Last revised: October 16, 2018
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PROPER 23 (October 9-15) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 28
RCL: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
RoCa: Wisdom 7:7-10; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
For a privileged white man like myself, this is a challenging passage. It is difficult to spiritualize it away. Jesus seems pretty clear in his invitation to the rich man about selling possessions and giving away the money as a precursor to following him. And in the discussion with his disciples that follows, it seems pretty clear that what is at stake here is the systemic sin of economic injustice — a matter that goes far beyond a matter of commandments for personal piety, except perhaps the one Jesus adds, “Do not defraud” (which Andrew Marr calls “The Eleventh Commandment” in a blog listed below). Even if the commandments included more positive prescriptions such as, “Give generously to charity,” his loving invitation to the rich man goes deeper than charity. No, what Jesus asks him to do is more along the line of reparations, or, more in biblical terms, a Jubilee Year leveling of the economic playing field. It is akin to what Zacchaeus offers to do without being asked (Luke 19:6, though it’s only half his positions not all), and Jesus gladly accepts his reparations as “salvation.”
As usual, Ched Myers‘ chapter on this passage, “Repentance as Reparation” (see more below) is spot-on. He interprets earlier passages in Mark (2:13–3:6) as being about the radical Hebrew idea of Jubilee — forgiving debts every 50th year to level the playing field. Luke’s Gospel begins with the proclamation of Jubilee by Jesus reading Isaiah 61 in the synagogue — good news to the poor, the year of the Lord’s favor, “fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21). I recommend reading this chapter before preaching this text. The section “The Word in Our World” includes penetrating reflections on privilege in a world of inequality.
In preaching this text in 2018, I began with a recap of critiquing substitutionary atonement to first identify the notion of systemic Sin and then moved to this passage as an example of Jesus confronting the economic forms of systemic Sin. As an example of how wealth inequity increases over generations, I cited the statistics of the wealth gap today between white people and African Americans. Why such a huge a huge gap, recently reported as almost 20-to-1!? (See this 2018 article in Forbes.) Because even though some of the inequity was addressed in Civil Rights Movement, helping to level the playing field in the present (though still not nearly equal enough), white people had a three-hundred-year head-start on accumulating wealth. Statistics show, that with the laissez-faire capitalist widening of the wealth gap for everyone since Reaganomics in the 80’s, the wealth gap between white and black has gotten much worse — in spite of the Civil Rights Movement. This is the kind of inequity that Jesus is lovingly confronting with this man who follows the Ten Commandments but has a life of inherited wealth based on defrauding the poor. The life of repentance required to live into God’s coming age, being inaugurated in Jesus, includes reparations to the poor and then following Jesus into a life of discipleship receiving “a hundredfold now in this age” (Mark 10:30).
What about the idea of reparations to People of Color in our time? Sound as crazy to us as actually practicing Jubilee? Thus far, the idea of reparations meets with the same reaction: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22).
1. The Letter to the Hebrews has been one of the most controversial books of the Bible in Girardian circles. Its heavy orientation around sacrifice appears suspicious in the face of the Girardian analysis of sacrifice. René Girard‘s own first assessment of it was negative in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (written in 1978), pp. 227-231. He retracted these criticisms in an interview with Rebecca Adams in November 1992 (“Violence, Difference, and Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard,” in Religion and Literature 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 9-33). Here’s a portion of that interview:
RG: I say at the end of Things Hidden — and I think this is the right attitude to develop — that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.
RA: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.
RG: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice” — I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking, as exemplified by my reading of the Judgement of Solomon in the book [pp. 237-245]. This text is fundamental for my view of sacrifice.
2. Other Girardians have thus made more positive uses of the Letter to the Hebrews. James Alison makes plenty of positive use of it in Raising Abel, quoting it numerous times throughout and even giving it the last word. He closes with a quote of Heb. 12:18-24 (pp. 196-97) as a way of summarizing his entire argument in the book.
3. Raymund Schwager offers an extensive exposition of Hebrews in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 182ff. In a major “Systematic Consideration” entitled “Redemption as Judgment and Sacrifice,” Schwager basically uses Hebrews to anchor his argument. The concluding section of this part is “The Sacrifice of Christ and the ‘Conversion’ of Evil,” and Schwager uses Hebrews to show how the Cross works that transformation.
4. In Violence Renounced, there are two articles with a Girardian perspective on Hebrews: “Sacrificial Language in Hebrews: Reappraising René Girard,” by Michael Hardin, pp. 103-119; and “‘A Better Sacrifice’ or ‘Better than Sacrifice’? Response to Michael Hardin’s ‘Sacrificial Language in Hebrews,'” by Loren L. Johns, pp. 120-131.
5. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pp. 156-160, a section entitled “Sacrifice to End Sacrifice.”
6. I recommend Thomas Long‘s commentary on Hebrews in the Interpretation series (John Knox Press) as a standard, i.e., non-Girardian, commentary to consult for preaching. Long considers Hebrews to be a sermon, not really a letter, and so his rich homiletic exposition of Hebrews also includes wonderful commentary on the art of preaching itself. Moreover, Long himself is an artful preacher and brings a beautiful flare for language and metaphor to his commentary.
1. The Synoptic parallels to Mark 10:17-31 are Matthew 19:16-30 and Luke 18:18-30. Luke’s story with the Good Samaritan in 10:25f. begins with a “lawyer” asking the same question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke 18 places this parallel to Mark between the blessing of the children and the third Passion prediction, like Mark, but shifts and transforms the Sons of Zebedee episode (Mark 10:35-45) to immediately after the Last Supper in 22:24-27.
2. Luke specifies Mark’s generic person (heis, “one”) as a “ruler” (archōn) in 18:18 and “exceedingly rich” (plousios sphodra) in 18:23. Matthew follows Mark in giving us no clue as to his identity at the outset simply calling him “one” (heis) in 19:16, and further telling us in 19:22 (again, following Mark) that he “had many possessions” (echōn ktēmata polla). But Matthew also makes a significant change from Mark, specifying in 19:20 and 19:22 that he is a “young man” or “youth” (ho neaniskos). This is a definite change since Mark (followed by Luke) implies an older man in the man’s response to Jesus’ naming of commandments, saying that he has kept all these “from my youth” (ek neotētos mou). When referring to the Synoptic story, one sometimes hears a hybrid of “rich young ruler,” but we need to be careful of Mark’s designation: an unspecified “one” whose youth is in his past and we find out “had many possessions.”
3. V. 19: “You shall not defraud.” (Gr: apostereō) Which commandment is this? Matthew and Luke must have also been puzzled, because they parallel Mark’s list of commandments, except for this one “commandment” which they omit (Mt 19:18-19; Lk 18:20). (Note: Matthew also adds one to the list, Lev. 19:17, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) The only other occurrences of apostereō in the NT are 1 Cor 6:7-8; 1 Cor 7:5; 1 Tim 6:5; James 5:4. Lev. 19:13 does list a commandment about defrauding: “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer.” (The LXX, however, does not use apostereō in Lev. 19:13 but a more generic term for ‘wronging’ someone, adikeō.) Why does Mark add this to his list of commandments?
4. V. 21: Jesus “loved” the wealthy young man. (Matthew and Luke both drop “love” in the parallels.) This is the only place in Mark where Jesus is said to have “loved” someone. The only other occurrence of the verb agapao in Mark’s gospel is in discussing the greatest commandment in 12:30-33 (where loving God and neighbor is said to be far above any burnt offerings and sacrifices). The noun agape never appears in Mark. Is Mark implying that the challenge Jesus is about to set forth was the loving thing to do?
5. V. 21: thēsauron en ouranō, “treasure in heaven.” “Treasure” is a different word to indicate valued items than the several words in the following verses to indicate wealth. N.T. Wright explains:
When Jesus says ‘You will have treasure in heaven,’ he doesn’t mean that the young man must go to heaven to get it; he means that God will keep it stored up for him until the time when, in the Age to Come, all is revealed. The reason you have money in the bank is not so that you can spend it in the bank but so that you can take it out and spend it somewhere else. The reason you have treasure in heaven, God’s storehouse, is so that you can enjoy it in the Age to Come when God brings heaven and earth together at last. And ‘eternal life,’ as most translations put it, doesn’t mean ‘life in a timeless, otherworldly dimension,’ but ‘the life of the Age to Come’ (the word ‘eternal’ translates a word which means ‘belonging to the Age’). (Mark for Everyone, p. 135)
6. V. 22: ktēmata, “possessions.” Myers notes that this word can also mean “properties,” which means that he could have been the type of landowner who preyed on poor farmers needing loans and took their land — ‘defrauding’ them from Jesus’ perspective. In the subsequent verses, there are other words used to indicate wealth: v. 23, chrēmata, “wealth”; v. 25, plousion, “rich man.”
