by Brian Stoffregen
Scripture: St. Mark 10: 17-31
It will be hard to deal with this text without "meddling". That's what happens when preachers start talking about money rather than just proclaiming the gospel. <g>
However, one cannot escape talking about money in the proclamation of the Gospel, because Jesus often talks about money -- usually as a negative power in one's life. "You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matt 6:24b). Money can become a threat to God's sovereignty.
It may be that the central question of this text is the one presented by James Hudnut-Beumler in Generous Saints: Congregations Rethinking Ethics and Money:
The time is ripe for congregations to rethink their understandings of how we ought to live faithfully in a material world. The Christian tradition teaches that we are created to be generous in spirit and called to become more holy throughout our lives. The central question of this book therefore involves ethics and money: How shall we live with what we have? Or, as I like to put the same question: How do we live up to our calling to be generous saints? [p. ix]
The first part of our text is an illustration of the seed sown among the thorns. The man who comes to Jesus is someone who has heard the word, "but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing" (Mk 4:19).
R. T. France (The Gospel of Mark) includes these statements about the larger context under the idea of status. Women and children (from the previous pericope) had little or no status. A wealthy man had status. He "would surely have been seen as a most desirable recruit to the kingdom of God" (p. 399). Then he goes on to state: "Seen in that wider perspective, the story of the rich man is more than simply an expression of Jesus' attitude to wealth; it is part of a broader critique of conventional human values" (p. 399).
ON THE WAY (v. 17) (only found in Mark's account)
The NRSV's translation of "journey" in v. 17 and "road" in v. 32 misses a connection that Mark makes with hodos -- used in both verses. While the literal meaning of this word is "road," or "path" (4:4, 15), or the process of using a road = "travel" or "journey," it also takes on a figurative meaning of one's "way of life." Even more specifically, hodos became a title for the believers in Christ, "who belong to the Way" (Ac 9:2; also Ac 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14).
The Gospel of Mark begins with quotes about "preparing the way [of the Lord] (1:2, 3). Jesus is complemented that he teaches "the way of God in accordance with the truth" (12:14).
I think that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. This word is used in close proximity to all three passion predictions. Jesus is "on the way" when he asks his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" (8:27), which comes before the first prediction. It is "on the way" that the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest (9:33, 34), which comes after the second prediction. They are on their "way to Jerusalem when Jesus gives the third prediction (10:32).
If Mark intends hodos to remind us of Jesus' way -- heading towards the cross -- then we have the contrast between Jesus who is going to give up his very life for the sake of the gospel and the rich man who can't part with his possessions.
John and Sylvia Ronsvalle (At Ease: Discussing Money and Values in Small Groups) suggest that the giving away of money is giving of our selves.
For one thing, in a very real sense, our money is us. We have invested ourselves in some activity, mentally and/or physically, and in exchange received these pieces of paper. When we look at money, we are looking at our invested energy made tangible. In that sense, our money is our stored time and talent. Any discussion of money needs to recognize that we are not talking about stacks of bills or numbers on a page. At some deep level, discussing money taps into how we -- and our ancestors -- have invested our time and energy. There is a close personal identification that is tied up with our own sense of worth and how we are valued by others. [pp. 5-6]
ASKING FOR AN INHERITANCE? (v. 17)
I find it odd that anyone would ask what he must do to inherit something. Could you image going up to the richest man in the world and asking, "What must I do to inherit your great fortune? or even a small part of your fortune?" The answer would probably be, "Get out of here! You can do nothing. I don't know you. You're not related to me. You're not getting even one penny from me."
On the other hand, it is nearly as absurd for a child to ask a father, "Dad, what must I do to inherit part of your estate?" The answer would probably be, "You can't do anything. You are my child, so you will naturally inherit it. Your name has been in my will since the time of your birth."
A RELIGIOUS QUESTION?
Children often believe that if they want something bad enough from their parents, they can get it. Perhaps they believe that if they just say the right words -- especially "please" and "thank you" -- that will make their parents give them what they want. If those words don't work, perhaps whining and pouting a lot will win them over; or promising to be a good and helpful child for the rest of their lives will be the proper words that will melt their parents hearts.
Sometimes it's not words, but actions that children believe will get them their desired things. When parents discover that children have cleaned up their rooms without any coaxing, they know that those children want something. If the children have cleaned up the whole house; washed, waxed, and vacuumed all the cars; swept out the garage; and have dinner in the oven -- then parents know that the children want something really big and important.
These are examples of "religious" deeds. Religions are our human attempts to get God on our side and to do something for us. Some religions stress saying the proper words, reciting the correct creed, or proper confessions of faith. Some religions stress worshiping the right (or rite) way. Some religions stress doing or living the right way. Whether it is "creed, cult, or conduct" (terms from Robert Capon), or all three, religions are our human attempts to get God on our side and to get God to do what we desire.
