Many translations identify this story as the story of the Rich, Young Ruler. But it doesn’t actually say that. The titles that we find in English translations are titles that have been added for the benefit of the reader—often through many years of tradition. They are not normally titles that are in the original text. When we find this story in Matthew the man is identified as young. In Luke’s version of the story he is a ruler. Here we are told that the man had many possessions—possessions meaning that he was a land owner. He was certainly comfortable in his position. He was one of the wealthy ones.
This wealthy man runs up to Jesus and asks, “what must I do to inherit abundant life?” Jesus quotes some of the 10 Commandments back to the man and adds a new one of his own: “You shall not defraud.” The man says to Jesus, “I have done all these things.” In other words, I’ve been good. I have lived a good life following the Law of God. Jesus gives the man another commandment: “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” The man couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give up everything and follow Jesus.
I’ve been struggling with this passage because I recognize that by world standards I am very wealthy. I have access to credit and we have been able to purchase a house. How do I feel about selling everything and giving the money away so I can follow Jesus? Very uncomfortable. I happen to like my life the way it is and I don’t want to walk away from what I have. I don’t think I’m alone in this discomfort.
But let’s go back to the story for now: The extra commandment that Jesus gives the man holds a bit of a clue. At the time of Jesus, because of the policies of the Roman empire and the taxation system, many people had lost access to their land and had become peasant slaves or day laborers as a way to survive. The land became concentrated in the hands of a few people who essentially picked it for a deal at the expense of their neighbours. So technically this man may have legitimately bought the land but he was able to buy the land because he was OK with someone else losing their land and home. He could buy the land because he was willing to pay the taxes required by the Roman Empire: taxes which oppressed his own people. By purchasing the land this man contributed to upholding the Roman empire at the expense of his own Jewish community.
And this seems to be part of what Jesus is challenging. Jesus is asking the man, “are you OK with holding land that used to belong to your neighbour and turning your neighbour out into the street?” “Are you OK with amassing wealth while the people around you become more and more poor?” Ched Myers, writes that “as far as Mark is concerned, the man’s wealth has been gained by “defrauding” the poor—he was not “blameless” at all—for which he must make restitution. For Mark, the law is kept only through concrete acts of justice, not the façade of piety.” This reminds me of a passage from Isaiah 58:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
In the passage from Isaiah, the people are worship and doing everything correctly but they have forgotten the spirit of compassion which underlies and upholds the law. Jesus seems to be saying the same thing to this man. “Technically, you have upheld the law.” The man confirms that he has never murdered anyone, he has never stolen anything, he has never lied, he has never defrauded anyone and that he has always honoured his parents. Technically, he has obeyed the law but now what Jesus asks of him is to follow the spirit of the law. The questions underlying Jesus’ words to the man are, “Do you have concern for the poor? Do you have compassion in your heart? Have you removed injustice from your community?” And the man cannot follow Jesus because he benefits from the oppression of others. He cannot follow Jesus because he cannot find compassion within himself.
And so the man leaves without following Jesus. Earlier in Mark we see Jesus call the fisherman. These are people whose security was in boats and nets. Their boats and nets would not make them wealthy. They would probably spend their whole life fishing in order to survive and fishing was quite literally their lifeline. When Jesus called them they got up and walked away in order to follow him. The fishermen left their security but the rich man in the story could not leave behind his security. He could not leave behind his wealth. He could not leave behind his social status. He could not follow Jesus.
It is challenging for those of us with wealth to follow Jesus. Are we willing to give up our security and comfort? Are we willing to change systems of power that benefit us? Are we willing to find compassion for others who are struggling to make ends meet? Is it possible to follow Jesus and be wealthy?
Jesus responds to these questions as he speaks to the disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go pass through the Needle’s Eye Gate than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God! . . For mortals it is impossible—but not for God. With for God all things are possible.” (Mk 10:25,27 Inclusive Translation). In Jerusalem there is a gate in the old city called the Needle’s Eye. Imagine a camel trying to get through this gate— challenging but possible. The camel drivers had to remove all the baggage and then the camel would be forced to stoop down in order to pass through the gate.
In order to follow Jesus, we need to be able to let go of our burdens. We cannot find our way through a narrow gate if we keep everything. All of us have things in our lives that keep us from following the spirit of the law. Our attachment wealth and possessions might keep us from trying change systems that oppress others. Our busyness might keep us from pausing to help someone in need. Our concern for our own family and friends might keep us from seeing the stranger that is alone. Like the rich man in the story, we might feel that we are following God’s way and doing everything that is required but the spirit of compassion and concern for others needs to be within us.
What will you give up in order to follow Jesus? What security will you leave behind to follow Jesus? How will you live the compassion that Jesus requires of us?
. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006), 274.