Do Not Pass Go — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 10:17-31.

Perhaps the rich man confronts an existential meltdown. Maybe he is meeting a crisis of meaning. Could it be he has found the purpose-driven life to be mostly just…driven? Does he live his best life now, only to find that “best” is not enough?

The rich man has won the real-life Monopoly game. He owns Park Place and Boardwalk (as well as all the orange properties which, statistically, have the highest Return on Investment). He has all the railroads and utilities for a steady cash flow. He has even won second-place in the beauty contest (twice!).

He’s got it all. Come on, buddy. You’re so close.

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on

In the first-century world, rich men were seen as sort of white-collar criminals. “Every rich man is either a thief or the son of a thief,” the ancient proverb says. Mark’s audience was mostly poor people. It’s unlikely they applauded when the rich man appeared on the Markan stage. Instead, this strangely anonymous character was likely greeted with boos, hisses, and the melodramatic throwing of popcorn.

We twenty-first century American listeners are a different audience. We identify with the rich man. We hope he triumphs. “We worship at the altar of plenty,” Kate Bowler writes in No Cure for Being Human. “Our heroes are corporate titans, fitness-empire builders, grinning televangelists, music legends, and decorated athletes whose gilded lifestyles and totalizing success hold out the promise of more…Despite the boom and bust of the American economy over the last fifty years, we cling to stories of more-than-enoughness, believing the future is full to the brim for all of us.”[i]

Come on, buddy. You’re so close. You won at real-life Monopoly. Maybe now you can win at Life (existence, not another board game).

The rich man draws another card. “The one who dies with the most toys still dies.” At some point you cannot pass “Go.” You will not collect another two hundred dollars. Your money goes back into the box, and your property titles back into the pile. Tokens are retrieved. The game is over.

Maybe the rich man has a “Hank Williams” epiphany. We’ll never get out of this world alive. So, he has a “come to Jesus” meeting – with Jesus!

How do I stay in the game? What’s the point if all the money is just decorated paper in the end? Beyond the dollars and cents, does my life make sense?

Jesus says what he always says. It’s not about you (as in, it’s not about me).

Jesus says it with love. Jesus says it to save the man from himself. Jesus says it to save me from myself. But Jesus says it. It’s painful to hear that it’s not about you. It’s even more painful to hear that it’s not about me.

It’s one thing to hear that about some nameless guy from two thousand years ago. It’s a whole other thing when this is about me. When it happens to someone else, it’s a sad story. When it happens to me, it’s a full-on, five-alarm, fucking tragedy.

That’s why the man runs to Jesus. In that world, powerful and positioned men never, ever ran. That’s what slaves and servants did. The only reason to run was if the world was about to come to an end. Apparently, it was.

The man runs toward Jesus. But he’s running just as fast away from…something. He’s running as fast as he can from futility and finitude. If he can just sprint fast enough toward an answer, maybe he can outrun and outgun the question. It’s surprising how fast a man can run when he’s being chased by an open grave.

He asks his question. What can I do to guarantee a life that will last? What’s Jesus’ solution? It’s not about you…er, me. The only way to manage mortality is to meet it head-on. The only way to face finitude is to, well, face it. Relinquish all those toys and props that distract from and deny the reality of death. Lean into life as a losing proposition.

Excuse me while I go spend an hour in the self-help section of a bookstore in order to cheer up a bit.

Sell all you have, Jesus says. Give it to the poor, Jesus says. Follow me on the way to the cross, Jesus says. Only then do you stand a chance of figuring out what it all means. It’s not about you…er, me.

That’s it, Jesus? That’s all you got? That’s the “Good News”? Mother Teresa of Calcutta – someone who knew a thing or two about such matters – quoted other great saints at this point. If this is how you treat your friends, Jesus, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.

As the digital philosophers of our age are wont to say: WTF?

Come on, Jesus! What can I do to guarantee the life that will last? “Why the hell are you asking me!” Jesus demands. You have the rule book. You know the boundaries. You’ve read the owner’s manual. Isn’t that enough?

