpreters over the centuries have been tempted to tone down this passage.
Which means we should read with care. Toward this end, I’d suggest attending to two elements of the text that will help us read and preach it with equal measures of integrity and creativity. The first is details. An author cannot tell us everything and the choices he or she therefore necessarily makes are clues to the narrative intention of a particular passage. While there are many revealing details in this passage, I will focus briefly on five.
- Jesus is again “on the way” (verse 17). In Mark, this is not merely “a journey” in general (per the NRSV), but rather represents the road to Jerusalem and the cross. So while Jesus’ demand of the man may seem extreme to us, it is certainly no less than the demand he places on himself, giving not just his wealth but his very life for the world, including this rich man.
- Everywhere else in Mark when a person kneels down to beseech Jesus (verse 17), it is in regard to a request for healing, for him or herself or for someone else. Might Mark therefore view this scene as a healing and invite us to do the same? Looked at this way, Jesus words are not an impossible demand or Herculean test of faith or extreme requirement. Rather, they are a radical prescription to a deep-seated illness and need.
- Jesus looks at him with love (verse 21). He does not treat him as insincere or mock him as self-righteous, but rather loves him. Every interpretation we may offer must therefore take seriously Jesus’ absolute regard and unconditional love for this man.
- He is not asked simply to give away his wealth, but to give it to the poor (not the church either, mind you, but the poor) (verse 21). Implied is the importance of sharing in the hardships and need of one’s fellow human beings that is a requirement of life in the kingdom.
- The rich man is not the only one who is shocked by Jesus’ pronouncement (verses 22, 26). So also are all those within earshot. Given that wealth was considered a sign of blessing in the first century (as well as, I’d argue, in the twenty-first), Jesus words to this man and his later statement about the difficulty the rich will have in entering the kingdom are alarming.
In addition to paying attention to details, we also gain by exploring the gaps of any passage we are reading. Gaps are the elements of the story not told, the places we are invited to use our imagination and in this way enter into the story, even become invested in it. Gaps, therefore, invite questions that, depending on how we answer them, greatly shape our reading. I’ll name what I think are four such gaps, both offering some possibilities for exploring them while leaving them open for you to enter into in relation to your preaching context.
- Why does Jesus object to being called “good” (verse 18)? Does Jesus think the man is merely trying to flatter him? Possibly, but I wonder instead if Jesus is suggesting that something is amiss with the question itself. Once you imagine that eternal life is something you inherit or earn by being good, perhaps, you’ve lost. No one is good — that is, really and truly good — apart from God. Which means both that no one is “good enough” to inherit eternal life and that entering the kingdom is finally not about “being good” in the first place.
- Is the man overconfident of his ability to keep the commandments (verse 20)? Is he, that is, smug, self-satisfied, or self-righteous? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Not only are the commandments considered in Judaism absolutely “do-able,” but Jesus also seems to accept his statement at face value. This does not devalue the commandments — Jesus starts by naming them as important elements of life with God. Apparently, however, they are not sufficient to constitute that relationship.
- Why, precisely, is it difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom (verse 24-25)? Is it the temptation to believe that one is made self-sufficient by one’s wealth with no need for God or others? Is it that one is desensitized to the needs of others by wealth, insulated from the normal needs of those around us? Can it be that wealth in some way distances us from one of the elements of being human itself — that is, the inescapable dimension of being dependent on others? From the beginning of creation, after all, it is “not good” that we be alone. Might it be that as wealth removes us from the natural dependence and contingency of the human condition we actually lose some of our humanity?
- Is Peter boasting with his profession (verse 28)? Again, it may be, but I suspect that he needs additional reassurance. Interestingly, Jesus does not rebuke Peter as if it were a vain boast, but apparently he interrupts him. Peter “began to say,” the text reads, implying that Jesus jumps in to make promises to Peter both about the “rewards” all those who follow will receive as well as the “hardships” (persecutions) that the life of discipleship will entail. Is Peter, then, a cautionary tale for us or a model of discipleship?
Any and all of these questions have a variety of possible answers, and how we both address and employ them will be shaped by our sense of the particular situation and needs of our context. One thing seems clear. This passage is about wealth and the challenges it presents and, simultaneously, it is about discipleship, the need to follow Jesus and to be aware and even concerned about those things that would keep us from following Jesus “on the way.”