As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother."
He replied and said to him,
"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
"How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!"
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
"Then who can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said,
"For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God."
Peter began to say to him,
"We have given up everything and followed you."
Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come."
There is an old saying that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I feel that way about the Tuesday Scripture page on the blog. Over the year that Tuesday entry has morphed into a mini-commentary on the upcoming Sunday Gospel, which has meant for me a new journey through the text of St. Mark. This morning, when I laid eyes upon this weekend’s text, I found myself overwhelmed by the power—rather frightening, actually, as Peter himself observes in the text—of this Gospel, and going further, by this whole business of the revealed Word of God in Sacred Scripture.
Needless to say I need to consult with good sources before writing each Tuesday, and I realized today that I have not drawn much from the Jerome Biblical Commentary, something of the flagship of Catholic commentaries. I noticed for the first time that the chapter commentary on St. Mark was written by Father Daniel Harrington, an outstanding scholar who passed away just last year and whose obituary is here. I own several of his books, but those dealing with St. Matthew’s Gospel. His commentary on St. Mark (JBC, 596-629) is very helpful here today and I am drawing heavily from his insights.
Father Harrington, in his overview of this Sunday’s Gospel, points out that we have three separate segments or pericopes within the Markan Lectionary selection: (1) the rich man; (2) Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, and (3) Jesus’ teachings on the rewards of giving up riches. The overarching theme is the abandonment of this life’s rewards for the sake of full discipleship and the joy of the Kingdom of God. The first piece begins with the approach of a man to Jesus; it is not indicated initially that he is rich, and nowhere that he is young. (Matthew would later describe him as “the rich young man” in 19:20). Harrington comments that his salute of Jesus as “good teacher” is, as we say, a little over the top, and this may account for Jesus’ somewhat terse or annoyed answer in 10:18.
Readers may find it strange to hear Jesus speak of his Father as he does here: “No one is good but God alone.” Today’s reader thinks of Jesus as consubstantial with the Father, as the Creed states, but in the primitive days of Mark’s world the early Church was only gradually growing in awareness of Jesus’ full identity. Jesus proceeds to lay out the standard ethical life of a devout Jew, strict observance of Commandments 4-10, those dealing with love of neighbor. He does not mention the first three Commandments, possibly holding them back for the moment when he will talk about the true love of the disciple. This prospective disciple before Jesus does indeed ask the right question: he senses that there is “more” to discipleship and engagement in the Kingdom. But he, like the Apostles in earshot, are stunned at the cost of true discipleship, the abandonment of all early goods and total trust in the God of the coming Kingdom. That the man went away sad may be a metaphor for the many who left the Christian assembly in times of persecution when confiscation of property by the Romans was one of the costs of Christian discipleship (and not necessarily the worst.) Harrington, for his part, tends to soften the text a bit by commenting that the command to sell property was a particular invitation to this man and should not be taken as a general principle of Christian life, but Jesus’ follow-up instructions and the shock of the disciples would seem to indicate that he has introduced a stunning new dimension to living in the Kingdom.
In fact, Jesus opens the second section of the reading with an eye-opening proclamation about the incompatibility of wealth with entering the Kingdom. It is here that we get the Bible school classic maxim, “the camel passing through the eye of a needle.” I have heard preachers twist themselves into pretzels by explaining that (1) Jesus’ words here about camels and needles are Arabic metaphor, or (2) that a needle is actually a small door in a city wall which required considerable troublesome labors for a camel loaded with goods. Harrington states unequivocally that all such efforts at blunting Jesus’ words here are misleading wastes of time. It is what it sounds like: it will be extremely difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciples are amazed, in part because riches had been considered a sign of divine favor, and in large part because the teaching seemed impossible. Mark reports their confusion: “Then who can be saved?”
It may be good here to stop for a moment to remember a critical point about Jesus and the Gospel: all four Gospels ask of us to do the impossible. St. Matthew concludes his famous Sermon on the Mount with Jesus’ teaching to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) The Swiss Theologian Hans Kung, in his On Being a Christian, states that of all the world’s religions, Christians are the only ones whose moral/ethical charge is to become like the divinity. All other world religions establish a bar of attainment, so to speak. For the Christian, no such thing exists. How often is the Christian to forgive? Infinitely. When has a Christian hungered enough for justice? Never. When can a Christian claim to have prayed enough? Never. When can a spouse say that he or she has loved his or her partner enough? Never.
Jesus’ words here about riches, needles and camels are not out of character, then, with the entire New Testament corpus. Rather than lower the bar, Jesus introduces a new thought to his thoroughly befuddled disciples, that what seems to be impossible by human rational reflection is entirely possible with God. I can’t help but think of how well this passage relates to last Sunday’s reading about entering the Kingdom with the trust of a child.
In the final segment, Peter leads off by asking the ultimate adolescent question. He “gets” the radical demand Jesus is talking about, and so he asks, “What’s in it for us?” This is a fair question, posed by a man who is halfway home. He understands the call, but like the rich man earlier, he too has to decide which way to go. Jesus then describes the rewards of the Kingdom. Harrington notes that these blessing occur in this life (fellowship with believers, for example) as well as in the Kingdom to come. Jesus’ summary is a point-on description of early Christian life: alienation from family, losses of property, and even persecution, but with the rewards of new and in eternity.
Taken as a whole, Sunday’s Gospel probably arouses in us a natural tendency to explain away its total demand of our very selves for the sake of the Kingdom. But rather than look for loopholes, let’s clutch it to ourselves and like children ask the Father, with whom all things are possible, to help us dare the walk to perfection