Just One More (Thing?)
As I continue to read in the discipline of performance criticism, especially as it pertains to the Markan composition, I notice more details.
First, there is the placement of the “ands” (in Greek the word is kai).
Performance critics note that in an oral presentation, the function of the “and” is to keep the story moving. I was taught and used to think that the Markan composer was sloppy when it came to language. I was taught that the composer used “and” the way Americans might use “you know” or “like.” The conclusion was that “and” was sort of linguistic junk and filler put in place by a middling literary talent.
That’s not the case. The Markan composer is quite capable of putting a full stop at the end of a story or section of the narrative. The “ands” are intentional, not accidental. When we have an “and” between separate incidents or events, the composer expects the performer and the listeners to connect the current section with the preceding section – or at least with the preceding sentence.
In Mark 10:15, we get a “solemnly sworn statement” from Jesus. “Truly I say to you (pl.), whoever does not welcome the Kin(g)dom of God as a child, that one will certainly not enter it” (my translation). We might expect the composer to leave a bit of space for reflection after that bombshell, but the script hurries on. “And embracing them [children], he blessed them, laying hands upon them” (my translation).
Jesus says it, and then he does it –without delay or hesitation. Now we might expect a little pause to celebrate that beautiful tableau and even applaud the power of this image. But there is no rest in the text. Instead, we have another “and.” There is a connection between this blessing of children and the section which follows.
We as listeners will discover if the connection is one of similarity or contrast. As preachers, we will be well served to remember that the Markan composer is setting up the story of the rich man with these two “ands.” So, the framework for viewing the rich man and his problems is through the lens of welcoming the Kin(g)dom as one welcomes a child – not for what one can get, but rather for how one is changed in oneself.
Before I leave this detail, I want to jump to verse 18. Here the conjunction is adversative rather than additive. We don’t get an “and.” Instead we get a mild “but.” The rich man does honor to Jesus and asks his deep and desperate question. As listeners we might expect another “and.” Instead, we get this. “But Jesus said to him, ‘Why is it me you are calling “good”’?” (my translation and emphasis). The rich man is not building on the understanding of discipleship we get in Mark 10:1-16. Instead, he’s taking a detour.
Again, I was taught that the mild adversatives (in Greek the word is de), were usually of no great consequence. In fact, they can be translated as “and” sometimes or even ignored. But I think that careful attention to the rhythm of the phrases and the logic of the narrative won’t allow us to skip over the “but” here.
The rich man’s question appears to be the wrong kind of question. Jesus’ response clearly verifies that assessment of the rhetorical current here.
Second, there is the repetition here of words for the number “one.” I don’t know how often the Markan composer uses forms of that word, but my recollection is that the use is infrequent. Here in our text, however, a form of the word shows up three times in five verses. Repetition in oral/aural performance means that something important is happening that needs both attention and remembering. So, let us attend and remember.
“And as he was going out into the way,” the Markan composer writes, “one who was running up to him and falling on his knees before him asked him…” (Mark 10:17a, my translation and emphasis). There are lots of ways to put this phrase in Greek, most often with the subject (“a man,” or “a person”) or perhaps with a relative pronoun. Since I’m a piker when it comes to Greek, I had to puzzle over this one a bit before seeing what was going on.
“One you are lacking,” Jesus says in Mark 10:21. One what? The NRSV fills in the blank with “thing,” but that’s not really in the text. So, I read this part of the text aloud a few times and reflected on what I heard.
Jesus responds to the man’s initial and ingratiating compliment by noting that “no one is honorable except for the One God.” Then Jesus points out that the man is lacking One. Perhaps what the man is lacking is not a “thing” but rather a relationship. He comes as “one” (isolated and alone) who lacks “one” thing – a real relationship with the “One” God.
This interchange drips with irony. The man is rich, for crying out loud. That means he has it all, right? A rich man lacks for nothing. Or if he does, he goes out and buys it – if it can be bought. Yet, Jesus declares that this rich man is somehow impoverished. Whitney Shiner shares an epigram from Seneca that connects with this text. “The poor lack much: the greedy man lacks all” (page 154).
