Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

This lesson includes two stories connected by the theme of the real cost — including a financial one — of becoming a disciple of Jesus.

How do you get a camel through the eye of a needle ...
"How do you get a camel through the eye of a needle ..." by Mike Beales via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

October 11, 2015

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Commentary on Mark 10:17-31 

This lesson includes two stories connected by the theme of the real cost — including a financial one — of becoming a disciple of Jesus.

For the full narrative effect of the account, we need to set aside what we already know about this story and attend to the sequence of details as they are related to us readers.

The story begins with a notice that Jesus is on the “way.” Both John the Baptizer’s preparing “the way of the Lord” (1:2f.) and the designation for early Christians as those belonging to “the Way” (Acts 9:2) point to the use of this term as an indication that discipleship is under consideration.

At this point in Mark, we are only told that someone runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. We do not know anything else about him, though the Greek indicates he is a male. Because he kneels, we can surmise that he is genuinely respectful to Jesus, and his address to Jesus as “good teacher” is similarly sincere. His question — “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” — is not a test for Jesus. He truly wants to know Jesus’ answer, and we as readers should probably be just as interested.

But Jesus surprises the man (and the readers) by responding with, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (10:18) We hold that thought for only a moment, before Jesus immediately launches into a recitation of the commandments. Note, however, that these commands are all from the “second table” related to human interactions. Omitted are the commands related to human-divine interaction.

The man now replies by simply calling Jesus “Teacher,” and it’s understandable for a Jew to do so given Jesus’ earlier comment on the goodness of God alone. But do the readers regard him less highly for not calling Jesus good? We need to ponder whether the man was right the first time. If we believe Jesus to be a “good teacher,” then it becomes an implicit faith statement about the divine identity of Jesus. This is a subtle Markan narrative technique used to help us readers come to an accurate confession.

The man continues by claiming he had observed all those commands from his youth. Is he lying? Self-deceived? Or does he believe he is really telling the truth? Jesus does not challenge his claim, so I think we need to accept it as true, probably in the same way that Paul claimed to be blameless with respect to righteousness under the law. (Philippians 3:6) Again we must pause to evaluate what we think of the man. The narrative also pauses for a moment by noting that Jesus gazed at him … and then reports that Jesus loved him! If the reader wants to be like Jesus, then the reader needs to love him too, but has the man’s initial question been answered?

Jesus says he lacks one thing. (Is it his failure to keep that first table of the commandments related to God?) He is to sell what he has and give it to the poor in order to obtain treasure in heaven. Further, he is to “follow” Jesus, a typical characterization of discipleship in Mark. (Is this what a proper relationship with God looks like?)

What will this man whom Jesus loves do? The text says he became dismayed, and he went away (the opposite of following) grieving. Doubtless Jesus commanded a hard thing, but why this overly sad reaction? Only now are we told, “For he was having many possessions.” (If we had been told this detail from the outset, would it have skewed our perceptions of him?)

Verses 23-31 expand upon the implications of Jesus’ statement. The first observation Jesus makes pertains to the difficulty that those with wealth have in entering God’s dominion. The disciples — who were among the lower class and whose perspective had been shaped by a culture that associated wealth with honor, status, and divine favor — are confused. If those who appear most blessed have more difficulty getting into the kingdom than a camel going through the eye of a needle, then, as they ask, “Who can be saved?”

It’s a question we — who most likely are among the world’s most privileged — must also ask. Wealth is clearly a problem. The case of the well-behaved, socially-responsible, apparently-blessed rich man demonstrates how possessions can interfere with the more important need to follow Jesus as a disciple along the way that will lead to a cross. With respect to salvation, however, the rich only have a bigger challenge than that faced by anyone else. Note the general declaration Jesus makes in v. 24: “Children, how difficult it is to enter into the dominion of God!”

Ultimately we all have the same problem of earning our way into salvation. It can’t be done. What, then, is the answer? Gazing at his disciples, just as he gazed at the rich man, and loving them just as much, Jesus says, “With humans it is impossible but not with God, for everything is possible with God.” (v. 27) This is not a cheap grace solution that allows us to carry on with business as usual. Something still has to change for God’s impossible possibility to be realized.

Let’s go back to the rich man’s question that initiated this whole incident: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” His question already hints at a deeper answer. What can anyone do in order to inherit anything? Inheritance is more about belonging to a family than earning something, and this explains what is going on in vv. 28-30. Leaving everything and following Jesus, as Peter says the disciples have done, brings them into a new family. This household of God is an incredibly rich present reality, but one that is marked with persecutions. It is also a future reality characterized by fullness of life where first and last will no longer have any relevance.

Finally, keep in mind that for an inheritance to be given and experienced, someone has to die. How can this be? Thanks be to Jesus, the good teacher, that all things are possible with God!