The Call of the Rich Man as a Text of Terror

JesusBy Ched Myers, for the 20th Sunday in Pentecost (Mark 10:17-31)

Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015. This post is 2-3 times longer than previous ones because of the importance of this text to our struggle to be disciples within a capitalist culture.
The story of Jesus and the rich man lies at the crossroads of Mark’s narrative. From here Jesus will turn toward Jerusalem, a destination of confrontation with the Powers that evoked dread and denial among his disciples then (10:32) as now. But the encounter between Jesus and this affluent gentleman represents a theological crossroad as well.

The man’s question–“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”—seems to be a straightforward inquiry about salvation. But Jesus neither opens his arms in universal enfranchisement, as in the tradition of modern liberal theology, nor demands proper belief, as conservative dogmatism dictates. Instead, Jesus challenges him, equally straightforwardly, to redistribute his assets to the poor. An encounter that began with such theological promise concludes with the man’s decisive rejection of discipleship (10:22). Worse, Jesus seems to shrug it off with a crude class explanation: “How difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” (10:24)

Strangely, this story has not seemed to be overly troubling in Christendom. Perhaps this is because theologians have spent so much intellectual energy undermining its plain meaning. Our text has occasioned countless homilies on how those who are blessed with wealth must take care not to let their affluence get in the way of their love for God and the church. Yet such an interpretation is precisely what this text dismisses out of hand.

How might we rescue this story from its domestication by wealthy Christians? We might begin by changing our focus, as does the text itself, from the rich man’s focus about eternal life to Jesus’ concern about the “kingdom of God.” We are never really told definitively what the kingdom of God is in Mark’s gospel; he does, however, at this point make it clear what it is not. So the audience will not forget—repetition being the key to pedagogy—Jesus offers a lyrical little verse, whose point is sharpened with the razor’s edge of absurdist humor:

How difficult it will be for those with riches
to enter the kingdom of God!

…Children, how difficult it is
to enter the kingdom of God!

It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man
to enter the kingdom of God! (10:23-25)

Whatever else the kingdom of God may be, it is plainly where the rich are not. Today we North American Christians, who can only be defined as rich relative to the global distribution of wealth and power, would do well to reflect at length on this terrifying triplet. For it remains as dissonant to our ears today as it was to the disciples in the story, and provokes the same kind of astonishment (10:23,26).

The clarity of this text has somehow escaped the church through the ages, which instead has concocted a hundred disingenuous reasons why it cannot mean what it says. Christians have been so anxious that Jesus might be leveling a critique of the rich here that we have missed the fact that this triplet is not in fact a statement about the rich, but about the nature of the Kingdom. These reiterations—all in the indicative mood—insist that the kingdom of God is simply that time and place in which there are no rich and poor. By definition, then, the rich cannot enter—not, that is, with their affluenza intact.

To understand this let us take a closer look at the whole episode. From his direct approach to Jesus we can tell that the man is socially powerful: he wants something and is willing to give deference in exchange (10:17). But his grandiose claim to innocence (“I have kept all the commandments,” 10:20) flies in the face of Jesus’ own rejection of his original compliment (“No one is good but God alone,” 10:18). Moreover, the religious concern reflected in the man’s original inquiry is not as genuine as it appeared at first glance.

The problem is—we missed it, just like all the commentaries—that his question assumes he can inherit eternal life. The root of this verb (Greek, klēronomeō) is klēros, a parcel of land. In some Hellenistic literature this term is synonymous with ktēma, “real property,” which appears in Mk 10:22. This gentleman, in other word, appears to be exhibiting characteristics associated with the “false consciousness” of class entitlement. For him, eternal life, like property, must be inherited.

Indeed, beneficiaries of a socio-economic system often envision religion as a reproduction of their privilege (hence Marx’s famous contention that “material life determines consciousness”). In the case of this man, we are told “he possessed many properties” (10:22). Indeed in first century Palestine land (not commodities) was the basis of wealth, and the tiny landed class of Jewish Palestine took great care to protect its entitlement from generation to generation. As Jesus later tells a parable about this bloody business, in which insurgent tenants try to kill the klēronomos in order to wrest the klēronomis from the absentee landlord (Mk 12:1ff).

The estates of the rich grew in several ways. Assets were sometimes consolidated through the joining of households in marital or political alliances. Other times expropriated land was distributed through political patronage. But the primary mechanism was acquiring land through the debt-default of the poor. Small agricultural land holders groaned under the burden of rent, tithes, taxes, tariffs and operating expenses. If they fell behind in payments, they were forced to take out loans secured by their land. When unable to service these loans, the land was lost to the lenders. These lenders were in most cases the large landowners, who in the absence of banking institutions were the only source of surplus capital.

This process was the reason for the vast socio-economic inequality that characterized the time of Jesus—a disparity sharply denounced in 4:24f: “Beware what you hear: …’to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” It is almost certainly how this man ended up with “many properties.” Mark has given us a concise portrait of the ideology of entitlement, which functions to undermine his pious claims.

This brings us to another overlooked piece of the story: Jesus’ “short list” of the Decalogue (10:21). That he leaves out the first four “theological” commandments is unremarkable, since their meaning was not a matter of debate for Jews. The twist lies in the last of the six “ethical” commands. In Jesus’ recitation (Mk 10:19), “Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor” (Ex 20:17) has been replaced by the Levitical censure of economic exploitation:

You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal;
you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer. (Lev 19:13).