How does Jesus tell him to fix this empty spot in the rich man’s inventory? Jesus says that he should part with all this stuff. The real “lack” in his life and in his heart can only be satisfied by giving up all those things that are supposed to fill the emptiness. Many things won’t fill that existential hole in his being. Only the One can satisfy the need that the Many leaves unsatisfied.
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” wrote St. Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Perhaps this is the issue that faces the rich man. Stuff ain’t enough (no extra charge for the sermon title). But what terror awaits us when we discover that fact of life! Another epigram from Seneca quoted by Shiner makes it clear. “A greedy man does good to none: he does most evil to himself” (page 154).
“As Jesus looked into him, he loved him…” Only the Markan composition has this detail about the encounter. Matthew and Luke report Jesus’ words but not his interior state. Nor do they have the verb translated in the NRSV as “looking at.” That’s a perfectly acceptable translation, but the verb has an interesting prefix. It gives the sense of seeing deeply into something or someone. Jesus has “insight” into the man.
Even as Jesus looks deeply into the rich man and sees the man’s deep attachment to his stuff, Jesus loves him anyway. The invitation to sell what he owns and to give it to the poor is not rooted in a desire to provoke or punish. It is rooted in self-giving love. The man is very close to the answer. He lacks only the One.
Of course, that means that he lacks Everything that matters. He depends on his stuff for his safety and sanity, for his security and certainty. As Luther reminds us in the Large Catechism, whatever we depend on in life and in death – that, Luther says, is our god. The rich man’s problem, therefore, isn’t obeying one more commandment. His problem, as is the case for each of us and all of us, is idolatry.
When we hang on to our stuff, we have trouble hanging on to God or to one another. As Matt Skinner notes, Jesus doesn’t tell the man to destroy his stuff or to simply deed it to his next of kin. Instead, Jesus invites the man to return to the human family. Jesus invites him to embrace his real kinfolk who live with insecurities about food and water, health and shelter. Jesus invites him to become a real human being again.
Relinquish your stuff and rejoin the human community, Jesus says. Money buys us status, separation, and segregation. I think about the signs of conspicuous wealth in our culture. These signs all say “Private” on them. Wealthy people have private pools, private libraries, private theaters, private tennis courts and golf courses, concierge physicians, gated estates, private jets and, perhaps, even private islands (take a look at the “Pandora’s Box” report on how the wealthy hide and protect their wealth around the world at https://www.huffpost.com/?icid=hjx004).
This is not merely about the one-percenters of the world. Money buys us status, separation, and segregation. Lack of money keeps the riffraff from our doors. If they get too close, we can simply move away and lock the door behind us. This, of course, is the story of the American real estate market for the last hundred years and more. Residential segregation keeps Black people in “their place.” And housing policy keeps those same people from accumulating the wealth that might allow them to get out of that place and get closer to us.
Jesus invites the rich man to part with his private property so it can benefit the common good. He has no room for the One in his heart and no room for many people in his life. That’s true because his “many” is made up of things, not relationships. All that stuff makes him less human…and he knows it. The question is whether he will pay the price required to become a real person.
I have no room really to talk in this way. I live in the splendid isolation of a modest retirement. Introvert that I am, I need little in the way of connection in order to be satisfied. The sojourn of Covidtide has reminded me that being satisfied with myself is the same as being self-satisfied. It’s hard to fit either love for God or love for neighbor into that equation.
Why didn’t I stick with something easy, like the philosophy of mind, when I had the chance?
References and Resources
DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.” Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5fm4h8wm. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1) Publication Date 2010-01-25 DOI 10.5070/D461000670.
Jones, Robert P. “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” https://robertpjones.substack.com/p/the-unmaking-of-the-white-christian?r=m09x3&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=&fbclid=IwAR3x1ubbXwm1HMXPxmG76O4uCUErS_SYSex5RA5zFXHl_7YncBDr0QaJsVs.
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
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.
Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.