Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Nearly irresistible is the urge to soften this passage’s demands.

October 11, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 10:17-31 

Nearly irresistible is the urge to soften this passage’s demands.

That urge has been around a long time. For example:

  • An ancient scribe added words to make 10:24 read “how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God” (see the King James Version), as if the problem highlighted by the rich man is not being rich but putting faith in the wealth a person has or craves. This solution ignores the overall thrust of 10:23-25, where Jesus speaks quite plainly about the real obstacle that wealth presents.
  • A ninth-century interpreter made up the idea of a low gate into Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which camels could pass only if stooped and unladen. Presumably, then, Jesus criticizes only the proud rich, or only the rich who are not extremely determined to enter the kingdom. Unfortunately, no such gate ever existed, and Jesus’ words in 10:23-25 fail to recognize such distinctions about wealthy people’s attitudes.
  • Countless preachers have told us Jesus omnisciently perceived that wealth was this particular man’s special “weak spot,” and so he zeroed in on it only to expose the man’s distinctive shortcoming. This gives us permission to assume that Jesus would not ask us to part with our possessions, just those things that we really do not want to give up–only our aggressive driving or fried foods, for example.
  • Other preachers assert that Jesus only tests the man by issuing a demand meant to expose the futility of his supposedly self-striving piety. But such an interpretation makes a mockery of Jesus’ love for the man (10:21) and the man’s grief (10:22). If Jesus is not serious, why does he not chase after the crestfallen man, saying, “Wait! Here comes the good part! Let me show you grace now!”?

Jesus’ explanation is rather clear: just as large animals simply do not fit through tiny openings, so the wealthy do not fit in the kingdom of God. Even a rich man who has successfully kept all the Decalogue’s laws governing social responsibilities, as this devout man has, cannot fit.1 

Instead of trying to measure Jesus’ place among socioeconomic theorists or questioning his commitment to Protestant theology, we should note additional aspects of this passage, which beckon us to consider its nuances without denying its shocking message:

  • This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus makes such a demand about possessions. Although he calls everyone to radical renunciation (8:34-37; 10:28-31), the particularities of the call vary across the Gospel.
  • According to 4:19, wealth and its deceptions are not the only things capable of choking the word of God. Being rich is not the unforgivable sin; perhaps neither is it an entirely unscalable obstacle.
  • Jesus’ primary call is a call to a life of discipleship, not to a life of poverty. His words come and follow in 10:21 recall other calls to discipleship (1:16-20; 2:14; 8:34; 15:41), and they stem from his love for the man.
  • In Jesus’ context, despite the legacy of the biblical prophets, many people viewed the wealthy as specially blessed by God. The disciples call attention to this in 10:26 when they gasp, “Then who can be saved?” If Jesus has categorically ruled out the rich, then can anyone make it into God’s kingdom? When we consider all that commends the rich man in this passage, Jesus stuns us by putting the kingdom of God so far out of reach. But, by contrast, this emphasizes his subsequent promise that all things are possible for God (10:27), a promise that will act itself out in the Gospel lection assigned for two weeks from now, the story of Bartimaeus’s salvation (10:46-52).
  • In 10:21, Jesus does not tell the man merely to separate himself from his possessions, to burn them or to walk away from them. He goes a step further by instructing him to redistribute his wealth among the poor. Jesus calls for more than a change in the man’s bottom line and more than a permanent relinquishment of his acquisitions; he tells him to change his relationship to the poor–to help them, to identify with them. This may contribute to the man’s grief and apparent inability to do what Jesus asks. He resists surrendering not only wealth, but also status and power. He resists participating in economic justice and handing power over to his poor beneficiaries. The financial, social, and political costs are too great.
  • By contrast to the man, Jesus’ disciples–despite their repeated demonstrations of spiritual obtuseness–have already renounced much of their lives, security, and identity. At the conclusion of the passage, Peter does not boast of his sacrifices but continues to panic about the difficulty of securing eternal life. What hope is there for him? In response, Jesus explains that he does not call people to asceticism, but into a new community with its own benefits. He reassures Peter that privation is not the hallmark of God’s kingdom. Authentic community and care are the same kind of community and care that Jesus asked the rich man to promote by giving his wealth to the poor. Notice, in 10:30, that persecutions accompany such life; as if it were not difficult enough on its own, a life of authentic discipleship also contravenes the world’s values and thus arouses the world’s ire.

Maybe, then, this passage is not so unique in its demands, for it is not that dissimilar from others in which Jesus describes a life of discipleship, such as 8:34-37. The rich man’s story and Jesus’ hyperbole remind us that all aspects of what it means to follow Jesus rankle our deeply ingrained instincts toward self-preservation and security. Jesus does not try to deprive the rich man of his money and power. He asks for more. He tries to claim the man’s very own self.

Jesus does this, of course, out of love. Perhaps he believes that wealth, like a competing deity, treacherously constrains people from serving God (as in Luke 16:13). Getting rid of wealth might then move the rich man to a point where he might truly be receptive to God…

…But, of course, there is a danger in following an interpretive route like that one, by trying to get too far inside the man’s head or speculating about Jesus’ evangelization strategy. Preachers do well to stick to the biblical text and avoid conjectures that make the rich man appear too different from most of us in church. Lack of receptivity is not his problem. His approach and words to Jesus are not arrogant or self-righteous.

Here is a deeply religious person so well-attuned to his practices that he can sense that there is more out there than what he has experienced so far. He asks Jesus about the “more,” but his question focuses on what needs to be added. He seeks the limit, or the next step, but discovers instead that eternal life entails the surrender of one’s whole self.

In the end, this story is untamable. That is, like a parable, it resists simple explanations and denies loopholes, making us so uncomfortable that we are liable to talk circles around it in hope of stumbling upon a basis for softening its message. This story, again like a parable, intends to be experienced rather than explained–experienced not in a simplistic manner or with a belligerence that violates the spirit of the narrative, but in a way that keeps a congregation focused on the real-life demands of discipleship, on the seriousness of the new community envisioned by the kingdom of God, and on the foundational promise that God makes salvation possible.

Congregations will hear this story in diverse ways, depending upon the social class and economic situation of individual members. Still, given our current cultural context, in which so much of our collectively ingrained assumptions about financial security have been uprooted and have further exposed our runaway consumption, people will have new ears to consider the gospel’s perspective on discipleship, possessions, and abundance. The preacher’s challenge is to show that the kingdom of God confronts us with a vision of life and identity quite incompatible with so many of our core presuppositions about wealth, prerogatives, and selfhood.

1Nothing about the narration or Jesus’ response suggests that the man is anything but sincere in 10:20. Why Jesus replaces the prohibition against coveting with one about defrauding is a conundrum no interpreter has successfully solved.