Reflection on Mark 10:17-31

Mark 10:17-31 – My Paraphrase

17 As Jesus set out on the way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “None are good but one – God. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'”

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since my youth.”

21 Jesus looking intently at him, loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell all you have and give to those in the greatest need, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, take up the cross, and follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell, and he went away deeply grieved, because he had many possessions.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were astounded at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is [for those who trust in wealth]* to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were exceedingly astounded, and they said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With humans – impossible, but not with God; with God all is possible.”

28 Then Peter said, “Look, we have left all to follow you!”

29 And Jesus answered and said, “Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or land for my sake, or for the sake of the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this time: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields-along with persecutions-and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many now first will be last, and the last first.”

*Older manuscripts do not have this phrase.

Reflection

There are few passages of scripture more challenging or difficult to rationalize away than this passage from Mark. Many commentators and preachers have tried to explain away the radical calling in these verses by saying that Jesus is only making the selling of possessions a requirement for this one man. But even if this were so, we still have to wrestle with verses 23-25. And though it would appear that some of the newer manuscripts attempted to soften the blow by adding the words “for those who trust in wealth” to verse 25, overall the effect is the same with or without these words – wealth, riches, possessions all make it difficult for those who have them to enter into God’s kingdom.

Since most of you who will read this and all of those who will hear it in my church on Sunday live in what has been called the “First World,” it becomes evident that these words especially apply to us. For instance, per capita income in the US in 1999 was a little over $21,000. If you’d prefer to take the median household income of $43,000 and divide by the average household size of 2.5 you still end up with an average of $17,200. Taking that figure and plugging it into the Global Rich List reveals that someone making that little a year is still in the top 11.76% of the world’s population in terms of income. In others words he or she would be rich. Even a person who earns as little as $2,000 a year is still in the top 18%, and would be considered rich in comparison to the rest of the world.

How hard it is for us to enter the kingdom of God. Ouch! There is no way to avoid this conclusion. Further, attempts by some commentators to say that Jesus is merely referring to a small gate in the wall around Jerusalem that required a camel to be unloaded before proceeding through simply do not hold water. Sarah Dylan Breuer puts it this way:

For example, I’m sure that many have heard that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem (or, in some versions, Jericho) called “The Eye of the Needle,” which was so narrow that a camel couldn’t get through it unless the packs it was carrying were removed, at which point it could get through laboriously on its knees. . . .I’m sorry to say, though, that there is no evidence whatsoever that there was ever any such “Eye of the Needle” gate. It’s a kind of ecclesial version of an urban legend — invented, I would guess, as a metaphor that, as generations repeated the story, turned into a solid “archaeologists have discovered” report. But it’s fiction. Careful readers could tell as much just from Mark 10 itself. If Jesus had been talking about such a gate, his hearers wouldn’t have been astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?!”; they would have said something more like, “what a bummer to have to carry those packs yourself for 50 feet.” And Jesus would not have replied that it’s impossible for mortals but nothing is impossible for God; he would have said something more like, “gosh you all are dim sometimes — just take off the camel’s packs and you’re fine!” (Read her full commentary on this passage here)

In addition to these difficulties we have Jesus saying things like “leaving one’s family” and “the first will be last.” This passage becomes just too hard, too difficult.

Of course, this is exactly the point that Jesus is trying to make. It is impossible for us to enter God’s kingdom through anything we do. It is impossible for us to “do” anything to “inherit eternal life.” None of us are that good. Not one of us. The kingdom is ours, eternal life is ours, only because it is something that God gives to us. We are heirs to these gifts because God has adopted us as his children. If only the man in today’s reading had stayed around to hear the rest of the story from Jesus. If only he could have accepted the fact that even if he had sold all he had, given it to the poor, and carried his cross till the kingdom come, he still would have eternal life only as a gift, not because anything he had done had earned it for him.

One other note: Mark is the only gospel that has the phrase ” Jesus looking intently at him, loved him.” He does the same to each of us, of course, especially when he sees how hard we try to earn what he has already promised to freely give us.


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