Faith & Money: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Twenty-First Week after Pentecost
Twenty-First Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 10:17-31
1) This is the seventh week of a twelve-week chronological walk through several chapters in the Gospel of Mark.
2) Jesus has been teaching his disciples about what it means to follow him: being a “servant of all,” receiving the kingdom of God like a child, viewing cultural institutions (like marriage and divorce) through the lens of serving the most vulnerable - and now, in this week’s reading, sharing economic resources with people in need.
3) Not surprisingly, since it includes Jesus’ directive to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” this passage has been one of the most controversial - and most creatively interpreted! - in Christian history. Monastics point to it as the basis for a monk’s vow to poverty. Others insist Jesus only meant his advice to apply to the rich man himself; or only to the very rich; or only to a special inner circle of followers. Still others argue that Jesus’ real concern here is “attachment” to wealth, not the possession of it; or that the story is meant to underline that salvation comes not from human feats of piety but from God’s grace alone. Each of these options has merit - and yet, as we’ll see below, each fails to do full justice to the story. Indeed, the passage is challenging, haunting, and distinctive: it’s the only episode in which Jesus calls someone to follow him and gets turned down.
4) One excellent backdrop against which to read this passage is theologian David Bentley Hart’s remarkable short essay on the early church’s economic life, “Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?” His answer to this question, by the way, is both No and Yes. Worth a read!
1) Jesus is “on the way” (another possible translation of the key phrase in Mark 10:17). Specifically, as Mark later makes clear, he is on the way to Jerusalem, and ultimately to Golgotha (Mark 10:32-34). And more broadly, he’s traveling the path of Christian life, the way of discipleship, bearing in mind that “The Way” was one of the earliest names for the movement (see, e.g., Acts 9:2; 19:9). In other words, for Mark, the dialogue with the rich man is fundamentally about what it means to follow Jesus.
2) There’s a lot packed in to the man’s question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” First, the man runs up and kneels before Jesus, an unusual approach and posture for a theological discussion; indeed, in Mark, running-up-and-kneeling is more typical of those urgently asking for healing (see, e.g., Mark 1:40; 5:6; 5:33) - so we should interpret the man as profoundly struggling in some way. Second, his question presupposes that “eternal life” is inherited by those who have “done” certain things (“What must I do...?”), presumably those who have acted in “good” and righteous ways. And yet Jesus rejects precisely this presupposition in his correction of how the man addresses him: “No one is good but God alone.” On the surface, Jesus seems simply to be saying, Don’t call me “Good Teacher” - but his deeper point is to challenge the question’s premise and the man’s preoccupation, as if to say, You’re looking at this in the wrong way: salvation isn’t a sport in which those who “do good” win the prize. Only God is good. Salvation isn’t earned. You cannot rely on your own efforts, your own resources, your own “goodness.” Salvation is a gift from God, unearned, undeserved, and free!
3) “You lack one thing,” Jesus says, an ironic remark to a man who, with his “many possessions,” ostensibly lacked for nothing. But what exactly is the “one thing” he lacks? Is it moral virtue, the ethical standing that arguably comes from selling everything and giving the proceeds to the poor? If that were true, if this selling-and-giving were simply the good and right thing to do, we might expect Jesus to recommend it not only to this man but to the crowds as well, or at least to his disciples - but Jesus doesn’t do that. The disciples do give up what they own, it’s true, leaving behind their boats and nets by the shore, but they don’t sell everything they own and give the proceeds to the poor.
4) So if it isn’t moral virtue the man lacks – what is it? The clue may be the opening exchange about “goodness.” Perhaps the man, preoccupied with “doing good” so as to achieve his own salvation, trusts too much in his own resources, material and otherwise (“What must I do…?”). Perhaps what he lacks is trust in God, who is, after all, the true source of all goodness and salvation. This interpretation would help explain at least two things in the story: first, why the commandments he has followed “since my youth” are the neighbor-oriented commands (5 - 10 of the Decalogue), not the more explicitly God-oriented ones (1 - 4 in the Decalogue); and second, why relinquishing wealth is the remedy Jesus prescribes, since that would help dispell the man’s illusion of self-sufficiency and provide him with a more vivid, tangible experience of depending on God.
