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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 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.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
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!’ 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! 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.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 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, 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
Translation: And when he was going out into (the) way, one ran, knelt down to him, (and) was asking him, "Good teacher, what might I do so that I might inherit eternal life?" But Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one (is) good except one, God. You know the commandments--do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and your mother."
But he was saying to him, "I have kept all these since my youth." But Jesus looked at him, loved him, and said to him, "You need one thing. Get up, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me." But he was sad at the word (and) he went away sorrowful for he was having abundant possessions.
And looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, "How difficult for the ones having possessions to enter into the kingdom of God." But the disciples were being astonished upon his words. But Jesus answered again (and) said to them, "Children, how hard it is to enter into the kingdom of God. It is easier (for) a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God."
But they were being exceedingly astonished, saying to themselves, "And who is able to be saved?" And Jesus looked upon them (and) said, "With people, impossible, but not with God, for all things (are) possible with God." But Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left all, and we have followed you." Jesus was saying, "Truly, I say to you, there is no one who left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands because of me and because of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now, in this special time, houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions, and in the eternal, the one coming, life eternal. But many will be first last, and the last first."
Background and situation: Jesus is "on the way" (hodon). For Mark, hodon is a technical term for following Jesus. It appears 17 times in Mark's gospel, the first at 1:2--right off the bat, in other words. In 12:14, the word's last appearance in Mark, it accompanies the question of whether or not Jesus thinks people should pay taxes to Caesar. Arguably, Jesus has been "on the way" all through Mark, which culminates in his confrontation with Caesar.
The text follows last week's lection (Mark 10: 2-16), Jesus' encounter with the pharisees over divorce and marriage, God's intention in creation, and the blessing of children.
"Good teacher": The lection begins with Jesus, again, "on the way"--NRSV: "journey." The "way" means the path of discipleship for followers of Jesus. They are to live in "the way," which, for Mark, is a journey through life that models the ministry of Jesus. You know it by its gender-equality, open table fellowship, help for the poor, hierarchical inversion, and affirmation of the dignity of all. (The first Christians were sometimes called "followers of the Way.")
A man runs up to Jesus, falls down on the ground and calls him "Good teacher." To this point, Jesus has been called "teacher" by disciples (4:38), "they" (5:35), "someone in the crowd" (9:17), and the disciple John (9:38).
This is not the what you might call the "highest theology" of Jesus in Mark. For Mark, the greatest honorific for Jesus is the Crucified Son of God who, paradoxically, reigns from the cross. Yet, Jesus is also "teacher" as well. He is so identified twelve times in Mark.
What is unusual here is that Jesus is called "good teacher". No person in Mark's gospel is ever described as "good." Jesus is abrupt with the man. "Why do you call me good?" he sniffs. "No one (is) good except One, God." This would have been a completely uncontroversial statement in Israel. It was common knowledge that only God was truly "good."
But wait. Isn't Jesus God? Shouldn't he be called "good" too? Shouldn't he have said, "No one is good but God and me"? This would have assauged the worries of later commentators who think Jesus should have been making sure that all the poor people of Galilee had a proper understanding of the intricacies of trinitarian theology.
The use of the word "One"--"no one is good except one, God"--suggests that Jesus has in mind the shema: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." Jesus asserts a strict monotheism. There's only one God. This also would have been uncontroversial. Every Jewish child could recite it. Why would Jesus allude to it here?
The man had asked an unusual question. He wants to know what he has to "do" to "inherit" eternal life. First of all, Jesus never cared much for these "what do I have to do?" questions. He appears to be almost cavalier in his disregard of it.
One the other hand, how might one understand the idea of doing something in order to "inherit"--kleronomos--eternal life? The resurrection of the dead was a relatively common belief in first century Israel. What must youdo to inherit it?
Jesus tells the man that he already knows the commandments, and then rattles them off. Yep, the man says, I can check all those off. I've done them all since I was a child. Having achieved a spiritual feat that only Moses and Abraham had been said to have achieved--keeping the whole law--the man can rightly, if immodestly, claim that he deserves whatever that brings.
Do not defraud: One wonders, though. When Jesus was running through the commandments, he included one that isn't actually in the commandments. It is "do not defraud"--me apostereses. This provision does not appear in any list of commandments, but does appear in Leviticus 19:13. The Hebrew word ashak means "to take advantage of, exploit, withhold something due." Another definition is "to take something from someone by means of deception or trickery." Do not cheat people out of their property, in other words.
Most of the people of Galilee were poor and getting poorer. Most of the people--90%--lived at a subsistence level even in good times. With the Roman conquest, and the increase in the power of the local aristocracy, even what little people had was being taken away. Sometimes, it was taxes that did them in. (The total tax bill could run up to half of one's meager income.)
If people couldn't pay their onerous tax burden or their loans, their property could be taken. From the point of view of the common people, the rich and powerful had acquired their possessions often through deceit and trickery. The charge of fraud would have had traction with the common people.
Looking and loving: Yet, even in regard to fraud, the man claims to have kept "all these." Maybe he truly is blameless! Mark tells us that Jesus "looked"--emblepo--at him and "loved" him.
Jesus will either "look" or "look around" three times in this brief passage. The word had previously appeared twice in chapter 8 when Jesus "looked intently" at the blind man, laid his hands on his eyes, and healed the man so that he could "see clearly."
"Seeing," for Mark, carries great weight. It is equivalent to our use of the phrase "getting it." In our case here, you might say Jesus "saw through" the man, and Jesus also "loved" him--agapao. In the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), this is the only time Jesus is ever said to have loved a particular person.
