Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

The first thing to say about this text, and hopefully not the last thing to say, is that there’s pretty much nothing we can do but manage it.

Amos 5:11
"You have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them."Photo by Eduard Militaru on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 14, 2018

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Commentary on Mark 10:17-31 

The first thing to say about this text, and hopefully not the last thing to say, is that there’s pretty much nothing we can do but manage it.

Mark’s is a relentless Gospel, which seems not so much to invite to faith as to prove again and again the impossibility of faith. A few times that pattern is broken — we will all be really relieved to meet blind Bartimaeus in a few weeks’ time. But today’s pericope is killer. So we have to manage it.

Some time-honored strategies of management:

  • The rich young man didn’t actually keep the law, so that business about giving up his possessions was just a way of calling his bluff.
  • Nobody can actually keep the law, hence nobody can give up everything, either; it’s just a rhetorical device to call our bluff, and once we grasp that, we’re off the hook.
  • Giving up everything was a command to this particular rich young man, but only to him. It makes no claim on anyone else, being but an object lesson on acquisitiveness.
  • It was a real command, but it applies only to the rich. All of us can think of someone richer, so by contrast we don’t qualify.
  • Then again, the disciples infer just the opposite: everyone is rich (presumably because even the poor can think of someone poorer). Luckily, Jesus gives us the ultimate divine out: we can’t do it, but God can. Whew. Off to the mall.
  • Or, if we’re still in the game at this point in the story, we can point to our paltry efforts at discipleship like Peter did, at which point we get rewarded with a hundredfold of everything. As long as we somehow “give up” everything we’ve got (preferably in our hearts — you know, like, detachment from material things as an act of spiritual self-will) we’ll get something better in return. Invest a penny, earn a pound. Even those unnerving “persecutions” will lend us martyr/rock-star status. It’s a brilliant act of hermeneutical contortion to get Jesus to sound like a prosperity preacher.

It’s easy to criticize and dismiss these management strategies, but seriously, what else are you going to do? I found myself ruminating on this passage while walking through downtown Chicago. I passed by a beggar (maybe blind Bartimaeus, if not actually Jesus) and didn’t give him a dime, but I did reflect deeply on 1) my salutary Christian guilt over it and 2) every poverty activist who ever told me not to hand out cash to people on the street. Well managed, O Christian.

In some cases, texts like this one have inspired not management but amazing efforts to obey, like in the case of St. Anthony heading out into the desert. Such efforts have also produced amazing unintended side effects.

In the days of yore, some monastic orders would try to keep the price of their goods below that of other local producers so as not to earn a sinful profit. The result was destroying everyone else’s business, since consumers naturally preferred the monastery’s cheaper goods. (Contemporary monastic produce is very expensive, especially the beer, so they’ve apparently learned that lesson.) Or, as Peter Brown details in his aptly named Through the Eye of a Needle, pious wealthy Christians of the early church wished to launder their gains, ill-gotten or otherwise, by making huge donations to the church. Net result: an insanely wealthy church, with all the problems attendant thereon.

Who can argue with Jesus on this one? We know he’s right about the law and about the wealth. It’s the double-bind of our Christian formation: this lesson is so deeply internalized that it’s nearly impossible to hear it for the chasm in our lives of faith that it is.

What an odd advantage that rich young man had: being an attentive, devout, open-hearted keeper of a law that was intended to shield and uphold life, yet still ready to learn more from the Master. If only we were as ready and listened as well as he! He’s the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark singled out as being loved by Jesus. (In fact, the only other three uses of “love” in this Gospel appear in chapter 12 where Jesus quotes Leviticus and Deuteronomy in his summation of the law.) And this one dearly, uniquely loved person just walks away, “disheartened” and “sorrowful.” How terribly shocking to discover that, after all, you love your stuff more than you love eternal life. Mark seems to pause here in his relentless challenge to give a nod toward the tragedy that is the human being.

Is there any way to hear this text, and preach it, without management? Is there any way to resist the temptation to say, publicly or silently, “But Jesus doesn’t really mean that we should sell everything…”? Probably the only hope is to leave it as open-ended as Mark does.

We have no idea what became of the rich young man. He simply vanishes from the scene. Maybe he got more tight-fisted as he aged. Maybe he even gave up trying to keep the law since it was all rendered useless in the face of his greed. Or maybe he was in the crowd at the foot of the cross, or a hearer on the day of Pentecost; maybe he became an unsung evangelist.

We have no more idea what happened to him than to the women who fled in “trembling and astonishment” from the empty tomb. And yet — those women must have told somebody, finally, or we wouldn’t know about them at all. That ending is Mark’s invitation to us to confess despite fear, as the women ultimately did. In the same way, the unresolved ending of the rich young man may invite us all to obedience yet unknown.