5) On the other hand, however, it’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t call the man to simply walk away from his possessions, or to burn them in a bonfire, but rather to share them with neighbors in need. And so the “one thing” he lacks may be generosity: the joyful sharing of blessings with others. Indeed, one of wealth’s hazards is that it can cut people off from genuine participation in community, which is to say, from living a fully human life.
6) So, whether we interpret the “one thing” the man lacks as trust in God, communal generosity, or both (since these “lacks” are often two symptoms of the same ailment, i.e., self-centeredness), one temptation is let ourselves off the material hook. The point here is really about trust and generosity, we tell ourselves, not about selling everything we own! So yes, let’s be less self-centered - but when it comes to our possessions, there’s no need to get carried away... But the story itself resists this kind of rationalization. If possessions are a corrupting barrier for this man (and indeed for the disciples, who also left everything behind in order to follow Jesus) - why wouldn’t they also be corrupting barriers for us? If this man lacked trust in God and generosity to his neighbors - are we really so sure we don’t lack these things, too? In short, if Jesus framed the life of first-century discipleship in startlingly material terms, as a way of life with concrete economic implications - why would twenty-first-century discipleship be any different?
7) In the ancient world (as in many circles today), wealth was widely considered a sign of divine blessing - which is why the disciples are so taken aback when Jesus declares that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). “Then who can be saved?” they incredulously ask, as if to say, If even they, the apparently blessed, cannot be saved - who can be? Jesus’ reply makes two points at once: first, that the apparent blessings of wealth are actually more like hazardous obstacles; and second, that while such obstacles can seem to put the kingdom of God out of reach, “for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
1) Jesus’ call to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” isn’t a one-size-fits-all command meant for everyone - if it were, he would have announced it more broadly, starting with his disciples. Instead, there’s something about this particular man that gives rise to Jesus’ advice: perhaps his preoccupation with his own efforts and resources, betraying a lack of trust in God as the source of salvation; or perhaps his lack of generosity with regard to others in need; or indeed, perhaps both. Pious as he is, he’s neverthless self-centered, oriented away from both God and neighbor.
2) But if the call to “sell and give” isn’t for everyone, it could still be for us. The rich man’s malady may be a condition for which we, too, require healing. In any case, for Jesus (and for Mark), discipleship has significant economic consequences that demand to be taken seriously. Peter’s contention that the disciples have done at least part of what the rich man refused to do (Hey, we left everything and followed you!) is evidence enough that Mark believes the economic consequences of the Gospel apply to more than just this one rich man (Mark 10:28-31). But there is plenty of other evidence as well: as the Book of Acts has it, the earliest Christian communities sold their assets, pooled the proceeds and “held them in common,” distributing them “to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35). Mark’s community shared a similar ethos, valuing a communal form of economic life for which many “left everything” in order to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28). Private wealth, then, was antithetical to this form of life, and significant private wealth was for many - like the rich man - an impediment to joining the movement. Accordingly, for Christians today living in a world riven by increasing economic inequality, this challenging, haunting passage presses us to confront just what the economic dimensions of the Gospel might look like in our lives. In short, the church is called to be not just a “holy” community, not just a “moral” community, but a decidedly economic community as well, following a savior who insisted again and again that faith and money are one coin, not two.
3) The good news of the Gospel in this week’s passage is that God’s grace, not our own efforts at being “good,” is the source of salvation; that Jesus “looks at us and loves us” (Mark 10:21), and so invites us to move beyond concerns with our own inheritance and focus instead on sharing our resources with others in need; and that God seeks to transform even and especially our economic lives into beautiful, humane, generative patterns of love and grace. In the final analysis, human beings are economic creatures; we are more than economic, of course, but not less! And so it only makes sense that God’s salvation would include definite effects on our economic form of life, just as it did for the earliest disciples. As we struggle together to figure out what those economic effects might be, we can take heart that Jesus sees us, and loves us, and calls us forward - and above all, that “for God, all things are possible.”