October 8, 2018 by
David Jackson in
Reflections on Sunday Gospels
This section of Mark’s Gospel consists of three units on wealth and the kingdom: 1) the story of the rich man, 2) Jesus’ instruction to the disciples, 3) Jesus teaching about rewards for giving up riches.
1) The story of the rich man. Here the man takes the initiative: runs to Jesus, kneels down, questions Jesus. This man is trying to impress Jesus with the compliment, “Good Teacher”. He expects a title greeting in return. But Jesus answers with no title at all, and this response can indicate irritation in the Gospels. Before answering his question Jesus reminds him that “no one is good but God alone.” Before seeking an answer to what we must do, we must believe that we live in the sight of a God of incomparable goodness. Only at that point does Jesus remind the young man of the commandments of that ‘good God’.
The commandments that Jesus lists deal with treatment of neighbor. These are the commandments that a powerful rich man would not observe. It is easy enough to observe one’s ritual obligations towards God and Church and deal unjustly and sinfully with one’s weaker neighbor.
The rich man replies, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” The rich man seems to calmly put himself in rather exalted company. In the Talmud, Abraham, Moses, and Aaron are reported to have kept the whole law.
Jesus looking upon him loved him. This is the only place in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is said to have loved some individual. This is the first movement from Jesus towards the rich man. To this point all the initiative has come from the man himself. He is quite capable of doing everything that he sets out to do and having the means to do it. He clearly wants to achieve eternal life by his own efforts. His focus is on the future. Jesus tells him that he must give up his two primary values, property (sell everything) and family (follow me). Jesus is telling him he cannot earn his way into God’s graces. There is an impossible tension here between making it on one’s own and accepting grace. This is the tension-impossibility that is captured in the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle.
The rich man’s response when confronted by what Jesus is asking: “his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had great possessions.” He seems to be “possessed by his possessions.”
A consideration of the other call stories in Mark helps us to understand this story. In the other stories Jesus takes the absolute initiative, the call of Simon and Andrew and James and John, 1:16-20; and the call of Levi the tax collector 2:13-17. In neither of these does he propose the need to “sell everything and give to the poor¼” This demand is only here with the rich man. In fact in the story of John 21 the apostles return to the lake where they were called and resume their fishing.
Here we have a man who is used to deciding his own destiny because he has the power and wealth to do it. “What must “I” do to inherit eternal life?” He is blocked from a total commitment to Jesus because he wants to control his destiny as he always has. For this man his wealth stands in the way of his following of Jesus. He wants “to do” not “receive.”
The contrast in this story between his coming to Jesus and his leaving Jesus is strong. In the beginning he comes running with enthusiasm, he kneels. Questioning, he greets Jesus.
In the Middle Jesus looked on him with love.
At the end the man’s face fell and he went away very sad.
2) In this story Jesus is challenging their understanding that riches were a blessing or sign of God’s favor. Wealth can be an obstacle to discipleship. “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples were amazed at his words.”
“So Jesus again said to them¼” ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, ‘Then who can be saved?’” The parable of the Camel and the eye of the needle is a concrete picture of something impossible. There is a reference in Jewish literature also to an elephant passing through the eye of a needle. Some see the needle as a reference to a gate in the Jerusalem wall. This is highly unlikely. The parable deliberately presents a concrete picture of something quite impossible. There is an impossible tension between making it on one’s own and accepting grace, between riches and entering the kingdom of God. This is the tension-impossibility that is captured in the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle.
3) The rewards of discipleship are infinitely greater than the sacrifices. Jesus responds and confirms that the kingdom has boundless rewards for those who respond in obedience with no thought of rewards. Peter in the name of the apostles states: “We have given up everything and followed you.” (There is such a sharp contrast with the Rich Young man who cannot leave possessions and follow.) They are living examples of the miracle of which Jesus speaks, “with men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” The rewards are for this time and the age to come, rewards for now and the future. They will receive eternal life, they cannot earn it. There is also an emphasis on assurance in the text. No one who has responded to the call to obedience will be left out.
For this man, wealth was his obstacle to following Jesus. What is my obstacle? The Judge Kavanaugh hearings have brought forth quite a bit of discussion on “white privilege”, Male domination, “entitlement”, “lying”. One focus of the conversation between Jesus and the rich man may also bring up “consumerism”. Affluence represents a monstrous barrier between peoples. Addictions are also obstacles. When the disciples protest “who then can be saved? they expose their assumption that wealth was a sure sign of God’s favor–a perception that also prevails in American piety. One commentator states: “Certainly in the culture and religion of capitalism any economic model that has been predicated upon redistributive justice has been considered heresy.” There seems to be plenty of evidence that in some circles religion has taken on the values of the world rather than religion influencing the values of the world. I’m afraid that much of the opposition to Pope Francis is rooted in this reality.
(A couple of helpful resources for this story: The Living Voice of the Gospel by Maloney, pp. 56ff. Through Peasant Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey, pp. 157-170), Chapter 14 of “Say to this Mountain.”)