Mark 10: 17-31 (NRSV)
The Rich Man
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.”
Jesus rarely, if ever, answered a question directly. He was more likely to turn people’s limited and human-centred questions on their head. In response to the rich young man in this week’s story, you can almost imagine Jesus, frustrated because we just weren’t getting it. We were missing the point, time and again.
The rich young man was simply being polite when he addressed Jesus as “good teacher”. He wasn’t making a theological or philosophical point. But Jesus is always making a point. So his response is essentially this: “well, first of all, I can’t be called good-with-a-capital-G, because only God is that Good. But to answer your question…”
What can we learn here? That Jesus was like one of those annoying, pedantic teachers who, when asked “can I go to the bathroom” would counter with “I don’t know, can you? We have no bathrooms in this school but you may go to the toilet if that’s what you’re asking”. Doesn’t that make your blood boil?
Jesus is not pedantic. However, he does not waste his words, and he is fully aware of their value. He had a keen audience, and maybe he knew how much time we would spend, for the next two thousand plus years, dissecting his words. The depth of study, meditation, song lyrics, PhDs, and tattoos, that would be borne out of his statements. That pressure must have been really something. Wisdom is knowing what to say in a given situation. Wisdom is not filling the air with empty words. Jesus knew this; perhaps we could learn from his reverence for language. This is my first point.
Point number two: Jesus, in his infinite patience, answers the man’s question on the man’s own level. “You know the commandments” he says. Jesus was operating on a different frequency. His contradictory statements, his riddles and parables and “I’ve come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it” and “who do you say I am”s are proof that we were so often missing the point. We ask limited questions, and Jesus in his grace answers them, but not before turning something on its head and making a larger point about how it all works.
And his patience comes from love. How incredible that he looked at this nervous, wealthy man, afraid of not getting into the kingdom of God, missing the point entirely, and felt “genuine love”. That’s the Jesus we follow. He loves us despite our small minds and flawed human questions.
But then we have the kicker. “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. Wait, what? I was on board when we were talking about not murdering and stealing, but give away everything I’ve worked so hard to get? Is that really necessary? Suddenly I see myself in the rich man (not something I thought I’d ever say). He walked away saddened at the prospect of having to give away everything he owned. Jesus’ response - not running after the man, saying “ok fine, let’s make a deal” or shouting after him “your loss pal!” or even despairing at humanity’s inability to grasp a simple command and sacrifice such little things as money and possessions for the sake of being part of the best thing to happen to the world - its attempted rescue.
The real kicker though, or the kicker part two, is that Jesus becomes even more extreme when he says… actually, it’s almost impossible for people to enter the Kingdom of God. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. Naturally enough, the disciples wonder aloud whether it is possible for any of us to enter the Kingdom of God. I imagine they threw their hands in the air, tempted to say “well, it’s been fun Jesus, but this is where we tap out”. Jesus’ response tells us everything we need to know. “Humanly speaking it is impossible, but with God all things are possible”. It doesn’t matter how many good things you do, how much you try to fit into the impossible mould of a perfect Christian, you will never measure up to the job. But that’s not the end. Jesus tells us that with God all things are possible. And that with God all things are upside-down. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. What you do on Earth won’t get you into Heaven, whatever your conception of Heaven. But it’s also not meaningless. Heaven aside, your acts on Earth have the potential to bring you into the Kingdom of God. Treating people well and holding things lightly - your life, your money, your possessions and your decisions - these are the platform on which you can tap into the mission that God is already on. God could do it without us, but for some reason the Divine chooses to partner with us. Jesus shows us what it is to be fully Divine and fully human. And the goal is not that we should do the same. The goal is that we should ask God to use us. To change us. To give us the desire to sell our possessions and give to the poor. Because that is the mission God is on. And in God’s grace, we are not required to carry out good deeds like levels in a video game. But we are required to treat one another as equals. Maybe even as fellow bearers of the image of God… Imagine what that would look like. It might just look like… selling your possessions and giving your money to the poor.
So yes, this passage is a challenge. But it’s not a scary do-this-or-I-won’t-love-you command. It is an invitation to partner in the impossibly-possible work that God is doing on Earth. And isn’t that an exciting prospect?
Katie is an aspiring writer, an eternal intern, and a passionate Jesus-Feminist. With a Master’s in International Development and a Bachelors in Sociology and French, she is qualified for ... making lattes and pulling pints (skills that she has put to great use). She recently returned to Ireland after working in New York and studying in Edinburgh.