Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
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!” 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! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:17-27 – NRSV)
See also Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 18:18-30. However, whereas Mark calls him a “man”, in Matthew it’s a “young man” and in Luke a “certain ruler”. Only in Mark do we learn that the man “had many possessions” (10:22).
Mark continues his journey motif – see also 8:27; 9:2, 9, 14, 30, 33; 10:1. Jesus is still in Judaea, on his way to Jerusalem.
what must I do to inherit eternal life?: The expression, “eternal life”, should be taken as a synonym for the “kingdom of God”. At least three things are noteworthy about this question. First of all it follows immediately after Jesus has made the following declaration: “‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’” (10:15-16). Secondly, the question comes from an anonymous bystander rather than from one of the disciples. Thirdly, we must note the particular emphasis in the man’s question: “What must I do …. ?” Whilst this is a good question, it does seem to imply that the man wants a program or a project that he can do to earn entry to the kingdom. The kingdom is God’s kingdom, not our kingdom. God invites, God receives, God enables. How can I be part of this unmerited and unearned gift of “eternal life”? Jesus has already answered that question: “Be like a little child”.
Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone: Jesus draws the man’s focus back to God and away from his own behaviour.
You know the commandments: This switch to the ethical demands of the Commandments should be heard in the context of the “God alone” statement. In other words, whilst it is good to be ethically upright, it is not enough and it is certainly not the essence of what is on offer in the kingdom. Recall Paul’s admission in Philippians 3:6: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless”. The centre of the fully human life is not the human being but God. Christian holiness is much more than ethical behaviour, valuable as that is. The Covenant is ultimately about the goodness of God. In the kingdom, that goodness will be manifest in and through us all.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him: Jesus did not look on hypocrites in that way. It seems that Jesus had a genuine affection for this man. One commentator writes: “Jesus is not being deceived by the rich man. He sees inside him and ‘loved him’. The word for ‘love’ (Gk. agapan) is the highest form of love in the NT, meaning love that characterizes God and of which God is worthy. There must have been something rare and admirable in the man, for of no one else in the Gospel does Mark say that Jesus ‘loved him’” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 312.)
You lack one thing: Even this man of moral integrity – whom Jesus “loves” – still “lacks one thing”. Recall the incident with the children immediately before this encounter: “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’. And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them” (Mark 10:13-16 – ESV). Jesus has already answered this man’s question: “To such belongs the kingdom of God”. We cannot assume that it is the moral integrity of the children that Jesus commends. We must assume it has something to do with their innocence and vulnerability, their trust and their openness. In other words, the kingdom is God’s gift not our conquest – by moral or any other means.
Follow me: What the man seeks – though he does not yet know it – is right before him. It is Jesus. This is an awakening that has not yet dawned however. Perhaps, if Jesus had given him something challenging to do without being so utterly vulnerable – for example, say some extra prayers, give away a little of his wealth, make a special pilgrimage to Jerusalem – he might have been happy with that. One commentator writes of Jesus’ teaching through the parables: “The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs. We want good precepts and we want sensible programs. We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 82.)
Reflection – “Questioning that is questing”
We easily forget that, at the heart of the word “question” is the word “quest”. This forgetfulness gives rise to a certain way of questioning that is merely functional. For example, I might ask one of the attendants in the supermarket, “Where is the washing powder?” or I might ask my doctor, “What is the best diet for me?”. It is probably fair to say that, for many, this merely functional questioning is the only kind of questioning.
There are indeed many situations where it is entirely reasonable to expect an answer to a question. But ultimately, we stand before life as a mystery, where questions have a different intent. Here there is the call to surrender, to be present in humility and awe, where the questioning is questing. It is an opening of the depths of one’s being to the Infinite. The intent is not answers but relationship – ever-deepening relationship.
In today’s Gospel – Mark 10:17-27 – a man asks a question of Jesus. The question is functional. He wants Jesus to solve a problem for him. Jesus refuses. Instead, Jesus invites the man to stand naked with him before the mystery. The man’s expectation of a how-to answer leaves him closed to the real quest.
The context of this exchange helps us to understand the text. Immediately prior to Mark’s account of the man running up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking “What must I do to gain eternal life?”, there are two crucial points of context.
The first point of context is Mark’s statement: “He (ie Jesus) was setting out on a journey”. Jesus-on-the-way is a major theme in Mark’s Gospel. He asks the man to join him “on the way”. The most significant questions for those “on the way” are not functional questions. At the heart of being “on the way” is questing. The important questions are always about questing, opening one’s self to the Infinite. Living is restlessness. If we care to notice, we are always in unknown territory. Like the people of old, we have no map, no answers. We only have God who has promised to be with us – see Exodus 3:1-14.
The second point of context is Jesus’ declaration: “‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’” (10:15-16). This is a confronting declaration for any adult in any era, let alone one living in a world that is ruthlessly dominated by powers of one kind or another. We can have some sympathy for the man who was unable to accept Jesus’ invitation.
Perhaps we too would have gone away shocked, grieved? If Jesus had given the man – us – a moral program, even a demanding moral program, we might conceivably take that up with some energy. Instead, Jesus invites us to journey with him . . .