7. V. 17: zōēn aiōnion, “eternal life.” The man raises the issue of inheriting “eternal life.” For a long time, Christians have heard this as a question about the afterlife. This is being challenged today by many New Testament scholars — such as N.T. Wright in the note below. Jews didn’t think about the afterlife as something discontinuous from this life, like Christians today. They thought in terms of a break in time that changed life. That’s why they believed in resurrection, which they saw as an opportunity to come back and enjoy the new eon of God. We get our English word “eon,” in fact, from the Greek work aiōn, meaning an indefinite period of time. So aiōn probably should be translated something more like “age to come,” and zōēn aiōnion as “life in the age to come.” See more below under the Wright references below.
8. V. 30: en tō aiōni tō erchomenō zōēn aiōnion, “in the age to come eternal life.” This is a very strange phrase that speaks against N.T. Wright’s usual translation of zōēn aiōnion. Wright argues that the latter translates into Greek the Hebrew phrase “age to come.” Here, Mark’s Jesus combines zōēn aiōnion with the literal Greek words for “age to come.” Is this for emphasis, one phrase making the clear the meaning of the other? Or do the two phrases have slightly different meanings? Wright translates it, “the life of the Age to Come.” It should be noted, too, that the addition of “age to come” might be there to directly pair with its twin Hebrew phrase used earlier in the verse: en tō kairō tō toutō, “in this age [time].”
Let us return to the man’s original inquiry. The problem is that his question assumes he can inherit eternal life. The root of this verb in Greek is the term for a parcel of land — and we will soon learn that this gentleman “possessed many properties” (10:22). It seems that he is assuming that eternal life, like property, must be inherited! Like many beneficiaries of a socioeconomic system, he envisions religion as a mere reproduction of his own class entitlement.
Indeed, in first-century Palestine, land was the basis of wealth. The estates of the rich grew in several ways. Assets were sometimes consolidated through the joining of households in marital or political alliances. At other times expropriated land was distributed through political patronage. But the primary mechanism was acquiring land through the debt-default of small agricultural land holders, as we saw in the discussion of the parable of the sower (see Chapter 5). This is how socioeconomic inequality had become so widespread in the time of Jesus. And it is almost certainly how this man ended up with “many properties.”
The tiny landed class took great care to protect its entitlement from generation to generation. As Jesus later suggests in a parable about the struggle over deeded land, in which insurgent tenants try to wrest the “inheritance” from the absentee landlord, this was often a bloody business (Mark 12:1ff; see Chapter 18). Mark has given us a concise portrait of the ideology of entitlement. And Jesus is clear that the “propertied” create and maintain their surplus through “fraud” — the result of illegitimate expropriation of their neighbors’ land. (p. 125)
And the bottom line in this passage for Myers is that Jesus’s discipleship asks for reparations from people whose wealth has been a cumulative defrauding:
“And come follow me.” Jesus is not inviting this man to change his attitude toward his wealth, or to treat his servants better, or to reform his personal life. He is asserting a precondition for his discipleship: economic restitution. The man’s piety collapses; stung, he whirls and slinks away. Mark matter-of-factly explains why: “For he had much property” (10:22). In the context of the class inequality, Jesus’ message of repentance means reparation, the Jubilary practice of redistributive justice. (p. 126)
How does one make the personal decision to make reparations on systemically gained wealth?
He assures the reader that those who experiment with such Jubilee economics will receive (not inherit) abundant sufficiency from the new community of production and consumption (10:30).
This allusion to the divine economy of grace suggests that the “hundredfold” harvest promised in the sower parable (4:8) was not a pipedream offered to poor peasants but the concrete result of wealth redistribution. Surplus is created when “private” wealth is restructured as a community asset. Jesus adds pointedly that this “miracle” of multiplication through sharing, already enacted in the earlier wilderness feedings (6:35-42; see Chapter 8), will occur not in some remote hereafter but “now, in this time.” (p. 128)
“The Word in Our World” section is well worth the read. It brings the personal decision in the face of systemic injustice into our present situation, raising awareness of the privilege of white America.
