What Shall I Do?
In the Markan composition, every detail matters.
“And as he was going out into the way, a person, running up to him and kneeling down before him, asked him, ‘Honored teacher, what shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, my translation). The NRSV renders the first phrase as “as he was setting out on a journey…” That translation misses the nuance of the text. The “way” was the way to Jerusalem, the way to the cross, the way of discipleship, the Way that became known as Christianity.
The audience would have heard that nuance and understood. Our text is another meditation on the nature and cost of discipleship. Those who follow Jesus on the Way do not seek to save their lives. They lose them for the sake of Jesus and the Good News. The man who questions Jesus will be asked to relinquish his whole living as a prelude to following Jesus.
It’s no wonder he was flustered by Jesus’ word and went away flummoxed. If we experience this text as any less troubling, we’ve probably domesticated it beyond recognition.
In the previous scene, the Pharisees questioned Jesus in order to “test” him. As we noted last week, this questioning had a hostile and aggressive tone. That isn’t the case with the man in this story. He runs to Jesus. An honorable, high-status male in that context would not have run anywhere, unless his hair or his house was on fire.
The man is experiencing a serious crisis of faith, and he hopes that Jesus can help him out. “The type of question he asks is one dealing with the dimensions of a morally integral way of life,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write. “Such questions are about how to be a morally complete person, pleasing to God and one’s fellow human beings” (page 234).
He addresses Jesus as a “good” or “honorable” teacher. To us, Jesus’ response seems to be the height of rudeness, and perhaps it is. But the interchange is built into a set of cultural expectations from the honor and shame culture that Jesus and the man inhabit together. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that this is a compliment, but that in such a society “compliments indicate aggression; they implicitly accuse a person of rising above the rest of one’s fellows at their expense” (page 243).
The compliment implies that Jesus has somehow “got above his raisin’,” as some might say. That’s worth considering for a bit. In the first century Mediterranean world, rich people were always regarded with suspicion. The ancient proverb was that a rich man was either a thief or the son of a thief. Accumulating wealth was always done at the expense of others and was thus regarded as a kind of legal larceny.
If the rich man was responding to this evaluation, perhaps he was trying to make a sympathetic connection with Jesus. “Teacher,” perhaps he was saying, “you and I are both elevated above these others, each in our own way. Just as you deal with suspicions about your status and its legitimacy, so I have many of the same struggles. So, perhaps you can give a fellow high-status person a few moments of your time?” I don’t know if that’s what is happening here. And I don’t know how significant it is – except, perhaps, that the impulse to minimize or trivialize the problems of wealth is very old indeed.
Jesus does not agree to form a mutual admiration and aid society. “Jesus must fend off the aggressive accusation,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, “by denying any special quality of the sort that might give offense to others. Such a procedure is fully in line with the canons of honor.” Jesus resists the overture both through his counterquestion and what Malina and Rohrbaugh call a proverb – “No one is honorable (good) except for the one God.”
The NRSV translates that proverb as “No one is good except God alone.” But I think that misses an additional nuance of the text. The Greek might remind listeners of the language of the Jewish confession of faith, the Shema, taken from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is one.” It is not any old god who is good or honorable. It is the God of Israel who is in question here.
The man has a specific question – “What shall I do in order that I shall inherit eternal life?” Christian listeners will likely hear this as a question about how to get to heaven when we die. That’s not what this question is about at all. The man was asking about how to be part of the New Age to come, when the Messiah of Israel would put all things right. While a general resurrection of the dead at the end of the current age might have been part of the man’s theological framework, pie in the sky in the sweet by and by was not.
N. T. Wright notes that first-century Jews believed that something would happen “which would make everything different. A great event would occur,” he continues, “which would bring justice and peace, freedom for Israel, punishment for evildoers (whether Jews or Gentiles), a time of prosperity when all the prophecies would be fulfilled, all the righteous dead would be raised to new life, all the world would burst out into a new and endless spring” (Kindle Location 2438f.).
Some of us hope that Jesus will encourage the man to come to a living and personal trust in Jesus. That’s the key to this “eternal life” business, we may think. Of course, that’s not what Jesus does – at least, not right away.
What shall I do in order that I shall inherit eternal life? Protestant Christians, and especially Lutherans, will hear this as an impossible question. We know that there is nothing we can “do” to inherit eternal life, no matter what that last phrase means. We are justified by grace through faith, we all know, and this is not our own doing but is rather the gift of God.
Matt Skinner notes in his workingpreacher.org commentary that some “preachers assert that Jesus only tests the man by issuing a demand meant to expose the futility of his supposedly self-striving piety. But such an interpretation makes a mockery of Jesus’ love for the man (10:21),” Skinner notes, “and the man’s grief (10:22). If Jesus is not serious,” Skinner asks, “why does he not chase after the crestfallen man, saying, ‘Wait! Here comes the good part! Let me show you grace now!’?”
In fact, our inability to do anything to deserve “eternal life” is what makes that gift a matter of grace rather than merit, a matter of faith rather than works. So, some of us hope that Jesus will launch into a great Reformation Day sermon about the futility of our works and the marvelous grace and mercy of God in Christ. Instead, of course, he starts quoting from the Ten Commandments. What the hell?
What shall I do to inherit eternal life? We know this isn’t going to end all that well. We’ve heard the story before. Perhaps there’s something specific about the man and his wealth that we don’t know. Whatever it is, we’d like an explanation that allows us to get some distance from the difficulty. Please, Jesus, say that there’s something about this particular rich person that doesn’t apply to the rest of us rich people.
Well, that’s not going to happen either.
“Here is a deeply religious person so well-attuned to his practices that he can sense that there is more out there than what he has experienced so far,” Skinner writes. “He asks Jesus about the ‘more,’ but his question focuses on what needs to be added. He seeks the limit, or the next step,” Skinner concludes, “but discovers instead that eternal life entails the surrender of one’s whole self.”
I have often found it easy, as a parish pastor, to be cynical about the tight-fisted, self-serving piety of my parishioners. More often than not, I have been wrong. I experience the man in this text as one of my many parishioners who have actually understood that following Jesus makes demands on the followers, and that those demands might impact what they (we) do with their (our) wealth. I have been privileged to serve with some incredibly generous Christians who were models of financial stewardship that often put me to shame.
The most sensitive of those parishioners understood that even their exemplary giving was not “enough.” Nothing less than our whole lives is “enough” for full life in the Kin(g)dom of God. This means much more than a financial transaction, although that’s part of it. It means a transformation of the heart, a full and joyful dependence on God in Christ for all that is good. I sometimes find that transformation exhilarating. I often find it terrifying.
“I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all,” Martin Luther wrote, “but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” Old Marty is always good for a pithy pronouncement. And I know, based on his other writings, that this sentiment was close to his heart. I know he’s right on this one. But most of the time, I hear the words and go away sad.
I long for this text to reach me again with the life-changing hope of Christ.
References and Resources
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-4.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.