Today’s reading is Mark 10:17-31:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ ”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said 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.”
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Most of you are rich. Sure, among the readers of this piece, it might vary by which power or two your wealth exceeds that of the world’s (or even the US’s) most impoverished. You may not consider yourself rich. Persnally, I don’t play polo, eat filet mignon, or wear $200 jeans. I shop sales and thrift stores and thrift store sales and I never even buy coffee. When I was younger (or … yesterday), frozen pizzas from the grocery store were considered a treat. It’s been easy for me, especially in the places in which I’ve lived, to consider myself maybe average, below average income. But I live in a three bedroom house. My parents are both white-collar professionals; I could afford flute lessons through middle and high school; we always had more than enough to eat. I am rich. And so, probably, are you.
All this to say: it’s important for us, especially in these places where it’s easy to compare our privilege to that of others, to look at the obvious meaning of this passage. In many ways, the rich young man is a better person than us; he is both an upstanding citizen and an earnest seeker of truth. Mark describes him as running up to a journeying Jesus before he asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (10:17)? The rich young man is living a good life and following most of the tenets of the law which Jesus mentions: he doesn’t murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, defraud, or dishonor his parents. And when he confirms his virtue, even Jesus agrees that he’s kept the law in these ways. How many of us can say that we’ve honored our parents since our youth? How many of us would earnestly run up to a teacher to ask how to gain eternal life? Still, the man has not done enough.
Jesus looks at him and loves him, and out of this love, tells the man: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (10:21).
Key to note is that when Jesus lists for the young man the commandments from the Old Testament, he includes neither the warning against covetousness nor the commandments related to loving and serving God. This is intentional. Indeed, these commandments are all encompassed in the “one thing” that the young man lacks; these are the commandments that he cannot keep. While the man doesn’t covet his neighbor’s things, he certainly thinks he needs things that he does not need. He can’t give all he has to the poor—he idolizes his wealth— and he can’t follow Jesus. And following Jesus constitutes following God. While in this passage Jesus doesn’t directly say “I am the Lord”; he clearly implies it with his list of commandments—yes, the young man is following most of them, but not the most important ones. And he can do this by following Jesus, who is God.
But the young man cannot follow these commandments or Jesus. He goes away “sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (10:22). While reading this, I think of hot showers and grilled cheese. I think of my bike, scented hand soap, two-ply toilet paper, my tomato garden, internet, and necklaces. I think of my relative global mobility and opportunities to leave Massachusetts. As St. Augustine prayed as a young man, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet,” so I pray, “Lord, make me generous … but not yet”. Not until I’ve gotten that summer internship or job or graduation or more money or time or—
“Children,” Jesus tells the disciples, “how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (10:23). For the rich, the content, the comfortable, it’s difficult to prioritize what is truly important. The commandments that allow us to appear as good citizens are easier to follow; those that tell us to drop everything we have and follow Jesus, who is God, are practically impossible.
But what is impossible for us isn’t impossible for God. That is, if we are willing to give up our possessions and family and home if we are so called. The rich young man in the story is still young. Perhaps later he does accept Jesus’ request to sell his possessions and follow the Lord, after having had his eyes opened to the inadequacy of his “good life”. Perhaps he does not. But for me, and you, the gate is still open, and it entails much more than tithing 10% of income, or cutting down on eating out, or volunteering once a month. Those are good places to start, but legalism and living like a “decent person” doesn’t cut it for the kingdom of God—what’s necessary is a complete transformation of character and the way to view possessions and Jesus. The first way, I think, is to acknowledge my wealth and privilege. Am I idolizing my possessions? My opportunities? Armed with the knowledge (that the rich young man didn’t have) that Jesus is Lord, am I truly following Jesus with all that I am and all that I have been given? The answer, of course, is always “no.” But, says Jesus, “All things are possible with God” (10:27). Especially in this age of materialism, this passage is one on which I have often mediated. But intertwined with the obvious message of radical generosity—unobjectionable and impossible to believers and non-believers alike—and is that of Jesus as God, Lord and Savior of the world, the only way to a “virtuous life”, the only way to a generous life, and the only way to truly live.
Siobhan McDonough ’17 lives in Kirkland House and concentrates in Social Studies.