On Mark's Rich Young Man
In this passage, the discipleship section turns again to the theme of eternal life (raised at its outset by Jesus in his call to the Cross that he emphasizes again in his teaching to the disciples at the end of Mark 9): the rich man is called to recognize Jesus’s identity and trust in God, not his wealth. But he cannot and will not and, so, exemplifies the opposite of childlike humility and receptivity in rejecting Jesus’s call to the Cross.
The man approaches Jesus like many would-be insiders, kneeling before him. He engages in honest flattery and asks about salvation: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17). The flattery is honest, and Jesus does not really rebuke him but, in 10:21, looks upon him with love. Indeed, Jesus’s response, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (10:18), isn’t a denial of Jesus’s goodness or divinity, but rather, a subtle call to the man to both recognize who Jesus really is (we’ve seen several places in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is suggestively identified as God come to earth, especially in the second boat scene, 6:45–52) and also to trust in him.
Indeed, one thinks here of C. S. Lewis’s famous trilemma from Mere Christianity, in which, reading the Gospels rightly, he asserts that we can’t simply pay lip service to Jesus as a good man and teacher, which is how the rich man addresses him. Given what the Gospels report, Jesus is either lunatic, liar, or Lord.The rich man here is forced to confront the same options.
Jesus responds by naming some commandments (10:19). The commandments he lists come exclusively from the second table of the Law, which deals with love of neighbor, and Jesus here adds something summarized from Deuteronomy 24:14: “Do not defraud” (10:19). The man replies that he’s kept what Jesus lists from his youth (10:20), which Jesus seems to accept. Although he is wealthy, the passage suggests the rich man has come by his wealth honestly and, as a good Jew, loved his neighbor.
But does he trust in God? And if so, can he—will he—make the next steps to trust in Jesus, whom readers of Mark’s Gospel know is God?
Now Jesus moves subtly to the matter of the first table of the law, which deals with love of God. It’s not enough, in Jesus’s view, to keep the second table. One must also love God, and in Mark’s Gospel and in Christianity most broadly, that means encountering God in Jesus. The man lacks one thing, and it’s not poverty as such. He lacks Jesus, who calls him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor so that he can follow Jesus on the way of the Cross (10:21), unencumbered in body and heart. Jesus invites the rich man to follow him as he called the first disciples on the shores of Galilee (1:16, 18), as well as Levi (2:14), and they left their livelihoods behind, whether their fishing gear (1:16–20) or tax tables (2:14). That’s how one has treasure in heaven and finds eternal life.
But the rich man won’t: “At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions” (10:22). Jesus had gazed at him intently (emblepō) in love, but apparently the man couldn’t meet his divine gaze. He, like other failing disciples, does not have eyes to see, whereas those disciples who do follow Jesus have eyes to see, like the blind man in 8:22–26 who came to see everything clearly.
Key to the passage is the issue of trust; the man can’t, or won’t, relinquish his riches to follow Jesus and trust in God’s providence, the God who through, with, and in Jesus can quickly feed a multitude with meager fish and loaves. And so Jesus will remind the disciples that it is hard “for those who trust in riches” (10:24) to enter the kingdom of God (emphasis added).
Trust, in Mark’s Gospel, is the meaning of faith, and so it’s oriented to the Cross. And so the rich man’s ultimate problem is failure to embrace the Cross. Of such men, Léon Bloy wrote:
Those among the rich who are not, in the rigorous sense, damned, can understand poverty, because they are poor themselves, after a fashion; they cannot understand destitution. Capable of giving alms, perhaps, but incapable of stripping themselves bare, they will be moved, to the sound of beautiful music, at Jesus’s sufferings, but His Cross, the reality of His Cross, will horrify them. They want it all out of gold, bathed in light, costly and of little weight; pleasant to see hanging from a woman’s beautiful throat.
That’s why Jesus says that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom (10:23).
The theology of the Cross runs counter to the logic of the world, of course, but also counter to the logic of a major strain of the Old Testament, the Deuteronomistic theology, in which blessings are a sign of divine favor. That’s why the disciples are amazed at Jesus’s words (10:24). Jesus doubles down, however, with his radical remark that it’s easier for a camel to come through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved (10:25), and the disciples now are “exceedingly astonished” and ask, “Then who can be saved?” (10:26).
It may be the disciples are yet thinking along the lines of the theology of blessing, which is in essence a theology of glory, where material rewards are a sign of divine favor. If so, they’re certainly forgetful of Jesus’s recent call to the Cross (8:34–38), and they’ve had issues with forgetting before (“And do you not remember?” in 8:18). They fail here, enamored yet of the theology of glory that’s part and parcel of the theology of blessing. But Jesus gazes at them as he gazed at the young man, reminding them that with God salvation is possible (10:27), for God can open eyes and unstop ears and soften hearts so that they, and we, might embrace the Cross, trusting in the God revealed in Jesus.
Many in the West today are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of kings and queens of old. As the legacy of the postwar economic boom continues, prosperity remains a problem for many Western Christians. And so, this passage is a special challenge. Some scholars, reading the Gospel as a reflection of the history of the situation of Mark’s own community, have said Mark’s emphasis on the Cross is meant to be a comfort for those who suffer (or suffered) under Nero’s brutal persecution. But the opposite is possible: perhaps Mark emphasizes the Cross to the ultimate, unflinching, inescapable degree he does not to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable, to shock Christians unacquainted with suffering out of their complacency. So too can Mark function today.
Finally, at the close of the passage, we see the pattern we already encountered in the story of the Transfiguration: a scene of glory to encourage those on the way of the Cross. The Cross is not the final word, not the destination, but the journey. The journey ends in Resurrection, in glory. Peter reminds Jesus the disciples have left everything to follow him (10:28). Jesus responds with a promise: all they have left will be restored, and above all, they will receive eternal life (10:29–30). But the only way to life is the way of death, the way of the Cross. And so, many who appear to be first—the wealthy, those who seem to be favored—will be last, and the last—those who appear as the wretched of the earth—will be first, forever (10:31).
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Collins, 1952), 53–54.
Léon Bloy,Pilgrim of the Absolute (New York: Pantheon, 1947), 175–176.