Apparently not.

Now the existential crisis slows to a crawl. Jesus sees the man, really sees him as he is. It takes Jesus a bit to realize that this guy is not a pompous pretender. When Jesus sees him for what he is, Jesus still loves him…er, me. And Jesus loves his question. Don’t forget that.

Okay, Jesus says. Here’s the real deal, the straight poop for you. Stop trying to make the universe come out right. Stop trying to fix everything and everyone according to your specifications and for your benefit.

You want to know how to live a life that matters? Stop trying to be God. The position is already filled.

That’s not law. That’s love. That’s liberation. That’s real life. God is God. I am not. And that’s the Good News.

Sell all you have, Jesus says. Give it to the poor, Jesus says. Follow me on the way to the cross, Jesus says. Only then do you stand a chance of figuring out what it all means. It’s not about you…er, me.

Jesus doesn’t tell him to haul his stuff to the city dump. It’s not just about the stuff. After all, stuff ain’t enough. But it’s not bad either. All the good in this life comes from God. The thing is that the goods are for doing good, not just for doing well. So, Jesus says, use your stuff the way God intends – to give real life to others.

Relinquishing our stuff is more than a social service project – although that’s a good thing in and of itself. It’s about facing our finitude and managing our mortality. There’s nothing that gives me more of a false sense of security than some extra bucks in savings. There, I think. I can breathe for a bit. Of course, it only takes one failed water heater or broken timing belt to set me straight on that one.

Don’t remind me of my mortality, please. In fact, if you do, I might get more than a little pissed off. Kate Bowler and Luke Powery share a conversation in the current edition of the Christian Century. One of the topics is mask-wearing during the Pandemic. “In some ways, we’re all wearing a visual sign of our mortality,” Powery notes. “We’re all wearing our finitude,” Bowler agrees.[ii]

We don’t want our finitude to be quite so “in our face” (or on it, apparently). I think there’s a direct relationship with the resistance to mask wearing and our cultural obsession with the denial of death. Scared people can do some pretty scary stuff in reaction to their fears.

It’s clear that following Jesus to the cross and beyond is about letting go – of stuff and of ourselves. But, as Kate Bowler notes, Jesus is not the Marie Kondo of the first century. “It’s easy to imagine letting go when we forget that choices are luxuries, allowing us to maintain our illusion of control. But until those choices are plucked from our hands,” Bowler continues, “someone dies, someone leaves, something breaks—we are only playing at surrender.”[iii]

The rich man catches up to Jesus as Jesus is headed back out “on the way” – the way to Jerusalem, the way to the cross, the way of discipleship. Mere choice is in the past. It’s time to go. Jesus invites the rich man, and me, and you, to join him on that road of relinquishing. We who know the story can already hear the scream on Golgotha. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect two hundred dollars. Is it any wonder that the rich man finds Jesus’ loving invitation shocking? Is it any wonder he departs the stage bereaved?

We who know the story know there’s more to the story. But the “more” goes through the cross, not around it. Yes, Jesus promises “houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields” now in this age. A community gathers in the shadow of the cross, a community that does not depend on stuff or status.

Of course, those perks come “with persecutions.” Smacking people in the face with their finitude still pisses them (us) off. Reminding the world that stuff ain’t enough will never get us elected president (or anything else). But it’s the truth that frees us from the myths of immorality.

“All of our masterpieces, ridiculous,” Kate Bowler writes. “All of our striving, unnecessary. All of our work, unfinished, unfinishable. We do too much, never enough, and are done before we’ve even started,” she concludes. “It’s better this way.”[iv]

The discipleship challenge is to allow Jesus to make that real for us, in us, and through us.

[i] Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human, Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, page 44.


[iii] Bowler, page 44.

[iv] Bowler, page 198.