2. Rob Bell, Love Wins; chapter 2 on heaven, “Here Is the New There,” is basically an extended reflection on Matthew’s version of this story. He uses it to demote the traditional ways in which we’ve thought about “eternal life” as going to heaven when we die — and how Protestants typically have thought about that process as one based on faith. If a modern Protestant was asked the question this man asks Jesus, it’s the perfect opportunity for us to first “correct the man’s flawed understanding of how salvation works” and “show the man how eternal life isn’t something he has to earn or work for; it’s a free gift of grace.” Then, we would “invite the man to confess, repent, trust, accept, and believe that Jesus has made a way for him to have a relationship with God.” (p. 27) But Jesus doesn’t come close to any of that. In fact, he begins to talk about commandments and then invites the man to give away his possessions — sounding very much like “works righteousness.” This entire exchange doesn’t fit Reformation theology at all and should be a good clue that we have been way off track. Bell does an excellent job of explicating N.T. Wright‘s alignment of Jesus with the Hebrew prophets (see more below) rather than the our heaven-oriented theologies as getting to somewhere else other than Creation. Jesus offers us a heaven that is here not there.
As far as Bell’s take on this particular passage, he uses one of the Matthew’s differences from Mark, the fact that Matthew drops the odd ‘Don’t defraud’ commandment. But Bell doesn’t mention Mark’s version, so instead of highlighting what is missing from Mark, he highlights what is missing in Matthew from Jesus’ list of the Ten Commandments, namely, the commandment on coveting. Bell writes,
To covet is to crave what someone else has. Coveting is the disease of always wanting more, and it’s rooted in a profound dissatisfaction with the life God has given you. Coveting is what happens when you aren’t at peace.
The man says he’s kept all of the commandments that Jesus mentions, but Jesus hasn’t mentioned the one about coveting. Jesus then tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, which Jesus doesn’t tell other people, because it’s not an issue for them. It is, for this man. The man is greedy — and greed has no place in the world to come. He hasn’t learned yet that he has a sacred calling to use his wealth to move creation forward. (p. 41)
3. N.T Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, pp. 42-46, a section titled “Going to Heaven,” within a chapter where Wright is taking on misunderstandings of the Gospel. If you have not yet read this book, I highly recommend that it zoom to the top of your reading list. It is that important. It articulates the perspective on which people like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren are basing their very important writings. It is the perspective on Jesus that changes everything. Many centuries worth of imperialistic cultural overlays are peeled back to better glimpse Jesus as a First Century Jew who saw himself as a pivotal embodiment of the Hebrew prophecy, God’s counter-movement to empire.
The most common misunderstanding is the Jesus who “came to teach people how to get to heaven” (p. 42). Two expressions in English feed into this: “kingdom of heaven” and “eternal life.” Wright cites the Lukan parallel to this story in Mark as one of the main examples of “eternal life” (John 3:16 being the other). Wright writes:
The second expression that has routinely been misunderstood in this connection is “eternal life.” Here again the widespread and long-lasting assumption that the gospels are there to tell us “how to go to heaven” has determined how people “hear” this phrase. Indeed, the word “eternity” in modern English and American has regularly been used not only to point to a “heavenly” destination, but to say something specific about it, namely, that it will be somehow outside time and probably outside space and matter as well. A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible — and it’s a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom even realizes the fact. Anyway, granted this assumption, when we find the Greek phrase zoe aionios in the gospels (and indeed in the New Testament letters), and when it is regularly translated as “eternal life” or “everlasting life,” people have naturally assumed that this concept of “eternity” is the right way to understand it….
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.
If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.” When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life. This is why, in my own new translation of the New Testament, Luke 18:18 reads, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” …
Among the various results of this misreading has been the earnest attempt to make all the material in Jesus’s public career refer somehow to a supposed invitation to “go to heaven” rather than to the present challenge of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. Time would fail to spell out the additional misunderstandings that have resulted from this, but we might just note one. Jesus’s controversies with his opponents, particularly the Pharisees, have regularly been interpreted on the assumption that the Pharisees had one system for “going to heaven” (in their case, keeping lots of stringent and fussy rules), and Jesus had another one, an easier path altogether in which God had relaxed the rules and made everything a lot easier. As many people are now aware, this does no justice either to the Pharisees or to Jesus. Somehow, we have to get our minds around a different, more challenging way of reading the gospels. (pp. 44-46)
Wright’s translation has been published as The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation [HarperOne, 2012]. This passage can be found on pp. 87-88.
4. N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, pp. 133-37. Each ‘chapter’ in the “For Everyone” series begins with a contemporary anecdote, often with a personal angle. The opening for this passage provides a good illustration for Wright’s view on “eternal life” as trying to convey a Jewish idea, not our view of “going to heaven”:
When I was a boy, grown-ups used to divide their history into two periods: Before the War, and After the War (or Since the War). The Second World War had torn a hole in their world. Everything was different now: a different government and society, different hopes and needs, different possibilities and dangers.
