Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 2); October 10, 2021

You Got This!

The rich man runs up to Jesus and kneels at his feet at the moment Jesus is getting back underway on his journey to Jerusalem. Don’t you hate it when, just as you’re about to go out the door, the phone, or the doorbell rings? I’m often irritated by such intrusions in my schedule. I end up being ruder than I need to be. I don’t know if Jesus responds in this way, but it surely feels like it in the Markan composition.

Jesus rebuffs what he experiences as the rich man’s efforts to kiss up to Jesus, ingratiate himself with Jesus, and establish some sort of kinship of privilege with Jesus. I think Jesus then responds with impatience. Why are you wasting my time? “You know the commandments!” The verb tense indicates a completed past action, not an ongoing action from the past into the present. You’ve already learned this stuff! Why are you bothering me?

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You know the commandments! Jesus rightly presumes that the rich man has the benefits of privilege consistent with his status. He has likely been able to attend to his religious education far beyond the average tenure. He may be literate in Hebrew (and perhaps Greek and Latin). If not, he can certainly pay for the services of someone who is or purchase a slave as his secretary. He likely has a seat of honor in the synagogue, which he has perhaps generously endowed.

Jesus then goes on to list the relevant rules in order to remind the rich man of what he already knows. If I were performing the script at this point, I think I would be ticking the rules off on my fingers and shaking my head in mild exasperation. “Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t defraud. Honor your father and your mother.”

Come on, man! You’ve got this! I need to go.

He has every advantage when it comes to knowing the Torah. The rich man doesn’t dispute Jesus’ assumptions, and we should not. “Teacher,” he replies (at least he won’t make the same mistake twice), “All of these [commandments] I have been keeping since I was young.” Such confidence! “All” of these have been part of the rich man’s practice since, perhaps, his coming of age in the synagogue community. He’s got this.

That’s not an arrogant or even inaccurate description. Jesus doesn’t dispute it. Remember that Paul declares that he was “perfect” as a Pharisee when it came to keeping the Torah. It’s not that the man pretended to be flawless. Instead, he stuck strictly to the rules. When he failed, he knew what the rules were for making amends. When he got it right, he had a standard to assure him of that. “No brag,” as Will Sonnett used to say, “just fact.”

Let’s take a moment to look at this list. All these commandments come from the so-called Second Table of the Law: the commandments that structure our relationships with others in the covenant community. All these commandments also have clear implications for or direct references to property.

You might wonder a bit about that, but let’s think together. Murder is, in a very real sense, stealing the life of another human being. Adultery, in the Hebrew Scriptures and in first-century Judaism, is a property crime. One man steals the property of another man. The property in question is the sexual functioning of a man’s wife. Jesus has made it clear earlier in the Markan composition that honoring one’s father and mother has property implications. Remember the Corban controversy in Mark 7?

Commentators note that Jesus has inserted an additional commandment into the list: “do not defraud.” This insertion caused consternation very early in the history of textual transmission. Neither Matthew nor Luke includes the “extra” commandment in their parallel accounts of this part of the story. It is omitted in a number of early copies of the Markan script and is not included by Irenaeus or Clement in their quotations of the text.

Metzger’s committee does not appear to doubt the authenticity of this insertion into the list. But it gets a “C” grade from the committee, so there must be some wondering about it. They wonder if it’s really a shorthand for the “coveting” commandment(s) at the end of the list (Exodus 20:17). The committee also refers to Deuteronomy 24:14, which the NRSV renders as “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.”

As I try to apply performance criticism to the Markan composition, I have to wonder if the “extra” commandment was inserted in settings where it applied to some audience members and omitted in settings where it did not.

Performance critics note that this sort of “textual” fluidity was typical of such storytelling. It may simply be that this version of the performance is the one that made it into the most transcripts that landed in the hands of later scribes and interpreters. It may also be that a few of the other transcripts were also known and preserved.

If the connection to Deuteronomy 24 is actual, then I find that quite interesting. After all, the Pharisees who debate with Jesus earlier in the chapter refer to some divorce case law from the beginning of that chapter.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to propose that this section of the Markan composition is in dialogue with that part of the Torah record. While that chapter of Deuteronomy is a mixed bag in terms of focus, it is primarily about how those in power should treat (and not treat), the poor and vulnerable.

We have, therefore, the case law about the bill of divorce. Israelites are prohibited from kidnapping other Israelites and enslaving them, on pain of death. Security taken for loans is not to be held if that security puts the reputational or physical safety of the debtor at risk. Day laborers shall be paid every sunset, without fail, because otherwise they might not eat.

Widows, resident aliens, and orphans shall not be exploited. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:18, NRSV). Landowners shall leave sufficient grain, grapes, and olives to make gleaning worth the bother. It is the widows, resident aliens, and orphans – the paradigmatic vulnerable classes – who will benefit. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” the Lord says, “therefore I am commanding you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:22).

Torah interpretation is a big deal in the Markan composition and especially here in Mark 10. “What did Moses command you?” Jesus asks the Pharisees in Mark 10:3. The children Jesus embraces and blesses certainly remind us of the orphans in Deuteronomy 24. Interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures is a high priority for the Composer and for the community that listens to the Composition.

Jesus seems to be saying that knowing these commandments should be enough for the rich man to figure things out on his own. He’s got this.

That plain sense of the text creates neuralgic responses on the part of many interpreters. After all, didn’t Jesus overthrow the authority of the Torah in Mark 7 when he “declared all foods clean”? Apparently not, it would seem. We know from the overall Gospel witness that Jesus comes to “fulfill” the Torah, not to destroy it. So, that’s not the answer to the conundrum here.

Does Jesus challenge the rich man in this way in order to demonstrate that no one can keep the Torah perfectly? That’s a kind of ham-fisted Protestant approach, applying Luther’s “second use” of the Law. Jesus ups the ante by telling the man to divest himself of his goods for the benefit of the poor. The man finds that impossible and goes away sad.

Perhaps that’s a parable of our inability to fulfill the Law and our need for the imputed righteousness of Christ. After all, “for human beings, impossible, but not for God! For all things are possible for God” (Mark 1027, my translation).

However, that doesn’t fit with the rest of the text. “Other preachers assert that Jesus only tests the man by issuing a demand meant to expose the futility of his supposedly self-striving piety,” Matt Skinner writes. “But such an interpretation makes a mockery of Jesus’ love for the man (10:21) and the man’s grief (10:22). If Jesus is not serious,” Skinner wonders, “why does he not chase after the crestfallen man, saying, ‘Wait! Here comes the good part! Let me show you grace now!’?”

When Peter points out that he and the other disciples have done precisely what Jesus asked of the rich man, Jesus doesn’t go “full Paul” on them and point out that they are engaging in futile efforts at works-righteousness. Instead, Jesus commends them for their sacrifice and describes the “treasure in heaven” that they are now receiving and will receive in fullness in the Kin(g)dom’s complete presence. The Second Use argument doesn’t work here.

If the rich man has got this, then he ought to go ahead and do it. As a great sage in a galaxy long, long, ago, and far, far, away, said, “There is no try; only do.” But that’s not working – not for the rich man, not for the Markan Composer, not for the listeners, and certainly not for us. We need, perhaps, to dig even deeper.

References and Resources

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L.  Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

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.

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