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 6); October 10, 2021

At Home with the Disciples

What if the rich man had sold everything he possessed, given the proceeds to the poor, and followed Jesus? He would have abandoned his parents and his filial obligation to provide and care for them in their old age. He would have rendered his children destitute in an instant and forsaken his heritage. He would have, perhaps, forced his wife into prostitution to support herself (unless she joined him in following Jesus). He would have dishonored himself, his family, his heritage, and his village.

This is about money. But it’s about far more than that as well.

I began thinking along these lines after this week’s Zoom text study discussion with lay preachers from our Western Iowa Synod. That’s one of the weekly events that gives my faith some energy and continues to give me hope for the Church. One of my colleagues in that discussion, Larry W., wondered about the “inheritance” language the rich man brings to the salvation conversation. I didn’t have much of a response to that wondering, so I’m pursuing it further.

Photo by Craig Adderley on

The “executive summary” is this. Jesus asks disciples to give up their biological and social families in one fashion or another. As disciples they then receive a “new” family, made up of those who do God’s will and seek God’s Kin(g)dom. That’s a consistent theme in the Markan composition. That theme is especially prominent in the story of the rich man.

“The demand to sell what one possesses, if taken literally,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is the demand to part with what was the dearest of all possible possessions to a Mediterranean: the family home and land.” This is precisely what Jesus asks of the rich man. To interpret this text, we need to acknowledge the scope of Jesus’ command. “Thus, to follow Jesus means to leave or break away from the kinship unit (v. 29),” they continue, “a sacrifice beyond measure” (page 244).

In addition to the power of family ties here, we can think a bit further about the evaluation of wealthy people in the first-century Mediterranean. Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us that wealth was a very fraught commodity in that setting. It was certainly a source of power and the basis for honor and prestige. But wealth was also morally questionable. “The ancient Mediterranean attitude,” they write, “was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person” (page 251).

In a social sense, wealth was theft – either in one’s current behavior or as one’s inheritance. “Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “and the notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron” (page 251). It is, therefore, no accident that all the commandments Jesus quotes in verse nineteen have something to do with acquiring property improperly.

In this text, it’s clear that Jesus assumes the first-century value system in his assessment of the rich man. It seems clear to me that the rich man also assumes that value system. He has found his situation wanting, somehow, in what we might call “spiritual” terms. His material inheritance may well be in conflict with his religious and ethical longings and leanings. Perhaps he is really wondering if he can participate in the New Age, given his inherited status and stuff.

In this framework, Jesus points out the obvious course of action. But this is even more radical than cutting off a transgressing limb or plucking out an offending eye. “The word ‘rich’ describes a social condition relative to one’s neighbors,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, “the rich are the shamelessly strong. To be labeled ‘rich’ was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully his. Being rich,” they conclude, “was synonymous with being greedy” (page 251).

It is, therefore, not surprising that Jesus declares it impossible for the rich to enter the Kin(g)dom under their own power. The only option was to give it all up and start over on the right path. Of course, that’s asking a lot. But discipleship in the Markan composition is not for the faint of heart (or, perhaps, for the fat of wallet).

We can see that the Twelve have done precisely what Jesus asks in this text. “Look,” Peter says, “we have left behind everything and have been following behind you” (Mark 10:28, my translation). They have left house, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields in order to follow Jesus. We have heard how the sons of Zebedee left their father to manage the fishing business on his own, for example (perhaps this extreme sacrifice is what gives the Sons of Thunder the chutzpah in the next section to ask for joint vice-presidencies in the coming administration!).

“With a word of honor (v. 29) Jesus insists that those who leave family and lands to become his followers, or ‘for the sake of the good news,’ will truly become accepted members of the family of God the patron-father,” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue. “They will receive a hundredfold ‘now in this age,’ including full participation in the ‘age to come,’ that is, participation in the new society, the new family of the Patron God” (page 244). This is the “inheritance” of those who are disciples of Jesus.

