Monday, September 3, 2012



This is the twenty-seventh installment, comprising Act 4. Scene 7, chapter 10: 17-31, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twenty-seventh installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.

This is my division of the Gospel:


Prologue,  1:1-13;
Act  1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).

Scene 7

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. 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.". (NRSV)

Mark will continue to bring his audience to Jesus’ master class on discipleship, which resumes in Act 4, Scene 7. The previous scene placed a child as a model disciple, but do those of us following along the way truly understand even now what is at stake, what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus?  Mark takes the opportunity to unveil again Jesus’ notion of how a true disciple behaves. Scene 7 will cement the lessons of Act 4, Scene 6: what does it mean to accept the Kingdom as a child? We will see that at least part of what it means is to accept the Kingdom is to accept it before all else and without conditions.

The scene opens with Jesus going along the way, when he is accosted by a man – we are actually not told directly by Mark whether it is a young or old man and nor do any adjectives describe him. This person simply runs to Jesus and kneels before him, which indicates that he knows precisely who Jesus is or has a notion who he thinks he is. He has a basic, and good, question to ask: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17). This is the first time in Mark that the phrase “eternal life” is used  and it will be used a second time in this section and not again in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’ immediate response ignores the complex question of eternal life. In fact, the immediate response of Jesus is jarring, as he says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (10:18). It is a jolt, however, only for Christians, who understand Jesus as God and have for centuries. Did anyone consider Jesus God at this point? Mark’s purpose here, and the purpose of Jesus’ question, might be precisely to have this man reflect on who and what he thinks Jesus is. What is goodness? What makes Jesus good? His teaching? His miracles? His power? What does he expect from Jesus? What does he want? Does he want Jesus to grant him eternal life? If so, what does that mean about the nature of Jesus (or at least his expectations)?

Whatever he was looking for, Jesus directs the man and his question on eternal life as any good Jewish teacher would; he directs the man to the commandments given by God to Moses:

“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.’” (10:19)


It is a simple answer and it is possible the man’s reply – and the fact he only calls Jesus “Teacher” now not “Good Teacher” as before - belies the fact that this is too simplistic an answer for his taste. His expectations were sky high and he lets Jesus know that this is not an answer he lacked: “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth” (10:20).

 It is at this point that Jesus “looking at him, loved him” (10:21). It is worth our while to stop and ponder this phrase. It is in this phrase that Jesus reveals himself, the man to himself, and the nature of discipleship.  The Greek verb Mark uses for “looking at him” is emballo, which could be translated as “throw in” or “cast into.” We get the sense that Jesus has looked into the heart of this man and seen the man for who he is, and has seen the truth of his claim: he has kept the commandments. Jesus loved him for who he was, but also desired to give him what he desired, eternal life, which is the fulfillment of love in a Jewish and Christian understanding, as it is life unending in the presence of God, who is love. What can Jesus who has seen him for who he is and loved him do, but tell him what he still lacks for eternal life?

“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.” (10:21)

Note that Jesus says that the man lacks one thing, but then enumerates at least two things: sell what you own and give the money to the poor; and follow me.  I would argue that Jesus’ point is not lost in poor arithmetic, but sharpened by it. To give your money to the poor and to follow Jesus are the same thing, as both reveal the desire to put the spiritual life, eternal life, above all other things.

He is not ready to give it all up. The man “when he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (10:22). He liked his money, his concrete “stuff” better than the eternal life which he was also seeking. Yet, we tend to appreciate this teaching more as metaphor for attachments in general than teaching about money and wealth in particular. And surely there is truth to the claim that whether one is wealthy or poor, all must be put aside to follow Jesus. True, but beside the point. The examples Jesus uses are wealth and possessions precisely because no one wants to put them aside! Jesus does not say to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have attachments to sexual desire and neuroses and are gluttonous and envious to enter the kingdom of God!” He says this to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth (chrema, “money, riches”) to enter the kingdom of God!” Is that easy to hear as a disciple today, following Jesus through Mark’s Gospel? Because the disciples who were with Jesus “were perplexed at these words” (10:24).

Jesus takes their perplexity, or amazement, as an opportunity to up the ante, and a way to ask if we are all in: “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” (10:24-25).  One thing we can certainly say for the disciples in Mark and his presentation of them: they get it. I know that they are often presented as being dull, stupid, and confused, but they get what is at stake and the significance of Jesus’ words. They do not try to smooth them over and Mark is not having James say to Peter, “I think it’s a figure of speech. I’m pretty sure.” No, they are perplexed and now they are “greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’” (10:26). If we as readers of this text are not asking this question, are without perplexity and confusion, we are not getting to the core of Jesus’ teaching in Mark. If we do not ask, “what is he talking about?,” we are not taking Him seriously. The disciples in their confusion at least get to the import of Jesus’ teaching and Mark’s bracing passage is a literary shake of the collar, “wake up, wake up, this is important. Pay attention.” And the reality is that Jesus agrees with his disciples!  He says, “for mortals {human beings}it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

As usual, Peter would like a little more information, a little more of an explanation. God can do this, but not human beings? Peter does not even raise that question, which is a question of God’s transformation of human beings; he is still focused on the human reality of what they as disciples have left, have given up to follow Jesus. His is a Cri de Coeur, a passionate plea to Jesus, maybe even a desire for a promise of security, a sense that it has not been in vain: “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (10:28).  Jesus’ response to Peter’s cry, as Mark has it, is a challenge to the audience. Why? For Jesus promises that those who have 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”(10:29) will receive “a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions” (10:30). There is a balance to the responses: what you have given up now, you will receive “a hundredfold now in this age,” with each element – house, brother, etc. – replicated. "Now in this age" suggests a rather crude quid pro quo at a material level: “if you invest in the Gospel now, you will double, no triple, no, I tell you, you will get a hundredfold back!” You feel for the wealthy man who walked away, knowing that if he had this information, he might have been willing to “give it all up.”

It seems likely that this initial saying of Jesus, without "and persecutions," still foresaw an immediacy to the coming of the Kingdom, that following Jesus’ fulfillment of his mission in Jerusalem the Kingdom would come in power here on earth, thereby giving his followers all that they had left and more in the establishment of God’s reign. Mark, however, has added “and persecutions,” a rather awkward transition and ending to Jesus’ statement. It does indicate the reality of the early Christians and a delay of the Kingdom and their expectations regarding the Kingdom. It suggests that the Kingdom does not come without suffering, not only Jesus’ suffering, but that of his followers. Only then do we hear, “and in the age to come eternal life” (10:30). Before eternal life comes giving everything up, and while you may get much back in this age, as Jesus promised, it is with "persecutions," that is, it is not the Kingdom come. 

Mark ends this scene with one of Jesus’ most famous statements, “but many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31). In theory, this is great, but how long do the disciples have to be last? Is this not at the heart of Peter’s cry? “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (10:28).” But how many followers can even say that they are willing to be last, to leave everything and go all in? Most of are hedging our bets, aren’t we? What if this whole Messiah thing doesn’t work out?    

 John W. Martens
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