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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Devotion on Proverbs 22 and Isaiah 35

This Sunday, the various lectionaries offer two lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures for preachers to consider. One is from Proverbs, the other from Isaiah.

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

1 A good name is more valuable than great riches, and to be held in favor by others is better than silver or gold.
2 The rich and poor have one thing in common: the Lord is the maker of both.
8 Those who sow injustice will reap trouble, and the club they wield in anger will break.
9 Those who are generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.
22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or oppress the needy at the gate,
23 for the Lord will plead their cause and rob the souls of those who rob them. (Will’s paraphrase)

Isaiah 35:4-7

4 Say to those with anxious and fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear! Your God will come with vengeance; with terrible retribution, God will come and save you.”

5Then the eyes of the blind will see, and the ears of the deaf will hear; 6then the lame will leap like deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground bubbling springs; and in the haunts where dragons once dwelled, grass and reeds and rushes will grow. (Will’s paraphrase)

Whenever possible given time constraints, I hope to post my own paraphrase of the scriptures. My paraphrase will always be based on my reading of the following translations: the New Revised Standard, the English Standard Version, the Today’s New International Version and the King James Version (with reference to Strong’s Hebrew and Greek dictionary). You see, by reading the passages in four different versions and then paraphrasing them, I get a better understanding of what the passages say. I also get to pick from the various translations phrasing or meaning that I like. If you want to use my paraphrases, you are welcome to do so.

As concerns the readings above, I really do not like it when the lectionary picks and chooses verses to use (as in Proverbs) or takes a small piece of a much larger passage that should remain together (Isaiah). In the case of the reading from Proverbs, however, the damage done to the integrity of the text is minimal since chapter 22 is a collection of sayings. The ones used for Sunday all focus on the dichotomy between the rich and poor, and on the need of those who have to care for and not take advantage of the havenots. Of course the exploitation of the poor and powerless has been a characteristic of human interaction throughout history, and it was a subject that most of the the prophets of Israel and Judah broaches at one time or another.

The writer makes the point at the beginning that God is the creator of both the rich and poor. This means of course, that in God’s eyes the poor are just as valuable and important as the poor. The other verses in the passage place the much responsibility on the rich as regards their relationship with the poor. In particular, verse 8 speaks of retributive justice. I particularly like what Howard Wallace has to say about this verse.

Verse 8 warns, ‘whoever sows injustice will reap calamity….’ This accords with the Hebrew Bible understanding of retributive justice, which sees calamity not so much as God’s direct punishment of wrongdoing as a basic pattern woven into creation. If people practice oppression, in the end, events will turn around to bring their hurt back upon them. In preaching on this passage, one might tease out the ways in which social inequality and deprivation can fuel unrest and even terrorism in our time. The second part of the verse says, ‘the rod of anger will fail.’ This follows on from the first part of the verse, implying that the purposes of angry action will not be met, as anger turns back against itself. Again, this might suggest avenues for preaching that explore military and diplomatic responses to situations of turmoil in the world.

Given the short length of Isaiah 35, I don’t see why this chapter can’t be read in its entirety, rather than plucking 4 verses of their context. As far as I am concerned, you can’t read too much scripture in worship (without reason). The entire chapter is a perfect example of the gospel that can be found in the Hebrew scripture. In particular, the writer assures us that God will save. Though it may not appear so given the current situation, God is on the move. Further this vision tells us that salvation is much more holistic than my personal well-being and final dwelling place. Salvation involves all of creation, and when it comes to human beings, there is also a physical component in addition to the spiritual. For an additional reflection on these verses, look at this commentary from Word-Sunday.com.

As far as I can tell, almost every modern version of the Bible translates verse 7 as referring to jackals instead of dragons. This is indeed one of the meanings of the Hebrew word, but more times than not, the word is defined as “monster,” either of the deep or on the land. I prefer to use the word dragon for its poetry and evocation of another time and place.

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