Mark 10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Mark 10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Mark 10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.
The three scenes here are joined by the themes of wealth and poverty. The opening story of the rich man is itself a threefold warning. At a first level, it is a warning against the hindrance of riches. At the same time, this “failed vocation story” is the only example of a potential disciple who comes on his own initiative and not at Jesus’ behest. Thirdly, it shows Jesus putting his finger unerringly on the gap between aspiration and reality in this person’s life. This penetrating discernment helps the man see that he is not really as “gospel greedy” as his words profess. The subsequent scenes then take up the issue of wealth in general (the rich) and in particular (the disciples).
Kind of writing
The three connected scenes start with a chreia, an anecdote with gestures and words. The second and third scenes pursue the theme of discipleship from two opposing perspectives: the perspective of hindrance and the perspective of freedom. There is also a frame: eternal life in v. 17 and v. 30.
Old Testament background
The Ten Commandments lie in part behind this text (see Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21).
On the topic of wealth, the Old Testament shows ambivalence. On the one hand, wealth and wellbeing are signs of God’s blessing and a reward for fidelity (Ps 24:1; Isa. 45:14; 60:5, etc.). On the other hand, wealth leads to greed, treachery and oppression (2 Sam. 12:1-14; Isa. 10:3; Jer. 5:27; 17:3; Ezek. 7:11; Hos. 12:8; Mic. 6:12). There is a gradual crescendo of critique against wealth in the Hebrew Bible, mainly on the grounds that the few wealthy have become rich at the expense of the many poor.
New Testament Foreground
Across the New Testament, there is strong critique of wealth. The real problem here is putting possessions rather than God at the centre of your life.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:21)
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matt 6:24)
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6:24)
But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Tim 6:9–10)
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (Jas 5:1–6)
Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. . . . So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:25–33)
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:7–11)
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2Corinthians 8:9)
Verse 17 The journey is the way to Jerusalem, the way of discipleship. “Teacher” is a regular and respectful address in Mark (Mark 4:38; 5:35; 9:17, 38; 10:17, 20, 35; 12:14, 19, 32; 13:1; 14:14). Verse 18 This unsettling response would never have been composed by early Christians and is, therefore, very likely to be historical. Verse 19 A selection of the commandments. Verse 20 The claim is not proud but may show a disarming keenness and even an endearing naivety. Verse 21 The love of Jesus sees the potential and the blockage. This discernment is penetrating and hits the man very hard. Verse 22 Finally, he realises that the demands of discipleship are too much for him and he goes away sad but goes away nonetheless. Verse 23 The transition to the general discussion is both smooth and challenging. Verse 24 They are perplexed because abundance was also a sign of blessing from God. The difficulty of entering the kingdom is made even more general, because the word “wealth” is now omitted. Verse 25 The metaphor raises the critique from difficulty to practical impossibility. The metaphor stands as a grotesque exaggeration—we may imagine it being said with a smile. (In the past, there was a baseless hypothesis that one of the gates of Jerusalem was very narrow and camels could squeeze through by kneeling and off-loading their “baggage”! There is no evidence in archaeology for this moralising interpretation.) Verse 26 This triggers a natural response from the disciples. Verse 27 The teaching here is deep with implied meaning: if we allow God to work on us. The man in the story was put into a critical position of choosing and he chose not to attend to Jesus’ discernment of his heart. There is, indeed, a choice to be made. Verse 28 This is the opposite case, so to speak, but no less penetrating. Verse 29 The description takes in all kinds of backgrounds to discipleship. The list may reflect more widely early Christianity and the division of family created (see Luke 14:25-33). The key is “for my sake and for the sake of the good news” Verse 30 A double shock: “now in this age” and “with persecutions”. Early Christianity was not as family-friendly as some of our contemporaries like to imagine. It furnished instead an alternative family (“fictive kinship”), with the typical language of brother and sister for insiders. It remains true to this day that within the family of the faith it is possible to speak of things close to our hearts in ways impossible with our blood family.
Pointers for prayer
1. We often get satisfaction from the things we own, clothes, cars, homes, gadgets, or money. There would be something unnatural if we did not. But what happens to us when our possessions begin to ‘own’ us, when they take a hold us, when we become obsessed with them? Jesus seeks followers who have the freedom to let go of possessions in order to be a servant of others. In whom have you seen this freedom? When have you experienced it yourself? 2. Growth implies change. That change sometimes means letting go of something we have at this moment: job, status, home, security, or something else we value. There can be an apparent loss in letting go but when have you found that you gained by having the freedom to let go of something you had previously clung to? 3. The disciples thought that Jesus was making impossible demands of people following him. He acknowledged that discipleship was impossible to us on our own efforts alone. How have you experienced the benefits of the help of others and of God when you were faced with difficulties in life?
God of wisdom, whose word probes the motives of our hearts, with you all things are possible. Let worldly treasure not keep us from Jesus who looks on us with love.
Free us to leave all things and follow him, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day and prayer
We all have our own “emotional programmes for happiness.” These are are part of who we are from a very young age, structured around what was happening then in our lives. To continue in these attitudes well beyond the need for them is the common human experience. At the same time, the call to be fully alive entails some kind of conversion, some kind of letting go. Commonly, something triggers this growth and we become aware the hitherto unrecognised blocks. We may even have the help of someone like Jesus to put his/her finger on the hidden hesitations. Prayer God of freedom, you desire nothing more than our strongest love, coming freely from within. For freedom Christ has set us free. Help to recognise how much we are still bound and blind.