Leif Vaage describes the discipleship model in the Markan composition as “a form of domestic asceticism” (page 741). I would commend the entire article for your reflection but let me share a few of Vaage’s insights here. He points to the nature of asceticism as “the effort to live ‘against the grain’ of whatever is taken to be distractingly or deceptively normative in a given cultural context, in order to experience here and now, in the singular body of the ascetic, a better or ‘larger’ life” (page 743).

Vaage argues that the household is where disciples are called to live out an alternative model of family life and the habits of discipleship. He argues that it “is precisely Mark’s conviction that the proper and most effective way to enter the kingdom of God is by redoing life at home. This,” he suggests, “may be the evangelist’s most enduring challenge to us” (page 744).

Vaage proposes four features of discipleship in the Markan composition.  (A) Discipleship takes intentional effort. This is evidenced, for example, in Jesus’ call to the rich man to divest himself of his wealth, distribute the proceeds, and follow Jesus.  (B) The Twelve, in Mark, are failed disciples. Therefore, they are not to be considered as role models for a life of discipleship. (C) Discipleship, in Mark, is “anti-(conventional) family” (page 746). We can see that in the call of the disciples, Jesus’ relationship to his own family, and the description of new family relationships in our text.

“The project of Jesus, in Mark, is not at home in the ancient Mediterranean world of normal social relations, including the patriarchal household,” Vaage argues. “Moreover, it does not seek a place in this world. The goal of discipleship is not enhanced participation in the way things are,” he continues, “neither does it seek reform of this world or any other possible improvement. Instead,” he concludes, “the first order of business for Jesus and his disciples is deep withdrawal: deliberate dissociation from so-called ordinary social reality” (pages 747-748).

Vaage’s final discipleship characteristic in the Markan composition is (D) that exemplary disciples, in this account, are “unfamiliar.” That is, the real discipleship examples are not the Twelve but rather the minor characters – especially the variety of women portrayed in the account. In addition, we can look at the Gerasene demoniac and Bartimaeus for discipleship guidance. It is their “faith” that has “saved” them.

“In fact,” Vaage summarizes, “discipleship, in Mark, requires, first, that one break all customary family ties. Following Jesus is initially an act of total renunciation,” he notes, quoting our text, “…unless, of course, one already is a social nobody” (page 752). The Twelve take this step, as Peter asserts. But there is, according to Vaage, more to the story.

People who have made such a break (or have been forced into such a break by the changes and chances of life) don’t remain outside the home in the Markan composition. Think of how many times in the account Jesus heals or releases a person and then sends that person back home again. Think as well, Vaage argues, of all the times that Jesus does his healing work “at home” (literally “in the house”). Home is where discipleship happens.

Vaage calls this home-based discipleship an “alternate domesticity.” He writes, “In Mark, the household of the disciples is neither the traditional cornerstone of the civic order (as Aristotle held the conventional household to be) nor a touchstone of imperial values (as Augustan legislation later decreed). Instead,” Vaage continues, “the household is paradoxically a contrary and even subversive social space, in which the follower of Jesus first withdraws in order, then, to ‘save his life’ there” (page 756).

Specifically in our text, Vaage suggests, this alternate domesticity “is linked to the practice of a different kind of economy” (page 758). This is a regime of divestment and generosity. If the rich man had accepted Jesus’ loving invitation (after all, that’s what it was), he would have discovered a new home and family both in the present time and in the age to come. “This last step,” Vaage comments in a footnote, “is what makes discipleship so difficult for the rich. They [we] have so much to give!” (page 758).

The fact that this alternate domesticity is “ascetical” is obvious on its face in the Markan composition and especially here in our text. Following Jesus is, in the Markan account, a strenuous, stretching, and costly way of life. As one of my confirmation students once noted, it’s about being “weird for Jesus.” The fact that this weirdness for Jesus gets acted out, in Markan terms, back in our homes makes it even more challenging.