I think that this type of "religious" mindset is behind the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life.
I think that this type of "religious" mindset was behind the man's understanding of wealth. One of the ancient keys to knowing whether or not God was on your side was success -- especially financial success. The fact that rich people were rich was proof that God was on their side. If you had good crops, many children, healthy bodies and minds, good friends, money in your pocket -- these were all interpreted as signs that God was on your side and that God had given you what you desired.
This interpretation of "blessedness" was particularly true among those religions that do not have an afterlife, e.g., the Jewish Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection from the dead.
Sometime in my past I read this quote from Will Campbell (but I don't know where it comes from):
Religion has always been with us.
Without it there would have been
no reason for the coming of the Messiah
to put a stop to it.
In our text, Jesus puts a stop to a couple popular notions of religions: (1) That keeping the commandments grants one entrance into eternal life and (2) that personal wealth is a sign of God's favor.
I also think that the short discussion about "good" was an affront to the man who probably thought that he was a pretty good Jew. He had kept all the commandments since he was a young boy and his wealth could be perceived as a blessing from God because he was such a good guy. However, if only God is good, than we aren't.
Jesus derails us from our religious tracks of creed, cult, or conduct as ways of winning God's favors. Even with all the "good" this man thinks he has done, he doesn't measure up as "good" against God. Even by obeying all the commandments and being blessed with great wealth, that still doesn't make him good enough to inherit eternal life.
THE EXTRA COMMANDMENT!
Five of the commandments that Jesus mentions are in the Decalogue, (although "Honor your father and mother" -- last in our text -- comes before the other four). He omits the one (or two -- depending on how they are numbered) about coveting, which is concerned with thought rather than behaviors, and so it is not easily seen if obedience is part of one's moral conduct.
One of the commandments that Jesus quotes is not part of the "Ten:" "You shall not defraud." (Perhaps Jesus never had to memorize the Ten Commandments in order in a confirmation class.) Both Matthew (19:16-22) and Luke (18:18-23) omit this commandment in their versions.
The word translated "defraud" (apostereo) occurs seldom in the NT (1C 6:7, 8; 7:5; 1Ti 6:5). One definition is "to take something from someone by means of deception or trickery." The first two Corinthian passages indicate that this was a problem among believers in the early church. Another definition is "to deprive" without using deception or trickery, which is how it is used in the other two passages.
This word is used 8 times in the LXX. It is used in some commands. In Ex 21:20, a man is told that if he takes another wife, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.
This word is used in a variant reading of Dt 24:14: "You shall not defraud the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns."
The word is used in Mal 3:5 in much the same sense as Dt 24:14; cheating one's workers out of their wages.
The word occurs most often in Sirach, where it is used in reference of "cheating" or "depriving" the poor or employees of bread and wages (4:1; 34:25, 27). It is also used of those who borrow money and refuse the pay it back (29:6), and then of the fear of the lenders to lend money (29:7).
Why did Jesus (or more likely Mark) include this commandment in his list? Perhaps he wants to make it clear that this man did not become rich by cheating other people or short-changing his employees. (I've heard such prejudices against people who are rich.) He got his wealth honestly -- which could even increase the idea that it came as a blessing from God. Although, social-scientist tell us that wealth was seen as a finite commodity in the ancient world. If someone gained wealth, someone else had to have lost wealth. There was a limited amount of wealth to go around. The rich could only get richer if someone became poorer; and, the only way for the poor to gain wealth is for the rich to give up some of theirs.
THE LOOK (v. 21 only in Mark)
Jesus "looked" or "stared" at him (emblepo). This same word was used of the blind man. After the second touch, "his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly" (8:25). It is used of the servant girl who stared at Peter and knew the truth about him: He had been with Jesus. Peter denied it (14:67).
Jesus looks at this man and knows the truth about him. Jesus does the same thing a little later in our text with the disciples (10:27). Jesus sees that neither the rich man nor his disciples "get it." They still have the religious mindset that inheriting eternal life or entering eternal life or being saved is something we have to do. This is more than "looking at" someone; it is more like "looking into" someone's thoughts and feelings.
THE LOVE (v. 21 only in Mark)
This is the only place in the synoptics where we are told that Jesus loves a particular person. (John includes the unknown "disciple whom Jesus loved.") If this is what it means to be loved by Jesus, I'm not sure that I want it. The phrase, "You always hurt the one you love" comes to mind concerning Jesus' words to this man.
WHAT IS LACKING? (vv. 21-2)
Jesus says that there is one thing that he lacks. What is it?
Is he unable to sell all his possessions?
Is he unable to give to the poor? (Note that Jesus doesn't say that he has to give all that he had to the poor.)
Is he unable to leave his worldly life behind and come and follow Jesus?
