17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said 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 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” ~ Mark 10:17-27
My wife is a historian at Westmont College and teaches a variety of courses, like World History. In one of her lectures she begins a discussion on the Renaissance by introducing students to Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) and asks a deceptively simple question: “What do you see that is Renaissance?”
The students point out learned men with books and instruments. They notice objects like a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other scientific instruments as well as others objects revealing a unique moment in European culture and art.
On the surface they see a beautifully detailed Renaissance painting (perspective, realism, humanism and new learning) but my wife then points out that if they will pay more careful attention an even richer piece of art begins to emerge that illustrates a more complicated historical drama of discord, division, religious wars, and death.
- A crucifix is half-obscured by a green curtain in the top left corner of the painting, symbolizing the division of the church due to the Protestant Reformation.
- A broken string on the lute symbolizes ecclesiastical discord.
- The open book of music next to the lute is a Lutheran hymnal, and the book of mathematics, to its left, is open to a page titled “Dividirt” or “divide” in Latin.
- Finally, there is the anamorphic skull. While its skewed
Our story today in Mark is like that painting. It intends to be a rich and realistic depiction of discipleship, focused on wealth, while at the same time expressing a no-less-important symbolic seriousness about the kingdom of God and the challenge of following Jesus. It is, by Jesus’ own admission, a life that is both “impossible” and “possible” (vs. 27).
And like Holbein’s painting, I want to walk you through some of the details, a few of the subtleties, ask some questions, and look at it with a sideways glance, so that we, like the disciples in our story, can be “amazed.” Let’s tour this richly detailed, impossible “what!?” together step-by-step.
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
· Everywhere else in Mark when a person kneels down toimplore Jesus, they are asking for healing for themselves or for someone else. Is Mark depicting this scene as a healing and inviting us to do the same? Perhaps, we are asked to imagine that the man is sick and just doesn’t know it. Looked at this way, the story aims to expose sickness. Perhaps Jesus’ words are a radical diagnosis of a deep-seated illness and need. What would it mean to hear this story not as “try harder” but “be healed”?
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.
· Why does Jesus object to being called “good”? Does he think the man is merely trying to flatter him? Possibly, but I wonder instead if Jesus is suggesting that something is amiss with the man’s question itself. Once you imagine that eternal life is something you inherit or earn by being good, you’re already misdiagnosing the problem. No one is good -- that is, really and truly whole -- apart from God. It’s interesting that we currently use the word “good” to mean that we need nothing. Yet, we are all tragically broken, incapable of fixing ourselves. Which means both that no one is “good enough” to inherit eternal life and that entering the kingdom is finally not about “being good” in the first place.
19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
- Is the man overconfident in his ability to keep the commandments? Is he smug, self-satisfied, or self-righteous? Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. Not only are the commandments considered in Judaism absolutely “do-able,” but Jesus seems to accept his statement at face value. Jesus does not devalue the commandments but starts by naming them as important elements. Rules are an important part of life, Jesus says. We will see, however, that they are not sufficient to constitute a relationship. One can keep them and still not follow Jesus.
- However, there is another interesting point. All of the commandments that Jesus recites have to do with human beings in relationship with each other. The first four commandments that address a human being’s relationship with God are not mentioned. Yet one command is different: “You shall not defraud” (v. 19). “Do not defraud” replaces the last commandment: “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Neither Luke nor Matthew includes it in their versions of this story. Is the switch maybe Mark’s way of identifying the motive behind coveting? Is he pointing out the root cause of fraudulent economic practices? This change only exists in Mark’s Gospel. Or, is Mark providing an explanation for how the man acquired his fortune and indicting an economic system that takes advantage of the least in its society?
- If fraudulent practices are indeed the source of the man’s wealth, the man does not acknowledge it nor does he even recognize it as such. Instead, he insists that he has “kept” them all since he was young. Regardless, whether his wealth is legitimate or not, it does not have the power to purchase what he seeks.
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
· Jesus loves this man. He’s the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark singled out as being loved by Jesus. He does not treat him poorly or mock him. Every interpretation we may offer must therefore take seriously Jesus' absolute regard and unconditional love for this man, whether guilty or not.
· Despite being loved by Jesus (or is it because of it), Jesus confronts this man with a demand which he has not made on his other wealthy followers, such as the hospitable family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42; John 12:1-3), the wealthy wife of Chuza (Luke 8:3), the “rich man” Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57), or even Zacchaeus, who gave away only half his wealth plus restitutions (Luke 19:8). This is the only time in Mark's Gospel that Jesus makes such a demand about possessions. Although he calls everyone to radical renunciation (8:34-37; 10:28-31), the particularities of discipleship vary across the Gospel. And he is not asked simply to give away his wealth, but to give it to the poor (not the church either, mind you). Implied is the importance of sharing in the hardships and need of one's fellow human beings is a part of life in the kingdom.
· I have sometimes been asked by people, even nonbelievers, that if they follow Jesus will they also be required to sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. And I tell them, “Maybe. Talk to Jesus.” I like the comment made by my former colleague at Westmont College Dr. Bob Gundry: “That Jesus did not command all his followers to sell all their possessions gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command.”22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
· Despite being uniquely loved by the Jesus, the man just walks away. How terribly shocking to discover that a dearly loved one can walk away – even from Jesus. Mark seems to pause here in his relentless challenge to give a nod toward the tragedy of discipleship.
· What is the challenge of discipleship? “Sadness.” The mandeparts Jesus, “sad, because he had great wealth.” We don’t know exactly what happens with the rich man after this exchange; does he weep and then go and sell what he has and follow Jesus, or does he stop following Jesus and go to tend his possessions? The text does not say. I want to suggest that this is intentional, leaving the tension for the reader to wrestle with herself. And at the core of that wrestling, is the problem of “sadness,” and discipleship, the challenge of emotional investment in things other than Jesus. Here’s the thing. You will experience “sadness” when you follow Jesus. He will rightly look you in the eye and name that thing that owns you, that “because” which you don’t want to give up. It’s not a question of “if” but of “when.” Mark’s question could be put this way: “When Jesus makes you sad, will you walk away too?”
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said 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.”
- For centuries, many Christians have tried to make the impossible possible by means other than God’s grace. A
- The rich man is not the only one who is shocked by Jesus’ pronouncement (verses 22, 26). So also are all those within earshot. Given that wealth was considered a sign of blessing in the first century (as well as, I'd argue, in the twenty-first), Jesus words to this man and his later statement about the difficulty the rich will have in entering the kingdom are alarming.
- Why, precisely, is it difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom (verse 24-25)? Is it the temptation to believe that one is made self-sufficient by one's wealth with no need for God or others? Is it that one is desensitized to one’s own needs as well as those of others by wealth? Can it be that wealth in some way distances us from one of the elements of being human itself -- that is, the inescapable dimension of being dependent on others? I don’t think that Jesus is teaching that wealth is evil but I do know this – it’s dangerous.
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
- The disciples are shocked by Jesus’ pronouncement and
- Maybe, then, this passage is not so unique in its demands, for it is not that different from other passages in which Jesus describes a life of discipleship, such as 8:34-37. The rich man's story and Jesus' over-the-top joke of a camel and a needle remind us that all aspects of what it means to follow Jesus should rankle our deeply ingrained instincts toward self-preservation and security. Jesus does not try to deprive the rich man of his money and power. He asks for more. He tries to claim the man's very own self. And in return promises the impossible.
- If that’s true then my failure is more than a “won’t” but a “can’t” and the answer is not so much more “sacrifice” but more “surrender.”