As preachers, we can reflect on what this means for us and our listeners. I believe that small, home-based alternative Christian communities are becoming the norm in the Western world. In a strange way, the internet is facilitating this move. Thus, Mark’s voice becomes increasingly important. Our institutional commitments as Church to wealth and status, position and power, and especially to property, must be called ever more into question. The fraught nature of family life these days around political questions is one symptom of how hard it is to be “weird for Jesus” at home. Thus, the Markan composition continues to be a tract for our times.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.”  Permalink InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1) Publication Date 2010-01-25 DOI 10.5070/D461000670.

Horton, Adrian. “’It’s very culty’: the bizarre billion-dollar downfall of fashion company LuLaRoe.”

Jones, Robert P. “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.”

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.

Skinner, Matt.

VAAGE, LEIF E. “An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 2009, pp. 741–61,

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 5); October 10, 2021


My spouse has been watching a four-part documentary entitled LuLaRich. The series details the meteoric rise of the multi-level marketing company (MLM), LuLaRoe. The company was founded by DeAnne and Mark Stidham in 2013 and was based on products first sold out of the trunk of a car by two enterprising grandmothers. In the span of a little over a year, the company went from seventy million dollars in sales to over a billion dollars in sales.

The company, mostly in the personas and personalities of the Stidhams, promised what might have been called in the first century “salvation” or even “eternal life.” The money, of course, was reported to be fabulous. But the attraction went far deeper. There was the promise of authentic community, of self-sufficiency, of security and status, and even the chance to make life better for family, friends, and community.

Photo by Simon Berger on

 LuLaRoe promised its “consultants” that they could have it all. And they could have it all while doing “part-time work for full time money” and being good moms and spouses, staying at home and working when it worked. This vision was tailor-made for suburban white women who were lonely, lost, and needing a lift. Ultimately, the vision captured sixty-thousand such women in the system.

There was just one problem, according to the documentary. LuLaRoe was a scam, a Ponzi scheme, a pyramid fraud. The company qualifies as a “legal” MLM company because products are actually bought and sold. But the real money was made through recruiting new consultants and sucking that money upward into ever fewer pockets.

The recruits, known at the entry level as “consultants,” have lost marriages, homes, friends, family relationships, and life savings in the scheme. When challenged about such realities, those still in the system observe that such losses must be due to bad sales and business practices. They describe the system as a pure meritocracy where everyone gets exactly what they deserve.

If, in fact, the allegations of fraud are true, then it is a system in which no one gets what they deserve, good or bad.

According to the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission, a Ponzi or pyramid scheme takes money from new investors and gives it to existing investors. The earlier one gets into the system, the more money one accumulates. The name comes from Charles Ponzi who, in the 1920’s promised investors a fifty percent return in a matter of months. The system collapsed fairly quickly.

In fact, in such a scheme it doesn’t take long for the number of investors necessary to sustain the system to exceed the number of galaxies in the observable universe. Huh, what could go wrong with that?

The documentary reminded me of my multiple encounters decades ago with another MLM, Amway. I want to say immediately that the Amway products I have purchased and used have been of uniformly good quality, even when over-priced. The Amway business model has matured significantly from the real Ponzi-like qualities of a generation ago into something much more like a genuine business today.

That being said, I thought about my experiences. A friend or colleague would approach me in a conspiratorial whisper. “Would you like to get in on a way to make a lot of money selling a great product?” they would ask. “Of course, I would,” I replied. “What’s the product?” Things began to get “hinky” (as one might say) at that point.

“Oh, I don’t want to share that just yet,” would be the reply. “Instead, let me show you first how this system works.” In those years, what followed was a series of sketches on yellow legal pads. The first two times the sketches included actual pyramids in the presentation, although I noticed that such drawing went away later.

The numbers attached to the drawings had more and more zeroes behind them. Ultimately, I would also end up retiring somewhere in my forties if I played my cards right. I was, by the way, in my twenties when I had these conversations.

But the money wasn’t the main attraction, my boss-to-be would point out. That was, of course, part of the deal – that I would become part of this person’s network of salespeople. I would join the revenue stream flowing upward from my pocket into theirs. There were also the benefits of personal and financial independence, of a community of like-minded people, of pushing a great product, of learning new skills, and knowing I did it all on my own.