Many first-century Jews divided their immediate future in the same way. Something would happen, they believed, which would make everything different. A great event would occur which would bring justice and peace, freedom for Israel, punishment for evildoers (whether Jews or Gentiles), a time of prosperity when all the prophecies would be fulfilled, all the righteous dead would be raised to new life, all the world would burst out into a new and endless spring.
Their way of talking about all this was to distinguish between the Present Age and the Age to Come. The Present Age, their own time, was full of sin and injustice, lying and oppression. Good people suffered; wicked people got away with it. But in the Age to Come that would all be different. And the question pressing on any Jew who believed this was: can I be sure that I will be one of those who will inherit the Age to Come, and, if so, how? The phrase ‘kingdom of God,’ as we have seen, is another way of talking about the same thing: the Age to Come is the period of time in which God is at last ruling the world as he always wanted to.
That is the question the rich man (Matthew tells us he was young; Luke, that he was a ruler; hence the composite phrase, ‘the rich young ruler’) asks Jesus. A long Christian tradition, of course, has assumed that he wanted to know how he could be sure of going to heaven when he died, but that wasn’t how he would have put it. God was going to make the whole world a new place; when that happened, you wouldn’t want to be away in a disembodied heaven, but here on earth to enjoy the great blessing. (pp. 134-35)
5. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 94-100.
Jesus’ response, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor . . . and come, follow me,” is not simply about a problem with materialism in the privacy of “his heart” that might keep him out of heaven, as is so often preached. Instead, it’s an electrifying call to defect from the imperial narrative and join Jesus in serving those who suffer under it. (p. 96)
Also, in commenting on Matthew 6:19-21, he offers giving to the poor from this passage as a better investment than hoarding wealth:
At the heart of the imperial narrative is insecurity, deep anxiety: the wealth we have amassed may be stolen; the goods we have hoarded may be devalued by rust or rot. This anxiety is what drives the Romans to constantly expand their empire: enough is never enough. Jesus says that giving — and we know, elsewhere, that he specifically means giving to the poor (see Mark 10:21) — is a more secure investment than accumulating and hoarding. So he proposes a framing story of prosperity, equity, and security through generosity rather than anxious hoarding. He applauds solidarity with the poor rather than with the hoarders and protectors and empire builders. (pp. 134-35)
6. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 159.
7. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offered these reflections on this passage in 2018, “The Eleventh Commandment” (and see Tom Truby’s sermon below based on this blog).
8. Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, p. 177. In a section on “Mimesis and Discipleship,” he writes,
Not only by his words but especially by his whole existence did Jesus call his disciples to follow him. Since his own desires and ambitions were focused on the will of the Father, he assigned the same goal to his disciples. When they saw him praying, they wanted to be able to pray like him (see Luke 11:1). If Jesus’ goal had been a limited good of the senses, unconditional discipleship would necessarily have led to rivalries. But since he renounced immediate desire, he motivated his disciples to similar deeds. They “left everything” and “followed” him (Mark 10:28). To everyone who wanted to gain life in the full sense, he pointed out this way (Mark 10:17-27); and he pointed out to them through his own word and deed the heavenly Father as the one truly desirable good. But this Father is an infinite good. He can therefore be sought after by many, indeed by all human beings without fear of rivalry.