The only other use of the word agapao in Mark is in 12:28. There, Jesus talks of the two great commandments. The first is that the Lord is "One" and you shall love the Lord. The second is to love the neighbor. In our text this week, Jesus also affirms the "One" God, then practices the second great commandment by loving the man in our story.
Eye of the needle:
"You need one thing. Get up, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me." But he was sad at the word (and) he went away sorrowful for he was having abundant possessions.
The man proclaims his own blamelessness, but, for Jesus, he still "lacks"--husteri--one thing. What is that "one thing"? Jesus rattles off four things for him to do. He is to "get up," sell what he has, give to the poor, and come and follow Jesus.
The command to "get up" is often used in healing stories. (See 1:44, 2:11, 5:19, 5:34, 7:29, 10:52.) Is Jesus healing the man? From what? The disease of affluence?
He is to sell what he has and give to the poor. Note that the text does not actually say that he has to give all to the poor. He just has to give, that's all. Apparently, this was too much. The man has been all about "doing" something. He is all about getting and achieving--first possessions, and then eternal life. He acquires, he does not give.
The man became saddened "at the word." The word is logos, which is a word of special import in the New Testament. What Jesus had said to him, the "word," really was good news for the man. He could be healed from his obsession with acquisition, but this was too much for him. His unwillingness to sell all and give even a portion means that he will not "come, follow" Jesus.
Though somehow we seem to have known all along, we are nevertheless told, for the first time, that the man "was having abundant possessions." (The imperfect tense of the verb suggests he was still in the process of "getting," just as he wanted to "get" eternal life.)
The word translated as "possessions" is ktemata, which refers not only to possessions, but also property and real estate--"great estates" would be an acceptable translation. The man is a major landowner, a member of the local aristocracy.
Again, Jesus "looked around" and now speaks to his disciples. "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God." Given some of the major themes of Mark--the status reversal of the kingdom, helping the poor, acts of justice--what Jesus says is perfectly plain and frankly obvious. The rich will find it exceptionally difficult to follow on the way.
The disciples, however, are "astonished at his words" (logoi)--and not once, but twice. (Ethambounto is a strong word. NRSV has "perplexed," which seems rather tame considering that it can mean "amazed, astonished, shocked, terrified.") The passage still continues to shock. I regularly discuss it in confirmation class and even 8th graders are, like the disciples, "amazed" that Jesus would say such a thing.
Jesus compounds the shock--"Children, how hard it is to enter into the kingdom of God. It is easier (for) a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God"--and, sure enough, the disciples are now "greatly astounded." It's even worse than they thought! He really means it!
The disciples worry, "And who is able to be saved?" If this super-pious rich guy can't get in, who can? The disciples assume a world in which the people at the top of the social and economic ladder are specially favored. Aren't riches a sign of God's blessing? No, says Jesus, not even close. Everything is upside-down in God's kingdom.
Moreover, the disciples' question includes the word dunatai. Who is able? Or perhaps, who has power? (We get our word "dynamite" from the word.) The answer, of course, is that no one is able to be saved. No one has that power, including especially the rich, who often think they do.
Again "looking" at them--seeing right through them, in other words--Jesus tells them flatly that it is not humanly possible. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God."
Modern commentators, as bothered by this story as were the disciples and my 8th graders, have tried to fudge this saying by noting that there really was a gate in Jerusalem called "the eye of the needle," and therefore, it might--theoretically, perhaps, maybe--be possible for a camel to get his nose under it and get through. (The existence of such a gate is a medieval legend. Early Jerusalem had no such gate.)
This is special pleading of the rankest sort. The plain meaning of Jesus' words is that it is impossible for a rich person to enter into the way of the kingdom. As the disciples get a case of the vapors and head for the fainting couch, Jesus doesn't let up. It is not humanly possible, he says. It can't be done. His point made, he makes an even greater one: "All things are possible for God."
Peter decides to pipe up and proclaim that when it comes to giving things up, the disciples are at the top of the list. Peter asks Jesus to "look" (yet again) and see that the disciples have "left everything and followed you." If you have to give up things for the kingdom, then we have given up the most, Peter proclaims piously. There should be a star beside our names!
Jesus does not respond directly to Peter, but says more generally:
"Truly, I say to you, there is no one who left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands because of me and because of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now, in this special time, houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions, and in the eternal, the one coming, life eternal. But many will be first last, and the last first."
A saying that begins with "truly, I say to you" should be underlined. Then, or now, there are few more important loyalties than those to family and property. Note especially the gender-inclusive nature of Jesus' remark--brothers and sisters, mother and father, and also the inclusion of children. Note, too, that people will get their land back.
No one who has left these things for Jesus and the good news will not receive back a hundredfold, and receive it now--not "in the eternal," but "now, in this special time." The word for "time" here is kairos, not chronos.
Kairos is "special time," even "God's time," which is here now whenever the way of the kingdom is lived out on earth. God's kingdom is not primarily about something later. It is not just about "going to heaven when you die." God's kingdom is to have present reality, which it does whenever the way of Jesus is followed.
Jesus is not interested in personal piety. He is notably unimpressed with this man falling down in front of him and calling him a spiffy name. He's not interested in skipping over this life to get to the next one. He's not interested in keeping the commandments if you don't keep the two big ones--love the One God, and love your neighbor--and, as far as worrying about possessions, he appears to regard it as a disease from which one needs healing.
May God bless and perturb his people with the reading of this text this Sunday.