Only then did the name of the company come out. “Of course,” they would say, “I’m talking about Amway. I’m sure you’ve heard some things about Amway that aren’t so good. But none of that is true. Those are just complaints from people who didn’t work hard enough and didn’t want the dream badly enough. Don’t believe those sour-grapes pickers.”

I never got into it. Not for lack of interest or desire, mind you. I just couldn’t come up with the cash needed to get started. Often my miserly tendencies create difficulties for me. But being a tightwad convinced of dollar scarcity saved me from the potential heartache of this particular journey.

It was only in seminary that I really began to think deeply about these American MLM’s and what they mean. I was studying American Civil Religion with Dr. Norma Everist, and we got to talking about Amway. Norma helped me to see that MLM’s always sell a vision of salvation rather than a system of finance.

Just think about the promises LuLaRoe made to potential consultants. It had, and has, all the elements of the “American dream.” It’s no accident that Amway has its name –“American” way, right? Wealth paves the path to salvation in such a vision. The Kingdom of God, according to such views, is built in the shape of a pyramid.

Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come to follow Jesus. Then he will have treasure securely held in heaven. But the rich man found these words quite depressing and went away grieved “for he was having many possessions”.

You’d think the Markan composer might want to stop for a few moments and let that sink in. But we have to consider the makeup of the audience. The composer’s listeners were not, by and large, rich people. Mark’s audience would have, perhaps, taken some pleasure in the comeuppance of another snotty rich guy. But they also knew that there was a real problem.

That problem necessitated a rushing “and” to begin verse twenty-three. Jesus amplifies the difficulty those with many possessions will have in entering the Kin(g)dom of God. The disciples are flabbergasted by these words and can hardly believe their ears. So, Jesus doubles down on the problem. It’s just plain hard for anyone to enter the Kin(g)dom. But it’s really, really hard for rich people to get in.

The disciples are astonished, perplexed, shocked, stunned – pick your word. If rich people, so obviously blessed by God with material rewards, can’t get in, “then who is able to be saved?” The disciples and the rich man share the same value system. God’s reign is a meritocracy, and the real Golden Rule is that the one who has the gold rules. If that’s not the system, then how in the world can anyone figure out the rules?

Jesus responds with an epigram. “For human beings, impossible, but not for God; for all things are possible for God.” When Jesus speaks such sentences, according to Shiner, they simply rest on his authority and require no proof (page 157). Such statements were “ideal applause lines” and marked pauses in the flow of a narrative – both to accommodate potential applause and to mark an important conclusion (notice that Mark 10:28 doesn’t begin with an “and”).

Human schemes cannot deliver what the Stidham’s promised to their prospective consultants: money, authentic community, self-sufficiency, security and status, and the chance to make life better for family, friends, and community. No human scheme, no matter how structured, allows us to “have it all.” For human beings, it’s impossible.

That’s not an empirical economic statement. It’s a theological statement. But it certainly has lots of empirical evidence to support the theology. Yet, there are lots of theologies out there, some claiming to be Christian, that promise precisely that. We live in a “golden age” of the Prosperity Gospel, both in America and around the world. That false gospel has infected every dimension of American life and perverts politics, education, ethics, and (of course) business.

I’m not surprised that the Stidham’s come from a Mormon theological background. I would not draw a causal inference from that. But there is certainly a triumphalist strain in Mormon thinking that finds MLM’s congenial. I’ve not done a study on this, but my impression is that folks of Mormon backgrounds are statistically over-represented in the formation of MLM’s and among the victims of such systems (we dour Lutherans are, I suspect, under-represented).

Jesus is clear. We can’t eat each other and expect to flourish. But that’s the promise of meritocracy in general and MLM’s in particular. Jesus offers a different vision of human flourishing in community. That’s what the last paragraph of our reading addresses.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.”  Permalink InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1) Publication Date 2010-01-25 DOI 10.5070/D461000670.