God as the infinite good is rich enough for all humankind. Jesus also showed that the heavenly Father is no rival to his creatures. In clear contrast to the serpent of the Paradise story, who tried to convince Eve of God’s jealousy, Jesus made it clear, above all with his healings on the Sabbath, that there is no opposition between the service of God and the well-being of humans. The Pharisees by raising certain statements of the Old Testament to the level of principle did set up such an opposition. But Jesus, appealing to other places in scripture, revealed a Father who wants mercy instead of sacrifice (Matt 12:1-8; see Luke 6:1-5). If God demanded sacrifice of men and women, his wish would of necessity enter constantly into conflict with human striving for its own fulfillment. But he wants nothing but the true well-being of his creatures. (pp. 176-77)
9. David Froemming, Salvation Story, pp. 85-89. Here’s a nugget:
Pope Francis has addressed the issue of the concentration of wealth and power in relationship to care for the environment. According to the pope, any true ecological debate must bring together “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Francis observes how multinational businesses leave behind environmental liabilities around the world, while also using debt to control nations and their people. The observations of Pope Francis find support in the work of journalist Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The predominant political powers of our time are practicing “free-market fundamentalism” that rejects all things public and governmental in order to move public money into the hands of private corporate power. These riches are what grieve the man in our story for they are the ultimate idol he worships and follows. Unless he lets go of his idolatry the rich man cannot follow Jesus. (pp. 87-88)
11. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from October 10, 2009 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
12. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4). The ending of this passage, with Jesus’s promise to disciples who leave things behind to follow him, is prominent in Discipleship, popping up in several places. In the first chapter on “costly grace,” Bonhoeffer writes, “It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ” (p. 45). Shortly thereafter, he cites Peter as an example of the costly grace of discipleship, identifying three moments of grace: Peter’s original call, his confession of Jesus as the Messiah, and the forgiveness in John 21. Amidst these three graces comes an allusion to Mark 10:28:
Grace visited Peter three times along his life’s path. It was the one grace, but proclaimed differently three times. Thus, it was Christ’s own grace, and surely not grace which the disciple conferred on himself. It was the same grace of Christ which won Peter over to leave everything [Mark 10:28] to follow him, which brought about Peter’s confession which had to seem like blasphemy to all the world, and which called the unfaithful Peter into the ultimate community of martyrdom and, in doing so, forgave him all his sins. In Peter’s life, grace and discipleship belong inseparably together. He received costly grace. (p. 46)
In chapter 5 on the relationship between “Discipleship and the Individual,” he gives the example of Abraham but then ends the chapter with the end of this passage:
Abraham comes down from the mountain with Isaac, just as he went up, but everything has changed. Christ came between the father and the son. Abraham had left everything and had followed Christ, and while he was following Christ, he was permitted to go back to live in the same world he had lived in before. Externally everything remained the same. But the old has passed away; see, everything has become new. Everything had to go through Christ.
This is the second possibility for being a single individual, namely, to be a follower of Christ in the midst of the community, in nation and family, in land and property. But it is Abraham who is called to that existence, Abraham, who earlier had gone through the visible break, whose faith became the role model for the New Testament. It is all too tempting for us to generalize this possibility that Abraham had and to understand it as a matter of law, namely, by applying it directly to ourselves. Then we would say that this, too, is our Christian existence, to follow Christ while possessing the goods of this world, and in this way, to be a single individual. But it is certain that the path of being led into an external break is easier for a Christian than that of bearing in hiddenness and faith a secret break. Those who do not know this, that is, those who do not know it from scripture and from their own experience, are surely deceiving themselves along the other path. They will fall back into immediate relationships and lose Christ.
It is not in our power to choose one or the other possibility. According to the will of Jesus, we are called one way or the other out of immediate relationships, and we must become single individuals, visibly or secretly. But it is precisely this same mediator who makes us into individuals, who becomes the basis for entirely new community. He stands in the center between the other person and me. He separates, but he also unites. He cuts off every direct path to someone else, but he guides everyone following him to the new and sole true way to the other person via the mediator.
“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’” (Mark 10:28-31).
Jesus is speaking here to people who became single individuals for his sake, who left everything when he called, who can say of themselves: behold, we left everything and followed you. The promise of new community is given to them. Jesus says that already in this life they are to receive a hundredfold of what they left behind. Jesus is speaking here of his faith-community, those who have come together in him. Those who left their fathers for Jesus’ sake will surely find new fathers in the community, they will find brothers and sisters; there are even fields and houses prepared for them. Everyone enters discipleship alone, but no one remains alone in discipleship. Those who dare to become single individuals trusting in the word are given the gift of church-community. They find themselves again in a visible community of faith, which replaces a hundredfold what they lost. A hundredfold? Yes, in the mere fact that they now have everything solely through Jesus, that they have it through the mediator. Of course, that includes “persecutions.” “A hundredfold” — “with persecutions”: that is the grace of the community which follows its Lord under the cross. The promise for those who follow Christ is that they will become members of the community of the cross, they will be people of the mediator, people under the cross.
“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him” (Mark 10:32). As if to confirm the seriousness of his call to discipleship, and at the same time the impossibility of discipleship based on human strength, and to confirm the promise of belonging to him in times of persecution, Jesus then goes ahead to Jerusalem to the cross, and those following him are overcome with amazement and fear at the way to which he has called them. (pp. 97-99)
Finally, the end of this passage is alluded to in Bonhoeffer’s incredible commentary on Matthew 5:38-42, the ‘turn the other cheek and do not resist evil’ passage:
There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different response from a Christian. The more terrible the evil, the more willing the disciple should be to suffer. Evil persons must be delivered to the hands of Jesus. Not I but Jesus must deal with them.
