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.
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 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.
Horton, Adrian. “’It’s very culty’: the bizarre billion-dollar downfall of fashion company LuLaRoe.” https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/sep/15/lularich-lularoe-amazon-docuseries.
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.
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, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.