Horton, Adrian. “’It’s very culty’: the bizarre billion-dollar downfall of fashion company LuLaRoe.”

Jones, Robert P. “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.”

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.

Skinner, Matt.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 17-31 (Pt. 4); October 10, 2021

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.

Photo by Monstera on

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

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 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.”

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.

Skinner, Matt.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 3); October 10, 2021

The “I’s” Have It

I wonder if the rich man gets it wrong from the start. No, I don’t wonder. I’m sure he does. “What shall I do,” he asks the Good Teacher, “in order that I shall inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, my translation and emphasis). The rich man’s focus is on his own situation as an individual. Perhaps it is that self-absorbed and self-interested perspective that elicits Jesus’ initial ire.

Jesus responds by quoting commandments focused on the covenant community. “Inheriting eternal life” has something important to do with our relationships with one another and how we treat one another – especially the vulnerable ones in that community. It is not, at least in this text, an individual reality. Here in Mark 10, salvation seems to be a community reality rather than an individual matter.

Photo by Abbat on

The argument that “being saved” is more about a community than about an individual runs opposite the assumption of most American, especially evangelical, Christianity. The possibility that human sin could have a structural dimension primarily and an individual dimension in secondary terms is regarded as even more problematic from such a perspective. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that in the Evangelical Christian tradition as it is now expressed in America, there is no such thing as structural sin.

Robert P. Jones wrote a recent article for Time magazine entitled “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” He was kind enough to put an excerpt from that article on his social media platforms.

Jones describes his growing up years in a Southern Baptist congregation in Jackson, MS. He notes that his theological tradition was “a double inheritance.” On the one hand, he says, “I internalized a cycle of sin, confession and repentance as a daily part of my life.” This part of the inheritance was and is deeply individual.

On the other hand, the inheritance included assumed membership in a privileged community of faith. “Individually, I was a sinner,” he writes, “but collectively, I was part of a special tribe. Whatever our humble social stations might be,” he notes, “we white Christians were God’s chosen instruments of spreading salvation and civilization to the world.”

Jones argues that it has been “the power and sheer cultural dominance of white Christianity in America historically” that has allowed Evangelical Christians to hold these seemingly contradictory descriptions together. The real output of this perspective is that the intense focus on personal sin and salvation makes it possible to ignore and deny the collective and communal dimensions of sin altogether.

It’s no accident, therefore, that a rich man can ask salvation questions in the first person singular. What shall I do that I might be saved? Jesus’ response to him indicates, I think, that this is the wrong question right from the start. “How can we be the Kin(g)dom community together?” seems to be the question Jesus wants to answer. It is, however, the question that privilege refuses to ponder.

Jones expands on this theme in his book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “It’s nothing short of astonishing that a religious tradition with this relentless emphasis on salvation and one so hyperattuned to personal sin,” Jones writes, “can simultaneously maintain such blindness to social sins swirling about it, such as slavery and race-based segregation and bigotry” (page 96).

Jones reports the work of social scientists who have identified three elements in the “Evangelical Tool Kit” that make this perspective possible. Those three elements are “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism” (page 97).

Individualism means that individuals are sovereignly responsible for their own actions. Relationalism means that all problems are rooted in individual relationships, not in laws or institutions. Antistructuralism rejects explanations for social problems that would lie in realities beyond the individual. This suspicion believes that any explanation for bad things other than individual sinfulness is out of bounds.

What is gained by the use of this toolkit? Economic inequities are the result of laziness. Governments should stay out of our school rooms, our pocketbooks, and our neighborhoods. Bad things that happen to people are their own damned faults. Good things that happen to people are due to individual merit, hard work, and accomplishment. Anything “social” or “structural” is a cultural artifact that can and should be ignored.

This discourse of individualism confers specific benefits on White people. Robin DiAngelo outlines these benefits in her article. I summarize her findings.

