B Y J O H N C. H O L B E R T
In this brief section of Mark’s Gospel we find four separate pieces of story and teaching that Mark splices together to again confront the readers with the strict and all- encompassing demands of discipleship. The section begins as “someone” ran up to Jesus, “knelt before him,” and questioned him, “Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life” (Mark 10:17)? More famously in Matthew and Luke, this “someone becomes “a ruler,” hence the more familiar designation, “the rich young ruler.” The fact that Mark suggests that he is simply a man with money perhaps makes him out to be a better representative of the teaching goal of the gospel that includes not only rulers and leaders, but anyone who would follow Jesus.
The man’s question is interesting in at least three ways. He calls Jesus, “good teacher,” and Jesus’s immediate reply that “no one is good but God alone,” may indicate that the man begins his query with a patent attempt to flatter Jesus the teacher. After all, his desire for eternal life appears urgent and nearly desperate. Also, the posture of kneeling before Jesus demonstrates that the man imagines Jesus to be little less than divine in his teaching, the fully appropriate one to answer his burning question. Lastly, he desires certainty in this matter of inheriting eternal life. As his response to Jesus in vs.20 implies, he has been a faithful follower of the commandments of God his entire life, but still fears that he is missing something in his earnest quest to inherit the promise of eternity. Many have suggested that the man is after a certainty that is not possible to attain, and that he is disingenuous in his request. I do not think that is necessarily the way to read him; he may be quite sincere in his conviction that his life-long attempts to follow God are still not quite enough.
Jesus answers his question at first in the way a 1st century Jewish teacher would be expected to answer: he points to the final six commandments found among the famous Mosaic Ten. Yet, he does not precisely quote the commandments, as a certain kind teacher might be expected to do, but instead offers suitable variations, given the specific concern of the man who is kneeling before him. He does not give the commandments in order, but places the fifth one concerning honoring father and mother last, and he alters the commandment against coveting to “do not defraud,” perhaps implying a meaning of depriving one of property, an example of coveting significant for a man of wealth. Placing the commandment to honor parents last is unusual, perhaps harking back to Jesus’s announcement earlier in the gospel about his true father and mother and siblings being found in the community of his followers, this emphasizing to the kneeling man that the community he wishes to enter is much more diverse and unusual than he may expect. Upon hearing Jesus’s answer to his question, the man replies with genuine joy and some relief: “Teacher, I have observed all these things since I was a child” (Mark 10:20)! Whew, he thinks. I thought this eternal life stuff would be hard, he surmises, that the famous teacher would add requirements that I was not ready to fulfill. The reader might picture the man preparing to race off and continue life as he has lived it, now content that eternal life is certainly assured. But as he turns to go, Mark cleverly writes, “Jesus loved him at first sight” (a translation that combines the two verbs “looked” and “loved”), and adds the infamous kicker, “You are missing one thing: Go, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and (then) you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come and follow me!” The implication for the rich man, and for us, is that following Jesus is no walk in the park, no stroll up the lane to heaven. It is demanding; it requires change; it suggests true repentance, a turning around and a turning away from the familiar and the comfortable. For those with wealth, it is especially painful.
Consequently, upon hearing this, the rich man was “stunned,” and left Jesus “dejected,” because he had a whole lot of stuff. Jesus’s love of the man was real, but that love did not prove itself by affirming the man’s vast wealth, nor his life-long fulfillment of the commandments of God. That love moved Jesus to demand that the man divest himself of the obvious impediment to his ability to follow Jesus into the rule of God, a rule that cannot accept the wealth of the few at the expense of the many.
The teacher immediately springs the meaning of the tale all have just witnessed, observing the dejected rich man retreating down the road, away from Jesus and his disciples. “How difficult it is for those who have money to enter God’s rule (God’s domain, God’s kingdom)” (Mark 10:24). And the disciples were “amazed at his words,” often Mark’s way of saying that once again they were confused! So, Jesus says it again, speaking this time more generally, “Children, how difficult it is to enter God’s rule! Why, it is easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye, than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain” (Mark 10:24-25)! This ubiquitous saying has brought forth the most hilarious explanations over the centuries from those who simply cannot imagine that Jesus might have been a master of satire and hyperbole as teacher. Surely, he did not mean camel, some say, since the word for “rope” is quite close to that of “camel.” And obviously, others say, “the eye of the needle” must have been a nickname for one of Jerusalem’s gates, making the entry of a loaded camel into the city difficult but finally not impossible, or if “rope” is meant, surely the needle must be an instrument with a very large eye, making the rope’s movement though it difficult, but not finally impossible. “What fools these scholars be,” if I may use and slightly change a famous line from Shakespeare.
The point is that getting into the domain of God is flat-out impossible for any of us, but particularly for those of us who have vast riches. The disciples, quite rarely for them, get it, when they shriek, “Well then, who can be saved” (Mark 10:26). The obvious answer is no one, and that implication makes the disciples, and us, distinctly uncomfortable. And when Jesus looks them, and us, squarely in the eye, and says, “For mortals it is impossible,” all of our hearts sink, as it appears that we are doomed to stand outside of God’s domain looking in. But, fortunately for us, Jesus quickly adds, but it is not impossible for God; after all everything’s possible for God” (Mark 10:27)!
But the answer is clearly not enough for old Peter, who cries out what many of us are thinking. “Look at us, Jesus. We have left everything to follow you” (Mark 10:28)! We have obviously answered your call. Not only have we followed all those commandments, but we have done all that you have asked of us. Surely, surely, we have a reserved one-way ticket to God’s domain!
Right you are, says Jesus! I swear to you that no one who has left home, or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or farms on my account and on account of the good news, who will not receive a hundred times as much now, in the present time, homes, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and farms— along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Jesus was doing so well with his answer to Peter’s desperate request for assurance that his life with Jesus will receive an appropriate reward both now and in the future, that his relinquishment of his former life, unlike the actions of the rich man, we can almost see that growing smile on the old fisherman’s face. But Jesus just had to throw in that tint and terrible idea about “persecutions” to remind all of those who would follow him that not all will be ease and comfort on the way to God’s domain. Eternal life may come, and the joys of community now may appear, but there will be trials and pain and demanded change for all of us who wish to follow this one to his end. Mark is simply never willing to sugarcoat the road to God’s rich world, and those of us with money can expect not to buy our way into that world. The implication is crystal clear. Wealth is a huge problem when it comes to God’s desires for the kingdom, and those of us who are blessed with such wealth, in the face of the many with so little, need to heed this amazing story far more than we do. I preach to myself in this, but the rest of you may listen in as you will.
About John C. Holbert
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics Emeritus, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX. He has written 11 books, mainly concerned with the intersections between the Hebrew Bible and preaching. He has preached and/or taught in over 1000 churches and conference settings in 45 states and 20 countries.