As he was setting out on a journey (on the way!), 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.
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.”
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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Rich Young Ruler Re-Interpreted
Jesus is met by a man on the way by a man with a request. Noting the absence of the crowds and mention of the disciples, cues that are often followed by trap of the Pharisees, we can assume that there is no trap in place. This could be a honest question and exchange.
This encounter has often been labeled as the story of the “rich young ruler,” but neither designation is made by Mark. There is something else at work that fits into Mark’s narrative flow.
A traditional greeting of honor is bestowed upon Jesus, but Jesus does not follow with a response that plays into social constructs. Myers cites Kenneth Baily for the cultural cues: “He tries to impress with a compliment and perhaps hopes to be greeted with a lofty title in return. In the Oriental (sic) world, one compliment requires a second…. This seems to be the tension of the text, because Jesus answers with not title at all (Myers, 272).”
The man’s question - “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” - is met by a quote from Jesus. This seems odd for Jesus, who usually turns the question around by asking another. The quote from the Law seems out of place, especially with no special instructions or comments. But there is something extra.
The phrase “you shall not defraud” is not part of the ten commandments. In this phrase lies the key to the exchange. The Biblical and cultural understands from Vincent Taylor are cited by Myers: “In the Greek Bible the verb is appropriated to the act of keeping back the wages of a hireling, where as in Classical Greek it is used of refusing to return goods or money deposited with another for safekeeping… (Myers, 272).”
The issue at the root of Jesus’ statement is economic. This seems odd until we recognize the the place of the man in the social structure of his time. In verse 22 we are told “he (the man) was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” In time and place we miss the nuance of what Mark is stating. We may think of material possessions - and rightfully so because of the translation - but the Classical Greek definition points to another reality. The word for possessions, ktema, has a root meaning of wealth tied up in property, land estates. It can also allude to flocks and herds. This man is a land owner, an apparently has a great deal of wealth wrapped up in land.
With this in mind we can begin to unpack the meaning of the exchange. The man responds that he has kept the commandments from an early age. He also misses that Jesus has added one to the list! Jesus’ response is straight forward, “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 (v. 21).” Jesus has told this wealthy land owner to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow. The idea of selling everything - assume all his land holdings - and giving to the poor takes us back to a conversation about agricultural politics in first century Palestine in chapter four. The full post can be read here.
Noting that Jesus him to give the proceeds to the poor, we can imagine that he is speaking of the poor farmers and share croppers who work the fields for the land owner. The relationship between landowner and worker could be tense, with the landowner extracting increasing amounts of the revenue and harvest to keep the workers in service -“wealthy landlords always extracted enough of the harvest to ensure that the farmer remained indentured to the land, strangling any prospects he might have to achieve even a modicum of economic security (Myers, 176).”
The power of Jesus’ statement now becomes clear: Go and sell the land that you have gained on the backs of your laborers, give the money back to those you defrauded in the process by not paying fair wages, and follow me. At this the man walks away, becoming the only one to directly reject Jesus in Mark’s story.
“As far as Mark is concerned, the man’s wealth has been gained by ‘defrauding’ the poor - he was not ‘blameless’ at all - for which he must make restitution. For Mark, the law is kept only through concrete acts of justice, not the facade of piety (Myers, 272).”
The Disciples’ Response
As the man walks away Jesus grieves the inability of the wealthy to enter the new social reality of the kingdom of God. The disciples do not understand and are troubled. What follows is an often misunderstood cultural statement about camels and the eye of a needle.
“The famous medieval assertion that the ‘eye of the needle’ referred to a certain small gate in ancient Jerusalem through which camels could only enter on their knees (!) is only one of the more obvious ways devised to rob this metaphor of its class-critical power… Mark’s stinging sarcasm is perhaps more recognizable in Frederick Buechner’s contemporary paraphrase: for wealthy north americans it is harder to enter the kingdom ‘than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank (Myers, 275).”
We could perhaps make a metaphor out of Warren Buffet and a debit card!
Jesus is being critical of those who have wealth because of how they engage the world. Jesus laments the wealthy because he recognizes that they are so often held captive by their wealth - they are unwilling to leave the security of their wealth and engage the risky life of discipleship.
“Mark has again (as in 10:15) used a statement about ‘entering the kingdom of God’ to reinforce his alternative ideology; solidarity with the ‘least’ is extended from the family system to the economic system (Myers, 275).” The new social reality called the kingdom of God takes a reorientation of priorities and how we engage the world. The accumulation of wealth at the expense of the well-being of the community has no place. Wealth can be an obstacle to the kingdom of God because it holds those who have accumulated wealth captive. When you place your trust in wealth enslaved to the maintenance, production, and growth of that wealth. As Jesus said back in chapter four - “…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 (4:19).”
The Parable of the Sower Complete
The final movement of this teaching session addresses Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God as a reality in the world. The disciples are still troubled and Peter vocalizes this issue - “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” The question of their engagement of life as disciples seems to have been called into question by Jesus’ lamenting the wealthy and their inability to follow.
Jesus clears this up by giving Peter, and the disciples, a glimpse of what they have already received through their following of Jesus - “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…”
Jesus tells his disciples that they have already received the hundred fold harvest of God’s kingdom, completing his interpretation of the parable of the sower - “And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold (4:20).”
The disciples had left their family systems, have heard the Word and followed. Along the way they have been received in many houses, by many new brothers and sisters, and fields (2:23). The hundredfold harvest of the Word sown in good soil is unfolding before their very eyes. It is growing in their lives.
The new social reality called the kingdom of God is not some distant future, promised to those who are “good.” It is an actualized reality, unfolding in our time and places. The hundredfold harvest unfolds in our spaces in contemporary times, we just need the eyes to see. We participate in the social reality of the kingdom of God as we continue to follow Jesus. We too receive many new houses, many new brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, and many new fields here and now.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- What holds us captive (wealthy, prosperity, social standing) from fulling living life as disciples?
- Where do we place our security in place of the new social reality called the kingdom of God?
- Where do we see the hundredfold harvest of the parable of the sower in our lives?