Pentecost 20: 14 October Mark 10:17-31
A rich man approaches Jesus with considerable reverence. A superficial reading might applaud. Hailing the worth of Jesus, whether in action, song or symbol, is common enough in the Christian tradition. It is salutary to be reminded that it is possible to do so and miss the point about Jesus. At least he came to the right person and asked the right question: what do we have to do to inherit eternal life? The expression, ‘inherit eternal life’, even displays an awareness that eternal life was what the God of Israel promises. To want what God wants is surely the way to go.
Jesus’ reply is somewhat abrupt. In a way that does not sit comfortably with the way Christian tradition developed, Jesus deflects attention from himself to God. It is also atypical of many who receive such questions and enjoy the power and privilege of knowledge and wisdom. It is a good feeling to be able to answer questions. Not so Jesus. He makes God, God; - God, alone. Mark would surely not have thought that Jesus was confessing to not being good, although Matthew, fearing such a reading, reworked the interchange (19:17). Rather Mark reports Jesus putting God first, in fact echoing the great ‘Shema’, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one and you shall love the Lord your God...’(Deut 6:4-5). Effectively Jesus is also drawing the man’s attention to the first half of the decalogue before citing the second half in his reply.
Jesus’ direct answer to the man’s question comes in 10:19-20. It is a loosely formulated list of the key ethical commands in the ten commandments, with one about not defrauding, not original to the 10, thrown in. Jesus or his story teller was not obsessed with exact quotation in using scripture, but with substance. ‘You shall not’ becomes simply, ‘Do not..’ (though NRSV smooths out this difference and translates as 'you shall not'). It is a good answer - at least, from the perspective of the man, because it enabled him to affirm that he kept them all from his youth. That was an admirable effort. Jesus looked on him lovingly.
The story might have ended there except for Jesus’ comment which subverts the sense of satisfaction - spoils the nice scene. Obviously Jesus did not understand love as implying avoidance of issues, as too frequently happens. Out of love he challenges the man. One thing is missing. This hardly refers to a commandment that Jesus has left out - like ‘Do not covet’, because it is Jesus who would have missed it out, not the man! Many find what is missing in what follows and this must surely be true, but how are these words to be understood?
Is Jesus saying that to gain eternal life the man must now do 3 things: keep the commandments, sell his goods, giving the proceeds to the poor, and thirdly follow Jesus? If that were so, then Jesus is being rather unfair telling him that the way was to keep the commandments. It would still imply something is missing from Jesus’ answer. Was Jesus playing games with the man, setting up salvation by works only to knock it down? Hardly. Rather, Jesus’ challenge to the man to sell possessions, give to the poor and follow him, was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments. Admirable as his effort had been, he had missed the point of the commandments. Jesus’ challenge exposed what was missing: a sense of compassion for the poor. The man needed to understand (follow) the commandments the way they are truly to be understood, the way Jesus interpreted them, not as a series commands to be obeyed or boxes to be ticked. He then needed to follow Jesus, not as an alternative to the commandments, but as the way of understanding them and the scripture. Sadly, it is possible to go through life never doing anything wrong - and never doing anything good or generous. Following Jesus means engaging the tradition and engaging life in a way that makes a difference.
At the heart of the passage are a number of fundamental issues: how we understand scripture, how life looks when we have eternal life (it means compassionate action for the poor), and what devotion to Jesus means.
Behind the passage is doubtless the kind of encounter Jesus had with some people. He did not call all who joined his movement to leave their possessions and join him on the road, travelling with common purse. Most stayed put at home in their towns. But for all, the tradition of Israel and its hope has at its heart: good news for the poor. With or without possessions, when people who want to revere Jesus are not good news for the poor, one thing is missing, one very big thing.
The remainder of today’s passage contains sayings now attached to the anecdote which reflect further on wealth and especially on the plight of the disciples. Mark 10:23-25 has the famous camel saying. Riches so easily blind people to the vision of the kingdom and make them deaf to the cry of the poor.
Mark 10:26-27 read almost as if they were interpolated by us! We can breathe more easily. Escape! But they can also reflect a profound realisation. The rich-poor divide is nothing short of overwhelming, so much so that we often find ways of denying it and explaining it away. That is not the way here. The deceit of wealth is almost inescapable; the burden of guilt, both individual and corporate, impossible. It is healthier to face these realities than to pretend. Only then can we move away from attempts at self justification or making amends to the kind of grace which says: leave that preoccupation with yourself behind, believe in grace, be set free from all of that, so now you can live the life of love and compassion. We are much more use to people and ourselves when that happens.
Peter is realistic: what about those of us who have abandoned everything? It is not difficult to imagine that there would have been many first century Peters asking this question and we also have the answer with which they comforted themselves: a new family (though with affliction thrown in!) and eternal life in the age to come, an echo of the rich man’s original question. I hope those Peters really did find their Christian colleagues and family as positive as that.
Is it out of place to have these very human concerns tagged to the end of the passage? There is a long tradition of ministers and priests believing they must suppress their anxieties. It becomes dangerous for them and for others. Good on Peter for saying it! The answer here may or may not work, but it is good to have the question aired. There is something refreshingly honest about it. What about us? Perhaps there is also a connection between suppressing one’s own inner cries and blocking one’s ears to the cries of others. It comes back again to the impossible and that is often our fear. Fear, suppressed, blinds and when we cannot see ourselves, we will often have as much difficulty also really seeing others. The appendix to the anecdote helps us address the paralysis. With God it really is possible to face reality.
The first will be last and the last first (10:31) as the norms which keep the powerful in place and the poor, poor, and which do not let our poverty meet our wealth in ourselves and in our world, are subverted.
Epistle: Pentecost 20: 14 October Hebrews 4:12-16