With this deft bit of midrash, Mark’s Jesus suddenly snaps into focus the cycle of indebtedness just described, implying that the propertied class creates and maintains its surplus through “fraud.” They may justify their wealth by ideologies of entitlement, but Jesus unmasks it as the result of illegitimate expropriation of their neighbor’s land.

“Jesus looked at the man and loved him” (10:21). Now comes the hard truth that arises from Jesus’ genuine compassion, the kind of love which refuses to equivocate. “You lack one thing.” The word here implies that it is this man who is in debt—to the victims of exploitation (Gk, husterei; in 12:44 a widow’s destitute poverty—husterēseōs—results from a Temple system that benefits the wealthy). “Get up,” pleads Jesus—the verb Mark uses most often for healing episodes. “Sell what you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.” That is, he must de-construct the fraudulent system from which he derives his privilege, and restore to the dispossessed what has been taken from them. Justly redistributed surplus is then redefined by Jesus as “treasure in heaven” (Gk, thēsauron, a term distinct from the other three words used to describe wealth in this episode). We might say Jesus has just radically revalued the currency!

Jesus is not inviting this man to change his attitude toward his wealth, or to treat his servants better, or to reform his personal life. He is asserting the precondition for discipleship: economic justice. Stung, the man whirls and slinks away (10:22)—thus becoming the only character in Mark’s story to expressly refuse Jesus’ call to follow.

In the epilogue to this troubling encounter Jesus turns and looks at the disciples, perhaps bemused at their incredulity. He then offers his little ditty about the kingdom of God, summarily overturning their assumption that wealth and power are equated with divine blessing (or human merit). “Who, then, can be saved?” (10:26) is their anguished protest. They cannot imagine a world where true justice for all is realized—any more than we can today. But this is anticipated by Jesus, who assures them (and us): “Yes, it seems impossible to you, but for God all things are possible” (10:27).

Here we have arrived at the reason why this text has circulated at such a low rate of exchange within modern Christianity. In capitalism, redistributive justice is simply high heresy. But Mark’s Jesus has clearly equated it with the kingdom of God. Those of us who are rich have reason to be concerned. To practice redistributive justice, on the other hand, is not to be “saved by works,” but to be in communion with God’s “economy of grace” (for more on this see my Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, 2001 or tune into my introductory webinar coming up on October 27th).

While the rich man does not relinquish control over his surplus in this story, the reeling disciples now hasten remind Jesus that they have “left everything and followed” (10:28). Indeed, the word used back in 1:18-20 when the fishermen “left” their nets (Gk aphienai) also means “to release” from sin/debt (as in 2:5,7,9). Jesus neither confirms nor denies their claim, but guarantees that “whosoever” practices this this Jubilee way will receive (not inherit!) the community’s abundant sufficiency.

This teaching reveals that the “hundredfold” harvest promised back in the sower parable (4:8) was not a pipedream offered to poor peasants. More-than-enough is created when entitlements of household (basic productive economic unit), family (patrimony and inheritance) and land (the economic basis) are “released”—that is, restructured as community assets (10:29f). A note of realism is included: persecution will be the inevitable result of such subversive practice. The matter of eternal life, however, is left for “the age to come” (10:30).

This is the answer to the rich man’s question—but he has not stuck around to hear it. Unpersuaded by this alternative vision, he was unwilling to change his economic practice. This illustrates another point of Jesus’ sower parable: people of his class “hear the word, but the anxieties of this age, the love of riches, and the lust for everything else choke the word, so that it proves unfruitful” (4:19). In Mark, the privileged can enter the kingdom of God neither through “intellectual assent” (as with the scribe in 12:34) nor “openness” (as with Josephus in 15:43), and they certainly cannot inherit it. Reparation—the concrete practice of restoring to the poor what is theirs by rights of community justice—is their only way “in.” The “last will be first” refrain of Mark’s discipleship catechism concerns economics, too.

I believe Kentucky philosopher-farmer Wendell Berry is right when he suggests that we ought to refer to the Kingdom of God today as “the Great Economy.” In an interesting essay on this idea, redistributivist economist John Médaille summarizes the matter:

What really occupies most of our “economists,” [Berry] points out, is not really economics at all, but chrematistics. Economics (from oikonomia, “household management”) is about the material provisioning of society; chrematistics is about individuals amassing abstract wealth in the form of money, and has no necessary connection with the material well-being of society, that is, with the production of real goods and services.

Chrematistics is the backbone of contemporary capitalism, and is predicated upon the exploitation of natural resources and human labor. Profit maximization renders socio-economic stratification, objectification and alienation inevitable. But according to the gospel, those privileged in this system cannot enter the Great Economy.

This is a text of terror for Christians who are the “inheritors” of the rich man’s legacy. It is clear that redistribution is what it means for us to follow Jesus. Yet let us never forget that Jesus’ difficult invitation arises from love, and its goal is our healing.

Note: You can see Ched deliver a version of this sermon at Duke Chapel on Oct 15, 2006 here.

One thought on “The Call of the Rich Man as a Text of Terror

  1. Pingback: On Being a Toddler Again | Ben in Honduras

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