At this point, the Reformation interpretation introduced a decisively new concept, namely, that we should differentiate between harm done to me personally, and harm done to me as bearer of my office, that is, in the responsibility given me by God. In the former case I am to act as Jesus commands, but in the latter case I am released from doing so. Indeed, for the sake of true love, I am even obligated to behave in the opposite way, to answer violence with violence in order to resist the inroads of evil. This is what justifies the Reformation position on war, and on any use of public legal means to repel evil. But this distinction between private person and bearer of an office as normative for my behavior is foreign to Jesus. He does not say a word about it. He addresses his disciples as people who have left everything behind [Mark 10:28] to follow him. “Private” and “official” spheres are all completely subject to Jesus’ command. The word of Jesus claimed them undividedly. He demands undivided obedience. In fact, the distinction between private and official is vulnerable to an insoluble dilemma. Where in real life am I really only a private person and where only the bearer of my office? Wherever I am attacked, am I not simultaneously the father of my children, the pastor of my congregation, the statesman of my people? For this reason, am I not required to fight back against any attack, just because of my responsibility for my office? Am I not always myself in my office, too, who stands alone before Jesus? Should this distinction cause us to forget that followers of Jesus are always completely alone, single individuals who can act and make decisions finally only by themselves, and that the most serious responsibility for those entrusted to me takes place precisely in these acts?
But how can Jesus’ statement be justified in light of our experience that evil seeks out the weak and rampages most wildly among the most defenseless? Isn’t Jesus’ statement just an ideology which does not take into account the realities of the world, let us say the sin of the world? Perhaps this statement could be valid within a Christian community. But in confrontation with the world it seems to be an enthusiast’s ignoring of sin. Because we live in the world and the world is evil, therefore this statement cannot be valid.
But Jesus says: because you live in the world and because the world is evil, that is why the statement is valid: do not resist evil. It would be difficult to accuse Jesus of not knowing the power of evil, Jesus, who battled with the devil from the first day of his life onward [see Jesus’ temptation in Matt. 4:1-11]. Jesus calls evil evil and that is just why he speaks to his disciples in this way. How is this possible?
Indeed, what Jesus says to his disciples would all be pure enthusiasm if we were to understand these statements to be a general ethical program, if we were to interpret the statement that evil will only be conquered by good [Romans 12:21] as general secular wisdom for life in the world. That really would be an irresponsible imagining of laws which the world would never obey. Nonresistance as a principle for secular life is godless destruction of the order of the world which God graciously preserves. But it is not a programmatic thinker who is speaking here. Rather, the one speaking here about overcoming evil with suffering is he who himself was overcome by evil on the cross and who emerged from that defeat as the conqueror and victor. There is no other justification for this commandment of Jesus than his own cross. Only those who there, in the cross of Jesus, find faith in the victory over evil can obey his command, and that is the only kind of obedience which has the promise. Which promise? The promise of community with the cross of Jesus and of community with his victory.
The passion of Jesus as the overcoming of evil by divine love is the only solid foundation for the disciples’ obedience. With his command Jesus calls disciples again into communion with his passion. How will our preaching of the passion of Jesus Christ become visible and credible to the world if the disciples avoid this passion for themselves, if they despise it in their own bodies? Through his cross Jesus himself fulfilled the law he gives us, and in his commandment he graciously keeps his disciples in communion with his cross. In the cross alone is it true and real that suffering love is the retribution for and the overcoming of evil. Participation in the cross is given to the disciples by the call into discipleship. They are blessed in this visible community. (pp. 134-37)
13. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 519. In Luke’s Gospel the question in the Good Samaritan passage (10:25-37) is the same as for this wealthy man, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Alison has an extended commentary on that passage, beginning with the question, on pp. 527f. Mark 10:29-31 anchors the previous essay, “A little family upheaval.”
14. Michael Battle, Heaven on Earth, p. 85. The opening exchange of this passage makes its way into an interesting conversation about Origen’s views on heaven:
Why would anyone want to leave heaven, though? Origen answers by saying that God indulged the spirits with the power of free will by which the good that was in them might become their own. In other words, there was no desire for goodness because there was natural participation in God’s goodness; and there was no need to desire what God was already feeding them. But for a strange reason, spirits decided not to desire God and in doing so became evil. A conundrum presented itself — individual spirits no longer desired God but wanted their individual rewards apart from goodness. Thus, Origen thinks that the proportion of one’s fall from goodness is the same proportion that one delves into evil. In other words, being apart from God is to be evil. Perhaps Origen was reminded of this conundrum in Mark, when someone came up to Jesus 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’ (Mark 10:17-18).