Is he unable to do what Jesus asks because he has "many possessions" or because he is too attached to those possessions? What constitutes "many possessions" rather than having just enough? Probably most Americans have many more possessions than they need.
"How do we live up to our calling to be generous saints?" to repeat a question from my opening paragraphs.
Perhaps, as I indicated above, the problem was his attitude towards the "many possessions" -- that they were symbols of having been blessed by God. He couldn't give up these symbols of his "good" life in order to receive the heavenly treasure.
Do Jesus' words ever "shock" or "grieve" us? Are we willing to proclaim such a harsh word about discipleship and money that causes people to leave the church severely distress at Jesus' demands? Is it part of our calling as ministers to "meddle" in our members finances? How far along our spiritual path can we go without being "generous saints"?
HOW HARD? (vv. 23-24)
Twice in Mark (vv. 23-24), the hardness or difficulty of getting into the kingdom of God is stated. The first time is Jesus states that it is hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom. The word for "wealthy" (chrema) can mean an abundance of possessions, but it can also refer to specifically to money (see Ac 4:37; 8:18, 20; 24:26). These texts in Acts indicate that the selling of one's possessions and the turning over of the money to the church was part of the life of the early believers.
The second time Jesus states: "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God." This time the statement is addressed to everyone! Although some early copyists apparently didn't like the general tone of this statement and limited it to "those who trust in riches" (see footnote in NRSV). Is it hard for all people to enter the kingdom of God? Do the poor have an easier time than the rich? If so, why? Do adults have a harder time than children? If so, why? What happens if we boast about our poverty and think that we are better than those rich people?
Although different words are used (tekna in v. 24 and paidion in vv. 13, 14, 15), the image of "children" occurs in both contexts. The disciples are to be children if they wish to enter the kingdom of God.
How hard? It is as easy as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. There have different attempts at altering this metaphor. Some later manuscripts make a one letter change in the word for camel from kamelon to kamilon, which means "rope". (Both Greek words would have been pronounced the same kah-mee-lon.) The online Liddell-Scott-James Greek lexicon suggests that kamilos (=rope) is a word that was created to try and "correct" the difficulties in this text.
Another interpretation says that the "Needle's Eye" was the name of a small gate into the city of Jerusalem. This was the way one had to enter after the main gates were closed. In order for someone to get a camel through this small gate, the camel would have to be unloaded and bow down to get through the small door. There is no evidence that such a small door was ever called "the needle's eye". France (The Gospel of Mark) goes on to state:
But worse than the lack of evidence for this conjecture is its effect in actually undermining the point of the proverb. That which Jesus presented as ludicrously impossible is turned into a remote possibility: the rich person, given sufficient unloading and humility, might just possibly be able to squeeze in. That was not what Jesus' proverb meant, and it was not how the disciples understood it (v. 26). (p. 405)
These are attempts to "water" down the impossibility of getting a camel through the eye of a needle. We want to make the impossible possible for us to do. It could even be possible by dicing up a camel into very small pieces that we could shove it through the eye of a needle; but I don't think that that is what Jesus is talking about. Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) suggests that Jesus is "contrasting the largest animal and the smallest hole that an early Jew in Israel would likely think of" (p. 284).
The answer to "how hard?" is "It's impossible." Whenever we make it "possible" to do with enough work or sacrifice, we miss the radical nature of Jesus' comments; which were especially revolting because (1) it was naturally assumed that the wealthy were closer to God and were more likely to be saved than the common people and (2) it was naturally assumed that those who kept the commandments were closer to God and were more likely to be saved than the common people. The man in our text fulfilled both requirements -- but doesn't enter the kingdom -- at least not based on his righteousness or wealth.
POSSIBLE WITH GOD
It is interesting to listen to people's "God-talk" (theology). Do they talk about salvation as something God has done for them, i.e., God, in some form, being the subject of their sentences; or do they talk about salvation as something they have cooperated in achieving: "I," "you," or "we" being the subject of their sentences?
Examples of human possibilities: I have decided to follow Jesus. I love the Lord. I follow the teachings of Jesus. Etc.,
Examples of God doing the impossible: God decided to save me. God loves me. God accepts me. Jesus died for me. God forgives my sins. The Holy Spirit sanctifies me. Etc.
I think that the reason it is harder for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God than children is that the wealthy have usually been very successful in running their lives by themselves. They don't have to be dependent on anyone. They can buy it themselves. In contrast, young children know about being dependent on others. They know that there are many things beyond their abilities to do. Perhaps that's why it is easier for them to enter the kingdom. They know that they need help and are willing to accept it.
I don't know if it relates or not, but a friend commented that children learn to ski much faster than adults. According to him, the reason this is so is because children are not so embarrassed to fall down. They are willing to take risks. They are willing to make mistakes. Is that close to Luther's "sin boldly" idea? Could it be that adult novice skiers and adult Christians are too afraid of making a mistake to really enjoy the sport or the life God has given them?