Individual White people can deny that race matters and that being White confers any advantages based on race. Individualism hides the generational accumulation of wealth. It denies the reality of social and historical context. It prevents any analysis of institutions and structures. It denies any power to culture and the tools of culture to shape individuals. Individualism permits color blindness and supports the myth of meritocracy. Only the privileged get to “be individuals.” And individualism keeps oppressed groups from acting as groups.

Individualism supports the status quo of White Supremacy. And it hides the structural nature of inequality. Problems are all a matter of a few bad apples in the barrel. All lives matter, so nothing systemic needs to change. Sound familiar?

Jones notes that this toolkit is not limited to those who self-identify as Evangelical Christians. In fact, it is the dominant worldview among White American Christians of a variety of theological stripes and traditions. In fact, for many of us, this toolkit simply defines what it means to be “American.” And it conveniently relieves us of any responsibility for our neighbors – especially those who happen not to be White or rich.

I am guilty, to a degree, of anachronism here. I don’t think the rich man was a prototype for White American Evangelical Christians of the twenty-first century. I do think, however, that power, privilege, position, and property operate much the same way in all human cultures and hierarchies. The more power, privilege, position, and property I have, the more likely I am to see myself exclusively as an individual with no real connections to or responsibilities for others.

“In the personal Jesus paradigm,” Jones writes, “Jesus did not die for a cause or for humankind writ large but for each individual person” (page 100). The question that makes sense in this paradigm is, “What must I do to be saved?” That’s it. “There’s nothing in this conceptual model,” Jones argues, “to provide a toehold for thinking about the way institutions or culture shape, promote, or limit human decisions or well-being” (page 100).

The rich man knows precisely how to interact with the “system” in his time. It is, for the most part, designed for him. He has kept all the commandments since he was a young man. He has had the time, the leisure, the status, and the financial resources to do whatever was required by the system. He also had the power and privilege to pretend that there wasn’t really a “system.” He was just doing the right thing, all on his own.

Jones notes that individualism allows for all sorts of moral and political sleight of hand. White evangelicals prior to the Civil War dismissed the brutality of slavery, he argues, “as acts of particular individuals rather than broad patterns; and the broad application of love and equality was denigrated as a move that illegitimately brought ‘politics’—by which they meant anything social or structural—into religion” (page 103).

Now we are, as they say, moving from preaching to meddling. That critique sounds painfully familiar to me. “Keeping politics out of the pulpit” is a way to maintain white power, privilege, position, and property – protected by the thin veneer of individual piety.

Jones writes that “the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well” (page 105).

His conclusion is inescapable and devastating. “To put it succinctly,” the White Evangelical theological worldview “has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion” (page 105). I wonder if this critique might have traction with the story of the rich man in our text.

Why does this matter to Jones – and, I hope, to us? “Confronting a theology built for white supremacy would be a critical first step,” Jones writes, “for white Christians who want to recover a connection not just to our fellow African American Christians but also to our own identity and, more importantly, our humanity” (page 106).

In fairness to the rich man, he is simply operating from assumptions shared in the broader culture. Rich people, perhaps, get to be individuals. If they can’t be saved in that condition, the disciples wonder, then who can?

Peter points out that they have done what Jesus ask of the rich man. Jesus responds by describing the gift of community they are beginning to receive as a result. When Jesus talks about the impossible things that God will do, he describes this new Kin(g)dom. Jesus doesn’t talk about individual forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t launch into a treatise on justification by grace through faith. Jesus situates us in community – in relationship with all, including the vulnerable.

The Christian image of salvation is not an individual reality. Focus on the individual will lead to a privilege competition that has no part in the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God. We will be “saved” together or not at all, I think.

Of course, those of us who most benefit from “individual salvation” may leave this conversation sad, for we have many possessions.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.”  Permalink 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.”

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.

Skinner, Matt. Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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?

Photo by Jona M on

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.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 1); October 10, 2021

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.

Photo by David McBee on

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 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.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.