So how does all of this relate to the problem set forth earlier in this book — that is, how could anyone be in heaven while still conscious that someone else is suffering? Well, Origen’s speculative theology helps us see where the deep tragedy occurs — when we fell out of the paradox of community of being unique persons while still being in community. Instead of this beautiful paradox, spirits fell into the ugliness of individual compulsion and obsession. Strangely enough, spirits became individuals when their desire for goodness became separated from their desire for God. In other words, individualism is the sign of the fall for Origen. Naturally, this supports my argument that heaven is unintelligible apart from community. I cannot be in heaven unless you are also there. (pp. 85-86)
15. Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, p. 49. In introducing the Prayer Word for contemplative prayer, Laird calls on the moment of Jesus loving the man in this passage:
The prophetic voice of Isaiah announces the inner disposition of contemplative prayer. “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you” (see Is 26:3). In Mark’s Gospel it is Jesus’ mind that is stayed on one of his followers. Jesus meets the rich young man and is moved by his desire for eternal life. In a touching scene Jesus fixes his gaze on the rich young man. “Jesus looked steadily at him and he was filled with love for him.” (Mk 10:21). Many contemplatives feel their prayer to be simplified to little more than allowing their awareness to rest in this mutual gazing announced by Isaiah and Mark. Our self-forgetful gaze on God is immersed in God’s self-emptying gaze on us, and in this mutual meeting we find rest. John of the Cross came to define deep prayer along similar lines. “Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning God.” By means of this loving attentiveness one begins to move into God. (p. 49)
16. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Jesus, You Know Us Too Well!“; in 2015, “It’s Hard to Trust!”; and in 2018, “The Eleventh Commandment.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Some commentators have combined the above two exegetical facts to say that Jesus’ love for the rich man must mean that he didn’t see him as a dishonest wealthy person. There was a view of rich people as having gained their wealth basically by defraud. These commentators think that Jesus mentions this otherwise stray commandment to indicate that this wealthy young person wasn’t in the category of those who gained their wealth by defraud. For Jesus loved him.
I disagree. Jesus is faced with a wealthy person, and he is about to expound on the treacheries of wealth, so he adds this commandment about defraud with the implications that wealthy people gain their wealth by defraud. Therefore, it makes sense that the way in which this man can make restitution is by giving his wealth to the poor. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, says point blank, “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.”
This issue of whether the man is truly “blameless” is perhaps answered by Jesus’ off-handed, seemingly throw-away response to the man’s address of “Good man.” Jesus states that no one is good except God alone. I would suggest that Jesus adds this commandment with the implications that this man is not blameless; he is wealthy, and wealthy people gain their wealth at the expense of others.
2. Yet Jesus loved the man. His love is opposed to what motivates the man’s life. Jesus is exemplifying the great commandment (Mark 12:30-33), while the man is exemplifying the thorny soil (from the Parable of the Sower, 4:18-19): “And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares (Gr: merimna) of the world, and the lure (apate) of wealth, and the desire (epithymia) for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.” Jesus’ entreaty for the man to sell his wealth is also a loving one, for the man can only attain the godly desire of agape by letting go of the objects of his epithymia.
3. What do we say to today’s typical mainline congregation of mostly middle and upper class people? Can Jesus’ words to this man help clear away our thorny surroundings? Is the average person in the pew (and the pulpit!) challenged by these words when they realize that they also have many possessions? Or is the state of our desire such that we can always point to someone who has many more possessions, so therefore we are exempt? Can the preacher lovingly suggest, as Jesus did, some practical steps for reforming our desire in God’s love?
For we who have many possessions this Gospel might not sound like Good News. But there have been those who actually took Jesus’ words literally, selling everything and giving it to the poor, and truly experiencing it as a liberation, as Good News. A recent example which comes to mind are Millard and Linda Fuller, founders of Habitat for Humanity International. Couple such examples with the idea that has helped me in recent years, the idea of “Affluenza” from the PBS show of several years ago, and maybe Jesus’ words truly are a cure for what ails us in our modern situation of rising mimetic rivalry and the accompanying resentment. Link to a sermon on these themes entitled “Maybe This Is Good News, after All.”
5. For me the ultimate in grace is that Jesus loved this man who was the walking epitome of our sacrificial human institutions. It is, in the end, the power of this love which can reform our desire in directions other than our possessions. Jesus, the One who was sacrificed to these same institutions, has been raised to speak to us a word of forgiveness and agape. He looks us straight in the eye, with all our possessions, and loves us. How shall we respond?