THE DISCIPLES -- LEAVING EVERYTHING (vv. 28-31)
Earlier (3:32-35) Jesus had redefined his family. "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." For many of the first believers, following Jesus meant leaving everything behind. What one gained by leaving the biological family behind was the faith-community -- those who were doing the will of God.
In contrast to the disciples' actions, I don't know how many times I've heard church members state: "My family comes first." Can we state that if your family comes first, you are not fit for the kingdom of God? But then are we making entrance into the kingdom something that is possible for us to do?
Six years ago when I was working on this text, Ted Turner had just given $1 billion to the United Nations. On one hand that sounds very generous. On the other hand, he was not personally sacrificing anything. It was extra money that he had earned over 9 months through the stock market. He was giving away from his excess -- from funds that he didn't need. He is not a good model of biblical stewardship.
A dictionary definition of "sacrifice" is: "an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy." A key to a sacrifice is giving up something valued. We seldom are confronted with giving up things that we value for the sake of Christ who should be regarded as more important or worthy. How often are things donated to the church, things a family wants to get rid of -- something they no longer value? Such giving can't be called a "sacrifice".
Frequently testimonies talk about giving the worst things in one's life in order to follow Jesus, e.g., addictions, swearing, promiscuity, etc. In contrast, Paul's testimony in Philippians 3:4-11 indicates that he gave up the very best things in his life, the most righteous things in his life, for the sake of the gospel.
"with persecution" is a phrase that is added to be "benefits" one receives by giving up everything on account of Jesus and the gospel. This seems to imply that one of the things that we highly value that we need to give up may be personal pleasures. It means giving up "fitting into the dominant culture". While we don't seek persecution, I think that living faithfully can put us at odds with the status quo of society, and sometimes even of a congregation. Talking about money in church is "meddlin'". People don't like that.
What are some things that we value that Christ might ask us to give up in order to follow him? Soccer practices on Sunday? Watching football games on Sunday? Buying a new car?
However, if we are giving such things up only because we expect even greater things from following Christ, then we have probably haven't given up our most important possession, the control of our own lives and destinies.
QUOTES from Williamson (Mark Interpretation Commentaries)
Jesus' addressing his disciples as "children" is reminiscent of his teaching about children and the Kingdom of God in the preceding paragraph, even though a different Greek word is used. The relationship between 10:13-16 and 10:17-27 is one of contrast. The principle has been established (10:15) that one must receive the kingdom like a child. In 10:17-22, not only the rich man's question but also Jesus' answer focuses on what one must do. The material in 10:13-16 seems to depict entering the kingdom as easy and deplores any hindrance to it set up by the disciples. In 10:23-27 Jesus twice says, "How hard!", and then adds "with men, impossible ... but not with God; for all things are possible with God." These last words transform the contrast from a contradiction to a paradox. Entrance to the Kingdom of God, or eternal life, or salvation, so far from being easy, demands our best obedience and all we have. Yet all we can do is not enough to achieve the life we seek. Such life and wholeness is possible only for God, and we can receive it only as gift. Jesus' blessing of children (10:13-16) can be read as cheap grace. Jesus' call to the rich man (10:17-22) can be read as works salvation. Jesus' teaching to disciples (10:23-27) draws gift and demand together in a paradox that is astonishing but true. [p. 185]
In our efforts to take seriously Jesus' teaching, we institutionalize, generalize, or spiritualize the message of Mark 10:17-31, and in the process we may say many things that are true and helpful. Yet the tension of this radical text resists resolution in any way that removes its pressure on all disciples relative to wealth. After we have done our best to make this text say something less upsetting to our system of values, Jesus looks intently at us and continues quietly to affirm that life is to be had not by accumulating things, but by disencumbering ourselves. Contrary to the dominant voices of our culture, but in keeping with the entire section on discipleship in mark, this text proclaims the good news that the way to be really rich is to die to wealth.
If this message does not take our breath away, if we are not shocked, appalled, grieved, or amazed, we have either not yet heard it or heard it so often that we do not really hear it any more. [p. 188]
I know from experience that it is hard to preach sacrificial giving if the preacher isn't practicing it. It is nearly impossible for a congregation council to promote proportionate giving among members if they are not practicing it. Jesus could not have said these things to the rich man or his disciples if he were riding around in a Rolls Royce.
James R. Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) begins his comments on this section with: "The call to follow Jesus does not constitute an additional obligation in life, but rather judges, replaces, and subordinates all obligations and allegiances to the one who says, 'Follow me'" (p. 309). Someone else noted that many have turned Christianity into a hobby that's in competition with our other hobbies. Christianity is not a hobby among others, but a way of life.
The power of Jesus words come not just because he said them, but also because we know that he is on his way to give away all that he has -- his own life.
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