Mark 10:17-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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[a] 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[b] 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,[c] “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,[d] 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.”
Jesus continually turns conventional wisdom on its head. We view the world through a lens of hierarchies. We affirm the trappings of power. We assume that wealth and privilege are marks of blessing. We look at a person of wealth or distinction and assume they must have done something right. At the same time, we often find ourselves looking at those on the bottom of the social hierarchy and assume that they have done something inappropriate. Why else would they be in that position. I confess that this is as true of me as it is of any other person. I don’t necessarily look at the rich with admiration for their virtue, but it is easy to look at the poor and marginalized and assume they have done something wrong. Perhaps they have, but is that the point? At least, when it comes to Jesus and his vision for society? Thus, Jesus turns things upside down, by placing first at the end of the line and those at the back get moved up to the front.
A man comes to Jesus, wanting to know what it would take to gain eternal life. That is, “how do I gain access to the realm of God?” While it does appear that this is a man of some wealth, it doesn’t appear from the text that he is intent on testing Jesus. This isn’t an ambush. This man seems to be a seeker after God’s realm. He simply wants to know if he’s on the right track. Jesus has been preaching about God’s realm. He’s intrigued. What will it take?
The man does call Jesus “good teacher.” He recognizes something in Jesus worthy of praise. In offering an answer, however, Jesus deflects the compliment. He asks: who is good besides God? I know that some take this to be Jesus’ way of identifying himself as a divine person, but I don’t think that’s what is going on here. Having made it clear that God alone is good, Jesus points the man to the commandments. It’s a good starting place. The man says—I’ve been keeping them since my youth. This is a good guy. He’s devout. He’s the kind of person we like having in our congregations. He would make a great elder or board chair. He’s honest and forthright. If anyone is good—besides God—it’s him. Jesus can see this in him, because Mark says that Jesus loved him. That’s not something that Jesus says about someone very often, if at all! So, what else is there to say to him besides: “welcome!?”
If only Jesus didn’t say “but, there’s one more thing.” Why does there have to be one more thing? Why isn’t this enough? Unfortunately, Jesus adds another criterion. “Go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” Hearing this, the man walked away because he had too much wealth. We were talking about this passage in preaching camp. Some amongst us weren’t too sympathetic. His was probably inherited wealth. He should give it away—100% inheritance tax! On the other hand, if this was inherited property (cash or land), didn’t he have a responsibility to preserve it for the next generation? If you don’t have anything to pass on to the next generation, then you don’t have to worry about preserving capital.
When we read this passage, we should, I think join the disciples in finding Jesus’ words to be troubling. But, I expect that when most of us read this we don’t put ourselves in the place of the man of wealth who comes to Jesus seeking directions to the kingdom. Indeed, it’s easy to get self-righteous and point at the “truly rich” and condemn their lifestyles. The problem is that in many ways I am rich. I live comfortably in a nice house in a safe neighborhood with a decently paying job. It’s not six-figures, but it offers a reasonably secure life. Do I give it up? Do I sell my house, give everything to the local charity that cares for the poor, and with that follow Jesus? Would I? Could I? Even if I thought about doing this, what would my spouse think? My Son? Even if we live fairly frugally, we still have bills to pay. So, giving it all up for Jesus doesn’t sound all that smart.
It is probably good to remember here that Mark is offering us a rather apocalyptic vision. As he understands the Jesus movement of which he is a member, the expectation is that in the near future Jesus will return and establish the realm of God in its fullness. There is no need for wealth, for insurance, for spouses and family, or estate planning. There’s no time or need for all of that. Of course, this apocalyptic vision has yet to bear fruit. Jesus hasn’t returned yet. Figuring out one’s estate plan seems appropriate, even if you don’t have a lot of possessions. Even if you have a few, it’s good to take care of business!
So, what do we do with a passage like this? How do we speak of letting go, when we’re not sure we’re ready to do it ourselves? Is Jesus’ word to the rich man is an appropriate word for us? When the disciples hear Jesus’ directive they’re confused. If the rich find it difficult to enter the realm of God, then what about them. They still can’t seem to get their heads around Jesus’ message that the first shall be last and the last first. They still look at the world through traditional eyes that assume that wealth is a blessing. It is after all tangible. It can be passed on from one generation to the next. But according to Jesus it is easier for the camel to navigate the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to gain access to the realm of God. Why? For the same reason this rich man walked away. It is nearly impossible to let go of one’s possessions.
If this is true, then who can be saved? If the blessed are unable to gain access who can? Of course Mark knows. It is the ones who let go of this world, and follow Jesus. Leave mother and father and wealth and position, and come and follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. The apocalypse is on the horizon. So, what appears to be impossible for human beings, can be possible for the God who turns things upside down.
A light goes on in Peter’s mind. He has left everything behind to follow Jesus. He left his boat, his nets, and maybe even a family to follow Jesus. Mark doesn’t speak of this experience, but in Matthew we read of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, and a mother-in-law implies a spouse (Matthew 8:14). Peter says to Jesus—then we have chosen the right path. We’ve left everything behind and followed you. Jesus says yes, you’ve chosen wisely. You will be blessed. You will have many things as a result, plus persecution.
It’s interesting that Jesus throws that into the mix. Whatever material blessings come your way, will be accompanied by persecution. It’s just the way things are on the road to the realm of God! In the age to come, there is eternal life. Hold on to that, for that is the true blessing. And the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, for in the realm of God the structures of power get reversed. That may seem impossible, but with God all things are possible!